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Can Saying No Increase Creativity?

I first heard of Kevin Ashton in the radio frequency identification industry long ago when I had a career in the semiconductor industry. And now that I am pursuing a creative path as an oil painter, I read with much interest his recent article titled: Creative People Say No. As a nascent artist and oil painter working to understand the creative process and always feeling too busy, I thought I would pass along this jewel of wisdom about saying “no.” It just may help increase creativity. Let’s highlight three key points from “Creative People Say No,” an extract from Kevin Ashton’s book, How to Fly a Horse — The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery.

Saying “no” to free up more time for your passionate work has always been a challenge for me. A Hungarian psychology professor performing research on famous creative people encountered many declines to his invitation. For example, according to Ashton:

  • Management writer Peter Drucker: “One of the secrets of productivity (in which I believe whereas I do not believe in creativity) is to have a VERY BIG waste paper basket to take care of ALL invitations such as yours — productivity in my experience consists of NOT doing anything that helps the work of other people but to spend all one’s time on the work the Good Lord has fitted one to do, and to do well.”
  • Secretary to novelist Saul Bellow: “Mr. Bellow informed me that he remains creative in the second half of life, at least in part, because he does not allow himself to be a part of other people’s ‘studies.’ ”
  • Photographer Richard Avedon: “Sorry — too little time left.”

I needed help saying “no.” About five years ago, I asked a very busy business executive to speak at a local event. She said no in a very polite manner through e-mail. She told me: “Thank you very much for reaching out. Unfortunately, for the foreseeable future, my days are already overcommitted with my existing travel and meeting schedule. In good conscience, I just cannot take on another commitment and give it the attention it deserves. I hope you will understand.” I kept her note and use portions of it often when I say “no.”

The second key point in Ashton’s article is that time is the raw material of creation. Time over target matters: “the work of becoming expert through study and practice, the work of finding solutions to problems and problems with those solutions, the work of trial and error, the work of thinking and perfecting, the work of creating. Creating consumes. It is all day, every day. It knows neither weekends nor vacations. It is not when we feel like it. It is habit, compulsion, obsession, vocation. The common thread that links creators is how they spend their time. No matter what you read, no matter what they claim, nearly all creators spend nearly all their time on the work of creation. There are few overnight successes and many up-all-night successes.”

Perspiration and inspiration may help increase creativity; however, we need to have the time to do the work. Ashton reminds us “Saying ‘no’ has more creative power than ideas, insights and talent combined. The math of time is simple: you have less than you think and need more than you know. We are not taught to say ‘no.’ We are taught not to say ‘no’. ‘No’  is rude. ‘No’ is a rebuff, a rebuttal, a minor act of verbal violence. ‘No’ is for drugs and strangers with candy.”

The big lesson here is the opportunity cost of not concentrating on your passionate, creative work.

How much less creative work will be done because they are distracted on indirect tasks? Time is the scarce resource for each of us. Our time is already demanded by many things – daily mandatory life tasks like buying groceries, doing laundry, and family needing our attention and time. Being ‘on task’ means more to creative types who feel the pain of opportunities lost.

People who create dislike intensely the common question: How long did it take to you to make that? Why is this question dreaded? Because all the days they have spent on their craft since they started led to this object of creativity. Their entire career led to this moment. It cannot be measured in hours.

Cultural conditioning and societal pressures have made us more likely to say ‘yes’ to requests for our time. As Ashton observed: “No” makes us aloof, boring, impolite, unfriendly, selfish, anti-social, uncaring, lonely and an arsenal of other insults. But “no” is the button that keeps us on.

Learn to say “no” more often and spend more time on the work you love. The payoff? You will increase creativity, have a sense of fulfillment and more satisfaction with time spent.

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