The one word that will transform your life

Free your inner Dawn Penn. BOW! ZEEN!

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No. After our name, "mama" and "dada", it’s one of the first words we learn. Research has shown babies begin to understand it at around 6-9 months, although they "won't stop what they're doing in response to the word until they're between 12 and 18 months." My 2.5 year old son, holding out like a boss.

A strong, stern No commands attention. It’s loaded with power. It can stop a child in their tracks. It might even save their life. It provides a moment of respite, amongst the chaos. You've probably already used it, maybe more than once, with your kids today. If you haven't, don't worry, there's still time.

As our kids get older, they start to use No for themselves. It's a strange event, watching them weaponise those two letters against you, an attempt to assert their independence, show their character, and rebalance an unfair power dynamic. And what do we do? We overrule them. Teach them their No isn't as important as ours.

Our relationship with the word begins to change. We see it as a profanity. It closes doors. Prevents experiences. Saps energy. Limits possibilities. It's so negative! But whilst negativity is an attitude, No is an intentional choice. A considered No is a powerful act, a radical statement in favour of self-care. It takes courage, conviction in your beliefs, confidence in the person you want to be and the path you're on. There are few things in life more satisfying than a good No. 10 minutes of quiet time on the toilet, with no one banging on the door or sliding notes underneath, maybe?

Last year was rough, for all of us. I had four months without work. Projects cancelled overnight. My wife and I fell between the gaps of various furlough schemes. In my line of work, when times get tough, the marketing budget is the number one thing on the chopping block. I spent the first two months worrying if work would ever pick up again. And the second two learning to embrace the uncertainty, and give myself permission to enjoy the I-can-only-hope-was-a-once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend all this time together as a family. But when work started coming my way, I said yes to everything. How could I not? Even projects that I had no right to consider. “You want me to put a documentary filmmaking team together, fly them to a sewage treatment facility in Sweden and shoot a case study film? In three days time? Yes, of course, I’d love to help."

I recently celebrated 3 years working for myself. Reflecting on that time, I can’t think of a single No I regret. And at least a dozen yeses that were mistakes.

“One trick is to ask, “If I had to do this today, would I agree to it?” It’s not a bad rule of thumb, since any future commitment, no matter how far away it might be, will eventually become an imminent problem.”
— Tim Harford, The Power of Saying No

We say yes for the wrong reasons: a reluctance to be labelled as negative; a perceived obligation to friends and family; an attempt to avoid the discomfort of the opposite. We feel pressure in the moment to agree to something, and see a simple yes as a way to protect us from the awkwardness of delivering a No. We kick the can down the road, locking ourselves into a future we could have avoided. As a parent these decisions take on an extra level of intensity. Signing up for a new project at work means missing bath time at home. Taking on a new client means a pressure on your partner to pick up the slack on the school run. Something’s gotta give. Your world—and the people within it—must bend to accommodate your commitments.

The irony here is that this "Tuesday lunchtime newsletter" is coming to you 60 hours late—later than it’s ever been—because I have too many things on my plate. I've spread the butter of my time too thin across the warm toast that we call life; a mix of private, personal and public projects colliding in a clusterfuck of deadlines, due dates and deliverables.

But, as I tell myself anytime I'm feeling overwhelmed, this too shall pass. I've said No to more things in 2021 than any other year of my life. And, somewhat paradoxically, I’ll look back on this year as the one where I was able to do more than ever. For a word so simple, so short, so fundamental, we don’t use No anywhere near enough in our lives.

The things you say No to will shape your life, your career and your family. It will define your past, present and future.

Learn how to use it, and use it well.

“Half of the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough.”
— Josh Billings

3 things to read this week

  • Want more No? Try Shane Parrish on why it was the secret to Steve Jobs' success, James Clear on how it’s the ultimate productivity hack, or Psychology Today outlining five situations where we should use it more liberally: "No pays off in the personal arena as well as the professional one. It's exhilarating to feel in charge of one's self, to be the boundary setter and the decider. There's a bonus in energy and self-confidence. No tests the health and equity of your closest relationships. If you feel you cannot say No, at least to some things, some of the time, then you are not being loved—you are being controlled.”

  • You know I love Bluey, right? I'm not the only one. Vulture magazine went long and managed to get some face time with creator Joe Brumm: “In reality, half the episodes when I do my story arc, the main character is Bandit or Chilli,” Brumm says. “They’re the ones learning something.” The adults make mistakes and get snappish with one another, but their imperfections are small and sweet. They are aspirational, a beacon of what life could be like if we were all more open and forgiving."

  • I'd heard of the "Babymoon" before (we had one before the birth of our first), but the "pre-baby stag do / dadchelor party" is a new one on me. Email me if you had one or went on one, as I'd love to know more. "I’m awkward around stags, especially if there’s destructive behaviour. But this felt like a new idea. There’s a lot of ritualised attention around the mother at the time of the birth, so trying to invent a ritual around the new father role felt like a sensible thing to do."

Good Dadvice

Hey! Listen to this!

Dawn Penn with this week’s musical interlude. Turn it up loud and get ready to bogle.

Previously on The New Fatherhood

Last week I asked about your parental leave experience. Your responses were powerful, and there’s a lot to digest. I posted the question and jumped on a plane to Manchester to celebrate my mum's birthday, so haven't had the time to respond to all the comments yet. But I feel we're scratching at the surface of something really big. Go take a read, and prepare for a follow up in your inbox soon.

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