There’s a lot of advice out there, encouraging us to learn to say “no”. We live in an age and culture where attempting to be superhuman is quite normal, and where endless possibilities present endless opportunity for FOMO. Anxiety and overwhelm run rampant, and It makes sense that saying “yes” to too much would be seen as the culprit for these ills.
I’m just not comfortable with a life philosophy that worships the invocation of “no” though. Many of my life’s greatest adventures, gifts, and learnings have come from saying “yes” to an unforeseen opportunity that could’ve easily been a “no”, and that maybe I even felt originally inclined to say “no” to. I simply don’t want to be the kind of person who says “no” to life.
All those combined to make me quite okay with the idea of finding a little corner of the airport to call my own, setting up camp, getting a good night’s sleep, maybe doing some writing, and getting some nice morning meditation and exercise before my next flight. I was fine with this. Okay, maybe a little uncertain about what I’d do with the evening waking hours, and just a bit afraid of falling into a horrible mood after such great feelings to start my trip, but for the most part, totally okay.
A conversation with my seat-mate mid flight shifted my perspective a bit though. He’d done extensive Asia travelling, informed me that I didn’t actually need a Visa, directed me to which neighborhoods would have nightlife that I could enjoy, and highly recommended getting out instead of staying sequestered at the airport. Suddenly my choice to say “yes” to the airport started feeling like a “no” to life. I started feeling like I was “the kind of person who say’s no to life”. That’s not something I ever want to feel.
Once landed, it was easy to use airport wifi to explore the possibility of a mini downtown adventure. I had plenty of energy. The airport express train into the city fit my budget. I could go, and still get back with more than enough time to sleep and do all my self-care I’d wanted to at the airport. So I said yes.
I marveled at the beauty of skyscrapers swathed in moonlit fog, from the IFC mall roof garden. I wandered through the rambunctious pub-lined sidewalks of Lan Kwai Fong, and explored the elevated pedestrian walk over SoHo. I ate the dinner I’d packed, avoided ever having to get any HK Dollars, and made sure to catch the train back before night service ended, to ensure I wouldn’t have to wait until early morning to get back to the airport.
Sure, there were other neighborhoods to explore… sure, I could’ve taken out cash at an ATM, to ride the subway to the Temple night market. Sure, I could’ve wandered through the fabled streets lined with neon in Kowloon… yes, I could’ve really made a night of it and caught the airport train back when service began again around 6am. But I didn’t want to. I wanted my “me-time” more. So passing on those didn’t feel like “no’s”, they felt like “yes’s”.
I said yes to sleep, yes to my meditation, yes to my workout, yes to plenty of time and peace through airport check-in and security screening. I was focused on what I actually wanted, and so it didn’t feel like I was giving up anything.
Every choice we make in life has an opportunity cost. There is always something else we could do with that time, energy, or money. By focusing on saying “no”, we’re turning down the cost of that opportunity, but we’re still keeping our attention focused on that cost. If I’d said “no” to a trip into town, I’d’ve likely stewed in further indecision and possible regret, because there wasn’t something that I valued more that I would’ve been saying “yes” to. When I did decide to say “no” to further adventures, it wasn’t for the “no”, it was for the “yes” of prioritizing the airport experience that mattered to me.
I’m not suggesting we return to being slaves to saying “yes” to every opportunity that comes our way. I’ve spent years attempting to “do all the things”, and I can tell you, it can have some pretty ugly downsides. (Ask the months I lost to adrenal fatigue, if you want to know more about that).
What I am suggesting is that in evaluating opportunity, we don’t have to look at it as saying “yes” (which feels positive and enlivening), or “no” (which by definition feels negative). Instead realize there are different paths with either option, and our choice is simply which path we would rather enthusiastically say “yes” to. Then once the choice is made, our attention will naturally be where we are, instead of wandering back to regret that thing we said “no” to.
Hong Kong taught me to say “yes” at every opportunity. Not necessarily “yes” TO every opportunity, but “yes” to my values, my needs, my self. Whether that comes out of my mouth as a “yes” or a “no” to the particular thing being offered, inside my reality will always be “yes”, to my own path.