There are many perks of having penned and published many words. A significant perk is the potential to look back and evaluate what one once thought. On the 18th April 2016 I proclaimed that “success is strong filters.” That “saying no and setting boundaries allows you to create quiet and stillness, which you can use to discover and work on what is essential.”
Fast forward six-plus years: how did that particular thesis hold up? The short answer: quite well. I still have a strong belief—and not one that is loosely held—that the statement above contains more than a morsel of truth. The half-decade since its formulation hasn’t caused me to refute it. Instead, I’ve become increasingly aware of the nuance hidden within its characters. Below, I want to explore some of it.
On saying no
Nos are universal and ever-present. Not metaphorically, either. The possibility space always exceeds the action space, regardless of the span of time or space or the scale of the agent—from individual to imagined community—involved. What’s done is always minuscule in comparison to what could have been.
This means that a “no” can be perceived as the strong default when presented with a binary of “yes” or “no”. And most of these nos happen invisibly and without assistance. Between my starting to type this sentence and my tapping the key that notates its end, there’s a large space of actions that could have happened that didn’t. I could have itched my nose; I didn’t. I could have switched from standing on my right foot to my left; I didn’t.
I don’t mean that type of “no”. When I speak of “saying no”, there’s an implication of agency. A counteracting force rebuking a demanded “yes”. These demanded yeses are all around us, too, and it’s easy to be swept up amongst them. To have our yeses as well as our nos become passive.
Most of the requests made of us are made by those we are familiar with: friends, family, peers, colleagues, acquaintances. Because of this familiarity, we are rarely requested to do things the requesting party suspects we’ll say no to. So when a deliberate “no” comes around, it’s often a deviation from a norm. We’re asked to do something that we have previously and consistently acceded to; a refusal disrupts the expected rhythm of things.
This is, perhaps, the more powerful form of “no”. Instead of refusing a new thing, a new imposition, a new request, we defy an old one, an established one. We bump out of a worn rut.
In both cases—a “no” to the novel, a “no” to the known—an option on a “yes” is unlocked. Think of what you have planned today, or this week. If every minute were rigorously and immutably accounted for, would there be space for the unexpected, a chance to explore the opportune? Saying “no” protects such sacred space.
Our nos are the wise general holding a brigade in reserve, ready to sweep in and alter the fate of the conflict—whether that’s preventing a rout, consolidating one, or even promoting a peace. Unfortunately, there’s a shortage of wise generals; contemporary systems and their pressures make it hard to create such reserves, and actively discourage cultural realisations of the wisdom of such negative assertions.
On setting boundaries
One way to think of a boundary is as a proxy for an agent’s “no”. It is a “no” enforced asynchronously and impersonally via an implicit or explicit structure, instead of a speech act. A construct that autonomously limits the agency of others in respect to oneself.
A simple example comes from working hours. Popular calendar apps have a function which allows one to set acceptable working hours and auto-decline any requested entries outside of those hours. This is a harder, explicit boundary. A softer, implicit, norm-like boundary may be derived from a working culture which throws shade on the setting of meetings outside of the organisation or individual’s working hours. Both work together to determine how many meetings one may have outside of established working times.
Together, the combination of saying no and setting boundaries forms something like a defence in depth strategy for the preservation of one’s agency. Of course, total defence is not a total good. Just as saying only “no”—or only “yes”—is a foolish idea, so too is configuring boundaries that do nothing but block. Boundaries should be porous, and that porosity should be adapted intelligently.
The key issues are how porous to make a boundary initially, and how to adapt it intelligently and at a tempo that allows one to capitalise on the situation at hand whilst preserving the boundary’s long-term effectiveness. This is something, alas, I haven’t discovered the answer for. It is a case of constant trial and error, though.
On creating quiet and stillness
The consequence of these “no”s and the functioning of these boundaries has an obvious result: a significant portion of one’s agency remains latent, ready for use, coiled like a spring. But in between that potential accumulating and that potential being realised, there is a moment. Let’s call it the weightless moment.
When an institution wants to achieve weightlessness—for experimental purposes, for training people, for PR—they may choose to run a zero gravity manoeuvre. An aircraft pulls up, flattens out, and dives down. During the middle phase, a period of zero gravity is created. This weightless moment is one frame for what happens when we have created quiet and stillness for ourselves but have yet to use it.
Another way—a counter-intuitive one—of interpreting periods of quiet and stillness is as an opportunity to tune in to the cacophony. Think of all the stimuli we are chronically and perpetually exposed to. The ocean of our mind is, typically, in a state of constant churn, if not perpetually storming. Quiet and stillness calms those motions, stills those storms, but only after they’ve been consistently and sincerely attended to.
The result is clarity. Many people are familiar with the curious rebound in energy and effectiveness that occurs once one returns from a period rich with relaxation, recovery and ease. Many are also familiar with the oft-observed effects of regular periods of contemplation, reflection and gentle, unencumbered activity. These are boons of quiet and stillness. There are others, likely of greater significance.
Blaise Pascal commented on how many problems come from a human’s inability to sit alone in a room. This inability to sit occurs because quiet and stillness have a revelatory power that surpasses any other—except perhaps prolonged intimacy with others. Robert Caro said that power doesn’t so much corrupt as reveal character. He’s not wrong. Power does reveal. But not everyone gets the chance to experience that revelation. Everyone can, however, be revealed to themselves in the soft embrace of quiet and stillness.
On discovering and working on what is essential
So-called “essentialism” suffers from what could be called the power law delusion. It’s not that power laws aren’t a thing. They most definitely are. It’s just that they’re a shitty lens for living a life. Certain components of a life can indeed be examined—and even greatly improved—through the lens of power laws, by searching for and exploiting power-full relationships. But a life is more than an assemblage of components.
In fact, look at the concept of life through the lens of sevenfold reasoning—an approach for considering and initiating the dissolution of attachment to the concept of “self”. Here, I will swap the traditional word “chariot” for “life”:
- There is no life which is other than its parts
- There is no life which is the same as its parts
- There is no life which possesses its parts
- There is no life which depends on its parts
- There is no life upon which the parts depend
- There is no life which is the collection of its parts
- There is no life which is the shape of its parts
A life is more than the essential. The noise matters as much as the signal. But the idea of “discovering and working on what is essential” helps in another way. It is a “useful fiction” because it provides a pointer to the inessential.
At any one time, and in any one domain, there’s likely an Overton window of activities that are deemed “essential” by the collective. Working on these things is probably valuable (sometimes economically, sometimes not), perhaps prestigious, and often challenging. It is also likely to result in less aliveness and less contentment for the individual than working on things that are outside the Overton window of the essential.
Take climate change. Given the scale of the unfolding crisis, the majority of people around the world should be ceasing whatever activity they’re engaged in and contributing to mitigation efforts. Theoretically. In practice, most people don’t have the skillset, the inclination or the opportunity to make the theoretical, demanded contributions. So they continue to “do them”, and instead let what’s deemed essential modify decisions and actions taken in other domains—I may not quit my job to directly combat the climate crisis, but I will walk for ten minutes instead of driving for one.
Having insight into what’s “essential” is also helpful when nos are being issued, boundaries are being established, and quiet and stillness is being experienced. If the “essential” is taken as more of a north star than a route plan, as a compass instead of an instruction set, then it can be used to make highly contextual, highly impactful decisions at all scales.
“Saying no and setting boundaries allows you to create quiet and stillness, which you can use to discover and work on what is essential.” There is truth in this statement, and it has helped me over the last few years. I suspect it will continue to do so. Yet, I think the inverse of its components have helped me, too:
- Saying “yes”
- Relaxing boundaries
- Being amongst noise and motion
- Exploring the inessential
All these have gained in importance for me.
I suppose it is a perpetual balancing act, figuring out which approach is more beneficial in any given situation. Perhaps I’ll check back in another half-decade with a more solidified, reliable perspective for you. Or, more likely, I’ll find my understanding of consent, boundaries, personal environments, and meaning has become more even more slippery.