The Power of No
by Carrie Heimer, May 2012
To earn your seat here tonight, one of the required classes you took was British Literature, and that means nearly all of you experienced the YES/NO essay system where each essay earned either a YES – 100% – or a NO, a big fat zero, and you had chance after chance to write your way to a YES during the semester. Now I can only imagine that the reason your class asked ME to speak is because this is your favorite grading system EVER, and most of you probably know I caused it. So let me just say first: I could not get Mrs. Kraska to let me go through your diplomas and mark them each with a YES or a NO. You can celebrate right now the fact that everyone here tonight is getting a YES. (You may clap for yourselves).
I suspect, for many of you, the essay that finally came back with that first YES on it was just as important to you as your actual diploma will be, and I want to take a few private moments while we’re alone like this, in a quiet and intimate little gathering with no one watching us or recording anything we say, to tell you WHY.
Like the diploma, the essay that finally got the YES matters to you because it was a legitimate accomplishment. It was not a participant ribbon or a consolation prize. It wasn’t a party favor, and it certainly wasn’t a guarantee. You did not get it just for having a pulse. That YES was the real deal. There was a concrete expectation you didn’t meet, and then later you did. That YES means you grew. You made measurable progress. Your ability changed. YOU changed, and that is tremendously important because it means you are not stuck and you are not stupid. You worked, you learned, and it showed. And all that valuable stuff would never have happened, in fact could never have happened, without that most beautiful and glorious word: NO.
You need NO. More precisely, you need what happens to you when you hear NO. There are 4 monumental effects of No I want to share with you, and they lead up to a choice, so listen for it.
First, No is the catalyst for reflection. It’s the word that helps you stop and contemplate what just happened. It’s a moment of pause in a world that keeps pushing and pushing with a frantic GO GO GO. No says, “Wait here for a minute. Let’s think this thing through.” And you need that pause. Based on years of reading your essays – about 10 of you have literally written 50 essays for me in four years – your first ideas are not your best ideas. Neither are mine. The first drafts of this speech had long, convoluted references to my favorite dystopian novels by Huxley and Orwell, and a former student who read it for me said, “That’s out of place. Try it again.” Trust me, this version is much better. NO gives us the time and the incentive we need to sift the gems out from the jumble.
No is also the catalyst for creation. It’s the word that spurs you forward to invent a new solution because there’s a problem to provoke it. No says, “Get past your old assumptions about what used to work. Lift up your head and look around for a fresh perspective, a new insight.” You need this, too. You’re a creative lot. You’re a class full of emerging photographers and painters and graphic designers and poets and scholars and dancers and potters and engineers and carpenters and chemists and politicians and maybe, if you’re very lucky, even teachers. You need the inspiration to create, and if you haven’t figured it out after four years of lit classes, that inspiration often comes from struggle and difficulty. No is the source of most of the best novels and poems. No puts up a wall and says, “Now what?” and the answers are some of the most important ideas in history. I’m a better teacher because some of you were really hard to teach. You said No with your disinterest or your preparation, and I had to find another way. Next year’s seniors will get a better Heimer because I had to get creative for you.
Beyond creation, No is the cause of evaluation. It’s the word that prompts you to appraise the true value or worth of something. If there’s no real cost or delay, if something comes free and easy, you lose the motivation to appreciate it. There’s no compelling reason to treasure something that was free and required no pursuit. You can’t chase something that doesn’t run, and if you never chase it, you never have to question whether it’s worth chasing. No says, “Is this really worth the trouble?” And if your answer is Yes, then the achievement is all the sweeter for what you poured out to get it. My husband and I had to work to find each other. It took us six years of dating and we broke up three different times, by my count, before we got it right, and every time, we each had to ask on our own, “Is this worth it?” We decided, independent of the other, that it was, again and again, and that’s why I trust our marriage. It was something hard, and we’ve said No to each other a lot, but that made offering Yes a huge celebration for us and for our friends.
Closest to my heart, No is the source of compassion. Compassion means to suffer alongside, and you can’t grieve with someone when you don’t know how loss feels. No is the word that hurts enough to jar you out of your complacent belief that everything revolves around you. And once No rings your bell and rattles your cage, you have the chance to see people around you a little more clearly. You have the chance to feel with them, and then to act on their behalf. You have the opportunity, even the responsibility, to care for someone because you have been where she is, and your own No’s have shown you there IS a way out. I know a few of you very well. You’ve cried in my room, sometimes giving me warning even scheduling appointments for your meltdowns. You chose me for that because you thought I’d understand, and mostly I have. You could fall apart in front of me because you knew I’d experienced the same kind of No, and that I’d care about where your pieces fell and might even be able to help you fit them back together. I can’t do that for you without No in my own life. I can serve you because of No.
When you put all these results together, and look at reflection, creation, evaluation, and compassion in a group, you start to see a pattern. Without No, everything human disappears. So you could say that No demands you make a choice. What kind of human are you going to be? When No diagnoses your depression, are you going to crawl under a rock and forfeit your hope forever? Or are you going to reflect and discover you can still be whole even when you need help? When No takes away friends or family members, are you going to drown in your grief and lose yourself completely? Or after a period of sorrow, are you going to create something so others see they aren’t alone in their losses? When No comes at you in disrespectful and damaging treatment at the hands of others who don’t honor how valuable you are as a human being, are you going to sell your soul that cheap to someone who doesn’t want it anyway? Or are you going to evaluate your actual worth, and when you affirm that you are in fact priceless, move forward to help others recognize the same about themselves?
No is a permanent part of your story, but it doesn’t have to be the final word. You do NOT LET NO WIN. You don’t hear No and sit down in defeat at the brick wall. You build stairs, or else you start digging. You invent a catapult, or dynamite, for that matter, but you get over, under, around or through. You matter too much for No to stop or stunt you. No should push you into strength and smarts and courage you didn’t know you could have.
No has one more result, depending on your choice. No can make you interesting. PLEASE – as a personal favor to me – be interesting. Please don’t be the boring man or the empty woman at the dinner party where other guests roll their eyes at each other when they see you coming and have secret signals that mean “Get me away from this person because he’s boring me to death!” Being interesting isn’t that hard. You just have to have a story. It has to be your own story, and you get your own story from facing up to No. If you’ve taken Creative Writing, you know stories don’t exist unless there’s a conflict. There’s no play if the character wants something and gets it right away. There’s no Hamlet if Hamlet wants to kill Claudius, walks off and does it in Act I, Scene 2, and goes for ice cream.
I want your story to be interesting. I want you to be the character who struggles up to meet the master on the mountaintop, not the character who stumbles on the genie in the bottle. Getting your three wishes without any work never turns out well. It’s a sure road to ruin, and I don’t want you ruined. I like you too much for that. I’m confident you’ll get plenty of No, and it’s even a good idea to say it to yourself once in a while – now your job is to go and make good use of it in reflection, creation, evaluation, and compassion, and then to tell the story.
Now, enjoy your night of YES, because they don’t come around that often.