Saying “Yes” and “No”

One of the most difficult and important skills in life, if it can even be called a skill (maybe it’s a burst of brilliance, or maybe a muscle), is knowing when to say yes or no to things, and doing either one with confidence and grace. Usually when people bring up “saying ‘no,'” they are referring to romantic or sexual relationships, but I have a broader context in mind. In life, there will be people who want various things from you, or at least hope for various things. No one can meet every demand; most people don’t even want to. Yet they often fear to say “no”; instead, they might hedge, or half-promise, or say nothing at all.

I just took on a new translation project, and a big one, and am glad that I did. (More about it when the time is right!) I had to think about it for a few days, because I knew the daily commitment involved, and knew that this would mean saying no to other things. I agreed to do it, and once I started into it, I caught the “bug of immersion”—that is, I wanted to keep on going and going. It’s a fantastic project, and I can’t wait to continue with it day by day.

So, in other words, the “yes” is only possible as a result of various “nos.” A person who says yes to everyone and everything, even to internal urges, will never find a way to focus. Even with concerts, I need to be selective, because so many are happening right now, and each one involves a commitment (getting there, being present for it, listening to it fully, going home, remembering it later).

People often avoid saying no, maybe because it seems negative (which it is, inherently), rude (in some cultures, it is considered very rude), or hurtful, or maybe too strong. But “no” can bring clarity and relief to both parties. The other person stops waiting for an answer, but you yourself, the one saying no, also learn something from doing so. The “no” carves out the contours, shows you what you are actually doing. A “no” doesn’t have to be absolute or all-encompassing; it doesn’t have to take the form of, “no, and I never want to hear anything from you again.” To the contrary, a “no” can keep relationships intact, as it keeps people from being overwhelmed by each other, and it sets the necessary limits.

I have heard people say that women have a hard time saying no. But men do too; it just shows in different ways. Women may try to sound obliging (“I’ll see what I can do”), whereas men might avoid the whole issue by saying nothing at all. (And there are variations and exceptions.) Both men and women could use a bit of no-cultivation.

The Puerto Rican statesman and poet José de Diego wrote about the liberating power and roaring sound of “no” (in his brilliant essay “No“):

In political evolution, in the struggle for freedom, the affirmative adverb is almost always useless and always disastrous, so soft in all languages, so sweet in the Romance tongues, superior in this sense to the mother Latin tongue. Certe, quidem do not have the brevity and the harmony of the Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese si and the French si, when the latter substitutes for oui in the most expressive sentences; si in singing, a musical note (B), an arpeggio of the flute, a bird’s trill, noble and good for melody, for rhythm, for dreaming, for love: more for the protest and impetus, for the paroxysm, for wrath, for anathema, for dry fulminating hate, like the scratching of a ray of light, the no is far better, the rude, bitter O vast, like a roar, round and ardent like a chaos producer of life through the conflagration of all the forces of the abyss.

Even in the day-to-day, “no” brings not just liberation, but concreteness, because only then, when you have said “no,” can you take on the rest, the things you have chosen to do.

But yes, there is a roar to it indeed, a foam, a froth, a cosmic mess. Without its counterpart “yes,” it would seem like the ultimate negation, the door to complete cacophony.”Yes,” too, takes strength, when truly meant, and if it weren’t for “no,” “yes” would lose all muscle; it would come to mean “yes,” “no,” “maybe,” or any combination of these. And then, as often happens in the world, you wouldn’t know what the speaker was saying. You would either wonder and wonder, or shrug your shoulders. Indifference would finally win. “Yes” and “no” are the bulwarks against indifference, because when said with full intent, they mean different things.

Painting credit: Jean-Léon Gérôme, Diogenes (1860, Walters collection).

Instead of “Growth Mindset,” Good Tinkering

I have written numerous posts–and a chapter of a book–on problems with the concept of “growth mindset” and the phrase itself.* But I keep tinkering with the idea, because there seems to be something more to say. Until now, my objections have come down to this: Growth mindset proponents either say or imply that everyone should strive for more growth mindset, no matter how much they already have. Yet it is possible, even likely, that people benefit from a mixture of mindsets, from a sense of possibility and limitation. Also, the phrase sounds overly grandiose, like a polka-dotted umbrella stretching over the world; it claims to encompass more than it does.

I still hold to the above. But I realized something else while listening to Bill Hader’s Q&A with students and program host Tova Laiter at the New York Film Academy’s Los Angeles campus. Throughout the discussion, he keeps returning to the point that no matter where you are in your creative life and career, you fail and fail again. You learn to figure out what’s going wrong and how it could be better. That becomes your primary way of thinking: puzzling things out, looking at possibilities, following your instincts but also listening to others and recognizing when something isn’t working. Trying again. Knowing when you have hit upon what you were looking for. There’s no way to simplify this; it’s contradictory and complex, because you have to let yourself be both right and wrong. You have to listen to yourself but not only to yourself. You have to try all sorts of things that don’t work out at all. Failures do not end.

In the entire hour, he did not once say “growth mindset,” nor have I heard him say it in any other interviews. I admire his work, especially on SNL (eight seasons), in the HBO series Barry, and in the film The Skeleton Twins, and I enjoy hearing him speak about it. He answers questions courteously and thoughtfully, in his own words, without catchphrases. I am sure he has heard the phrase “growth mindset,” but from what I have heard so far, he hasn’t used it. Why not? I have no way of knowing, but I think he’s saying something slightly different.

The point is not to have a “growth mindset,” or even to strive for one. The point is to tinker with stuff and to tinker well. For fun and for results. Try this, try that, and listen closely. Be alert to what you are doing; catch whatever seems slightly off. But also catch whatever is good. Develop a better and better ear and eye for this.

No one does this across the board. We have a few things in our lives that we tinker continually with, and other things we leave alone. I mean “tinker” in the best possible sense: to fiddle, experiment, play with something in order to get it right. There’s tinkering that leads nowhere or that is done haphazardly, with no clear intention. But once you have a grasp of what you are doing, you start tinkering better. It doesn’t always have to be productive; sometimes you do it playfully, to see what happens.

I don’t assume that Bill Hader agrees with me here. For all I know, he might be a “growth mindset” fan. But he seems more concerned with the work itself, and the possibilities within it, than with a “mindset” of any kind. Yes, this does require certain attitudes and assumptions. You don’t tinker at all if you expect your work to be perfect as soon as it comes out of you. Tinkering requires that you see imperfections. But after that, what really matters is the practice of it, the daily immersion in the work and the questions it brings up.

In the NYFA discussion, he returns several times to the importance of focus–and how you can create focus yourself, just through the way you look at your work. A couple of students ask him how he manages to wear different hats in Barry and elsewhere–as writer, director, and actor–and he responds that he focuses on the story. That way, all his different roles come together, and the focus isn’t on him and all the different things he has to do.

Someone like Bill Hader must have to turn down hundreds of projects and possibilities, not just within film and television, but outside. Why not take up a musical instrument? Learn how to repair a car? Go on a speaking tour? Accept this or that interview request? Please, please? The phrase “I can’t” permits not only survival, but dedication to the projects at hand. Sure, stretching yourself into new areas could represent “growth,” but if you aren’t beholden to a concept of growth mindset, you get to decide what and what not to take on.

That must be one of the most difficult parts of a career like his. Even I, who am nowhere near famous, get requests that I have to turn down, but he must get them all the time. He has some people to filter them, but of those invitations and proposals that do get through to him, he probably takes on only a small fraction. Why? Because infinite availability will kill you. People will not respect your limits.

And there it is. To work on something serious, you also need limits, things you can’t or won’t do, things you say no to, implicitly or out loud. This becomes your den. There, in the warm light, you get down to work.

*Growth mindset, according to Carol Dweck, consists in the belief that one’s “talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others).” Growth mindset proponents routinely oppose growth mindset (good) to fixed mindset (bad). They acknowledge that people have a mixture of mindsets (in which case, is it even a “mindset?”) but ignore the possibility that such a mixture might be necessary.

The photo at the top is courtesy of HBO via a wonderful article in Vanity Fair (Sonya Saraiya, “Barry Is Still Killer in Season 2,” March 29, 2019).

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • Always Different



    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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