You need to learn how to start saying no to the things you do want to do, with the recognition that you only have one life.
Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic
We've all heard the story about the professor and the rocks. I first heard it as a sermon when I was a kid.
The parable goes something like this: a professor comes into class carrying rocks, pebbles, and sand. He asks the students to fit all of it into a big glass jar. The students, who don't appear to be the professor's top class, first pour in the sand, then the pebbles, and then discover the rocks don't fit. Only by putting in the big rocks before the pebbles and sand can you fit everything in the jar.
The message is that in life, you must put in your big rocks (the important stuff) first, then fit the less important things around them.
The problem, as writers like Elizabeth Gilbert and Oliver Burkeman have pointed out, is that we have too many big rocks. Our metaphorical glass jar has rocks falling out, piling up on the table, and spilling onto the floor.
We want to be good spouses, present parents, loyal friends, and ambitious professionals. But we also want to be fit, read the whole stack of books on our nightstand, clean the house, keep up with our favorite podcasts, cook healthy meals, serve as PTO president, and meditate, journal, and floss daily.
Oh, and we want to sleep eight hours a night.
These are all big rocks. They are all worthwhile ways to spend our time. But we only have 24 hours in a day and so many years left on this spinning blue marble. Among these big rocks, these perfectly legitimate ways to spend our time, we have to choose what to do. We must disappoint others (and ourselves) and say no to things that would be a great use of time.
It's not easy.
I was thinking about all this while on a plane back from Chicago this week. I got to join an Advisory Board meeting for a company my cousin started (massive shoutout to Jill and Lunum. It's cliche, but they're changing the world).
I really, really didn't want to go to the meeting. The boys had a bad cold and were out of school all week. We hosted family the weekend before (and were out of town the weekend before that). I had a work event that ran late the night before. Fog blanketed ~half the world and delayed the outbound flight.
I could've joined the meeting via Zoom, but I don't like breaking promises. So I went. And it was amazing. I was on the ground in Chicago for less than 18 hours, but I talked to insightful people, learned about being on a board, spent quality time with my cousin, and got a dose of the big city.
On the flight home, I thought about the tension of deciding how to spend our limited time. We have to say no because there are just too many big rocks that need our time... and yet, amazing things happen when we say yes. Not only this week's meeting, but I've started friendships and experienced amazing things because I said yes. So how do we square these?
As I noodled on it, what I found the positive experiences had in common were:
- I cared for a person involved
- I cared about a cause involved
- There was a chance for serendipity
Saying yes to one thing means saying no to literally everything else. Because something has one of these characteristics, it doesn't mean I will say yes. But it helps frame the decision.
And more importantly, it will help me say no. Another bland networking event, playdates with kids the boys don't even like, and group chats full of friendships past their expiration date. I can more confidently opt out of all of them.
I can move from FOMO to JOMO, the joy of missing out.
It's the only way I have a chance of dedicating more of my limited time left on earth to my big rocks.