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How to Say No (When You Know What You Want)

My Dad taught me the importance of keeping the “end in mind” when managing time. As a result, I pause and think before accepting an invitation. In business school, a friend teased me about this habit, but it was rooted in an understanding of my calendar and my process for getting my reading and work in.[1] With clear priorities and goals, having approaches for saying “no” with respect and rigor keeps your time properly allocated.

No is a resource allocation tool to meet your goals.

However, choosing “no” differs from saying “no.” There are many ways to get the message across. We have options in how we communicate choices. Remember the goal: get to where you want to be, whether at home writing or in bed sleeping or pumping iron at the gym. Just begin with the end in mind.

Three Ways to Say No

  • Leverage the calendar. The calendar documents commitments and obligations. For me, things that don’t make the calendar, whether a workout or deadline or date night, don’t really exist. With an invite, using a calendar provides a reliable, respected, and repeatable process. 
    • “Let me check the date on our calendar and get back to you…”
    • “I would love to help, but I…am booked that day…have a deadline…made a commitment.”
  • Have a policy. For example, at Forisk, we only consult with firms that subscribe to our research. Having clear rules provides clarity and simplicity, and most folks and firms respect this.
    • “That’s past my 9pm bedtime.”
    • “We don’t work on Saturdays.” 
  • Leave the decision with someone else. Typically, we do not operate in vacuums.
    • “My coach…wife…boss…astrologer sets the schedule. Let me check in and get back to you…”

Keep It Simple

Avoid detailed reasons or rambling. Thank the person for the invite, say you’re unable to make it and move on. “Thank you and good luck. Hope the event is a great success!” And you mean that. Be polite; avoid abruptness. It’s simply an offer to respectfully decline because it does not fit with your schedule (and your schedule is set by your priorities, in advance, but you don’t need to get into that story….)

If you want, offer an alternative, which can also create an opportunity for someone else. “Hey, I can’t make this, but Phil on our team would be great for this. If okay with you, let me check with him on his availability…” This can help everyone, as Phil may really appreciate this, too.

Conclusion

Know your priorities. Use a calendar. Grow the ability to say “no” with grace and integrity. Having reliable and respectful ways to say decline invitations saves time, maintains relationships, and keeps you on track. 

“People are effective because they say ‘no,’ because they say, ‘this isn’t for me.’”

Peter Drucker

[1] I HATE going back on obligations, so it was a defensive mechanism, as well.

Write Thank-You Notes

Writing personal thank-you notes remains an effective way to stand out in the workplace. Thank-you notes send several messages, all good. They demonstrate professionalism, appreciation, and good manners. After an interview, they reinforce your communication skills and interest. These notes strengthen relationships with potential employers, clients, and colleagues. Thank-you notes document gratitude.

Write Notes Regularly

When do we write thank-you notes? Often. At a minimum, write thank-you notes (1) after participating in interviews; (2) after receiving gifts; (3) to acknowledge favors (such as referrals); and (4) to thank colleagues for work well done.  Thank-you notes acknowledge the value of what someone else did for you and the team.

We have warmer feelings towards – and are more predisposed to help again – those who thank us with personal notes. After participating in a forestry job fair, I received a thoughtful note from the president of the local Society of American Foresters student chapter. Would I be willing to support their efforts again? You bet.

Choose Your Paper

Use good judgment in choosing the ‘raw material’ for your notes. After a job interview, write thank-you notes on personal letterhead or simple note cards. To thank someone for a gift, an informational interview or support, the note can be written on company letterhead or on personal or plain notepaper.

However, if you interview for a job at ACME Wildlife Services while working for the Timber Journal, avoid writing thank-you notes on Timber Journal letterhead. On the other hand, if you interview an ACME Wildlife executive for an article you are writing for the Timber Journal, it’s entirely appropriate to use Timber Journal letterhead. [The point may seem obvious, but people make the mistake…]

Be Prepared

Often, I travel with a few note cards, envelopes, and stamps to write thank-you notes from my hotel room or on an airplane. For friends or family, I have used hotel letterhead and, in a pinch, cut my own postcards from the individual sized cereal boxes available at some breakfast bars. [They work Gr-r-reat!]

Worthy thank-you notes are direct, timely, accurate, and signed.  They explicitly say, “thank you” and specify the source of your gratitude. They are written promptly and spell accurately the name of the recipient. And they include your signature; an unsigned thank-you note is a glorified form letter. 

Email?

In certain situations (and increasingly), thank-you emails suffice. This is true for longstanding relationships, when your note includes attachments or links discussed in the interview, when firms view email as a preferred form of communication or where your contacts with an individual all use email. 

Conclusion

My parents taught me that people read and appreciate thank-you notes. Time and time again, my experiences have validated this lesson. Writing personal notes in a timely manner will distinguish you and reinforce business and personal relationships throughout your career. 

Brooks Writes Stories: How Did It Go in 2021?

In mid-2017, I started submitting and tracking my fiction writing and posted updates in 20182019 and 2020. How did it go in 2021?

  • In 2021, I submitted versions and revisions of 24 stories 106 times to 50 different outlets. This included one contest.
  • Between January 1 and December 31, 2021, I received 114 rejections (including 20 for stories submitted in 2020) and five acceptances (4.2%). I also withdrew two stories.
  • Several rejections included brief comments from editors, some encouraging and others less so. A few examples:
    • “While this… was not chosen… I thought it was well written, stark and true…”
    • “…feels more like a punch line, than a short story.”
    • “…it felt arresting to read and didn’t full cohere.”
    • “I like how you take this parent-child relationship and make it larger than life.”
    • “This is ripe, fascinating.”

Stories Published in 2021

Six stories were published (one accepted in 2020) by six different venues in 2021.

On June 1stSpank the Carp published “Anxiety Afterglow” (275 words, 2 minute read). Inspired by an actual, unknown seatmate who aggressively, compulsively picked her face during a flight in South America.  I wrote the first draft in my journal during the flight. The story speaks to the importance and power of having a purpose, regardless our state of mind. 

On June 22ndFlash Fiction Magazine published “Grady Shelton” (671 words, 3 minute read). Rejected and revised 15 times before finding a home, this story was a consistent near miss and, based on the comments and feedback, has been my most popular story to date.

On June 30thMystery Tribune published “Short Books for My Cellmate” (924 words, 4 minute read). Two cellmates, passing time with books and with each other, maneuver to get the upper hand.

On July 14th101 Words published “Know Your Customer” (101 words, 1 minute read). The editor wrote, “I love the surprise, I almost screamed Oh, good Lord! This is really well crafted.”

On August 10thThe RavensPerch published “Drive the Road” (575 words, 3 minute read). Inspired by a report about a hijacked truck, the backstory came from my personal interest in the Vietnam War (my Dad is a vet). This is a case where I loved/believed in/wanted this one more than the editors: it notched 19 rejections (and revisions) before finding a home as a much better story. Thanks, TRP!

On November 10thMason Street Blog published “Putt for Show” (335 words, 2 minute read). A mix of golf, real estate schemes and The Sopranos.

Please enjoy the stories and thank you for reading!

Know What Matters: Baseball, Boundaries and the Astonishing Beauty of Things

The poet Robinson Jeffers[1] worried that people increasingly failed to engage with the world or to appreciate nature, that we had become blind to the “astonishing beauty of things” around us. When I read Jeffers or Wendell Berry, or watch a baseball game or observe my wife and daughters tease each other or gossip or laugh together, I think about the importance of being present and aware in all phases of life. 

In a practical sense, this idea speaks to the benefits of knowing what matters more and what matters less when making decisions about what to do, where to look and how to enjoy the day.

Tools and Toilet Paper

Baseball helped organize my life. Growing up, when my family moved to a new town, my parents would sign us up for local baseball, basketball or soccer leagues to keep us active and help us meet other kids. Sports taught me discipline, the power of practice and importance of teams. In college at MIT, I played baseball with a group of guys that were especially attuned to and interested in what it took to be successful on the diamond.[2]

Professional baseball scouts often grade and profile players based on five “tools” central to success: the abilities to hit for average, hit for power, run (speed), throw (arm strength) and field. The elusive “five-tool players” are the superstars, the household names of each era such as Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Mike Trout.

That means the application of expertise also requires knowing where to look. As a forest industry researcher, I sometimes support due diligence, when one firm looks to buy another, in whole or part. When touring manufacturing facilities in the past, I always looked in the bathrooms to see if they stocked toilet paper, if the hot water worked, if the floor was clean. Cleanliness in the bathroom, and in the shop, indicated that management cared about its employees and increased the likelihood that the facility was well run.

Understanding what matters also involves awareness of context. As Larry Schiamberg[3] wrote in the preface of his textbook Human Development, thinking about our situations and relationships “requires attention to the progressive interaction and mutual adaptation of human beings…throughout the life span.” Consider the example of a young couple working to develop its “own family structure” over time. Key stresses include sex, finances, and parental interference. 

In the end, them’s the basics: your bed, your bank account and your boundaries. And when something unplanned, unwanted or unexpected affects them, it destroys trust and erodes relationships. 

Conclusion

Each field and phase of life has its pain points and astonishing realizations. Elevating awareness and appreciation of the moment enhances gratitude, encourages simpler approaches, and diminishes the need to be at the center of things. In fact, knowing what matters, where to look and what to ignore puts our attentions towards relationships and taking joy in how things work.


[1] Jeffers sometimes gets quoted in articles related to my research in forestry; he was active in the environmental movement in the 1940s and 50s. 

[2] This led to me writing a book – Beaverball – about my experience on the team and one of our (few) winning seasons.

[3] Retired Michigan State University professor and my father-in-law. Yo, Pops, what’s up? 🙂

Make a Decision and Act: An Ode to Star Trek and Stoicism

Growing up, I enjoyed the science fiction movies Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars, and television shows such as Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers. The stories combined space travel, advanced technologies and humor with themes that demonstrated a sanctity for life.  However, my favorite was the original Star Trek tv series.

While the futuristic and scientific aspects of Star Trek attracted me, I returned to watch and learn from Spock, Dr. McCoy and Captain Kirk.

Spock, Doc and Kirk

Spock, whose Vulcan surname is unpronounceable (literally), was the First Officer and Science Officer aboard the Starship Enterprise. In his role, he applied rationality and logic to each situation. His insistent, Stoic method of understanding how things worked and controlling what you can attracted me. As a father, employer, and leader during recessions and COVID and other tempests, I revisit the calm and clarity offered by focusing on what you can control to stack the issues and prioritize.

Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, emotional and cantankerous, wielded an awesome diagnostic tricorder and quiver of sharp retorts (mostly at the expense of Spock). Dr. McCoy always put humanity and people (and other species) before the protection of equipment or reliance on cold probabilities. McCoy reminds us that the tools and numbers serve our efforts to do what is right. His social conscious and character attracted me to science and research (though, I’m a Doctor of Forestry, not of medicine. 🙂 Thanks, DeForest!)

Finally, the crew followed Captain James T. Kirk[1], the embodied action bias and unquestioned leader on the ship. While Spock always did the math, any potential “paralysis by analysis” or harmful delay in a crisis would lead to a pointy earful from Dr. McCoy. Captain Kirk listened to his trusted team, one leveraging the best available information and the other voicing a social conscious, before choosing a course and acting decisively.

Decide and Act

Uncertainty and disruption inform our general state of mind when making decisions. Like Spock, disregard needless enthusiasms and anxieties. Beside the fact that no one knows what’s going to happen, we humans handle uncertainty poorly. So, skip it. A Stoic believes they control their responses to the world, not the world itself.

As a species, when disconnected from social media and cable news, we are incredibly resilient. The great Stoic Epictetus said, “What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens.” 

When a Stoic walks into a bar, he chooses from what’s available and enjoys the drink. If the bar catches on fire, the Stoic leaves the drink to help as many people as possible get out safely. We do what we can in the moment.

Conclusion

Without a structured approach to ordering the world, the world will impose its views on us.  Some things are more important than others, some things are easily verifiable, and some things are beyond our control. In my field in forestry, we rely on the physical facts associated with demographics and forest supplies and mill capacities to leverage data and logic to develop projections. In this way, we avoid lofty assumptions and ground analysis in physical attributes to help interpret the world as it lays. 

We all strive to do the best we can with the information we have, without polluting that information with bias or irrational assertions. Make logical decisions, do what’s right, and move forward.

Live long and prosper! 🖖


[1] T for “Tiberius” for those headed to Trivia Night.