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Earlier this week we posted the words and intentions for the year from several of the writers at UVenus.

I tweeted out the following question:

What are you saying yes to in 2019? What are you letting go of?

Within seconds (because that is how it works on Twitter) one of our biggest supporters,  Raul Pacheco-Vega, tweeted "In 2019 I am basically saying NO to everything." Raul’s statement instantly resonated with folks and got many likes and retweets.

Part of the reason it resonated was related to the power and ability to just say NO. It feels like people are leaning in to saying no. I get that, but it made me stop and think that it might be easier for people to say no to everything than to figure out when and where to say YES.

Strategically and selectively saying yes is really hard work. For me, it requires alignment. I wrote earlier this week about forcing myself to stay creative within writing rather than doing a million and one creative things like knitting, sashiko mending, printmaking, photography, embroidery, and every other thing that has caught my fancy in the last five or ten years.

I have been reading Cal Newport’s Deep Work this week and, it takes me back to saying yes over and over again to just one or two things. Going deep requires saying no to almost everything and I think that is what Raul is getting at with “basically saying NO to everything.” Right now, I’m saying yes to writing - journaling, blogging, and writing a book on mergers and closures in higher ed,

With their 2019 words and goals, many of our writers wrote about getting more strategic and I think that translates into getting more selective. It requires that we say no a lot more than we are used to, and definitely more than we are comfortable with.

Rachel Ellett referred to this as being “selective and strategic” while she continues to have a “steady focus” on her research. Bonnie Stewart mentioned having “agency in planning and choosing what I do” and moving from just saying yes to being more strategic and Janni Aragon wrote about prioritizing her health and using the strategic no.

Kerry Ann Rockquemore addresses this in detail in her must-read post, Just Say No. Part of saying no is asking yourself why would you say “yes”? Her post is in relation to service obligations, but I would also push us to think about our life priorities and getting comfortable saying yes to things that really matter.

But, how do you say yes?

For my health and well being, I am committed to taking care of myself and saying yes to sleep, yoga, meditation, walking, and time with family and friends. I am a time blocker and I time block these priorities in my planner first and then my absolute work and writing commitments and then see if I have any time left. If I do, then I can say yes strategically and accordingly. That’s where it gets difficult.

That is where the strategic yes comes into play.

I ask myself, does this project or commitment align with my values and does it further my goals. If it does, do I have time for it? If I don’t have time for it, is it such an amazing opportunity that I will regret saying no?

If it doesn’t pass the “no regrets” test, then what am I willing to give up?

This happened last year. I had an opportunity to serve on a really great committee of The Boston Club - an organization focused on the advancement of women to leadership roles. I knew that I would regret passing up on this opportunity. I looked over my other board responsibilities and, for each, I asked myself if my work on that board was core to my values and my goals and also asked myself if I was making a meaningful contribution that could not be made by anyone else. One of my prior roles was clearly an outlier. The organization was related to neither education nor women’s leadership - two of my core areas of impact - and there were others who could easily do the work I had been doing.

So, I stepped down.

I am still in touch with the members of that board and they call on my when they really need my input - maybe once every two months. It was a graceful transition and I have no regrets. But, it was really hard to step down. It felt like quitting. In reality, it was an alignment of my priorities.

It was a Strategic Yes to the new opportunity.  


Mary Churchill  is currently Associate Dean for Strategic Initiatives and Community Engagement at the newly established Wheelock College of Education and Human Development at Boston University (est. 2018). Prior to her role at Boston University, she was the Vice President for Academic Affairs at Wheelock College in Boston. She is the co-author of The Good Closure: Authentic Leadership in a Time of Crisis (under contract, Johns Hopkins University Press) which details the merger of Wheelock College and Boston University.


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