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Defining My Why: The Missing "No" in my Service Vocabulary

NOTE: My last post entitled Define Your Why was all about setting an intention and reasoning for each decision point a person comes across. I have decided to expand on this idea with a series of posts about my personal "Why" and how it affects various aspects of my life and work. Thanks for reading.

My family all live and work in Chicago (proper). My father is a pastor of a church. My mother was a life long teacher and ended her career as a principal of a special needs focused high school. My sister is a social worker and leads one of the largest non-profit organizations in the city. Suffice it to say, I grew up thinking that service was a natural part of life (and not the skill that it is). So when I would go on to choose my path, it would naturally be one of service to others.

I chose Technology Support and the rest is history I can tell at another time, but my focus during that decision-making period was the digital divide and bridging the gap between older generations that needed help understanding technology and younger generations that needed help revering it. Service, through-and-through, was the reasoning and the definitive "Why" that built the foundation of my career and decisions.

One byproduct of my upbringing, however, was the notion that when someone asks for help, "No" wasn’t really an option. I grew up in the parsonage of the church my father led and it was a revolving door of characters you might expect to see in a sitcom that leaned too heavily on its moral messaging. Our door was always metaphorically open and we had social services offered right from our living space. When people needed help outside of Sunday, our house was the location du jour.

I can think of one particularly defining moment for me in my early teen years when a parishioner came to our door and I was the only one home. I knew them well enough to answer and when asked for money for the bus ($2 at the time), I got my quarters and handed them over. It was only after that scene that my dad told me this person was working through some things and should not have come to the house nor been asking for money, no matter the reason, valid or not (my dad was working with them to set self-sustaining expectations and boundaries). Now, I think about the fact that "No" wasn’t something that even crossed my mind.

I periodically do say "No" (internally) when dealing with situations, especially during and since the pandemic. I think of myself as an extrovert and love interacting with and getting to know people, but since the pandemic, that behavior has been stunted and I have been fitful in attempting to get it back. As I have attempted to revisit this behavior, I have been struck by the notion that relationships, even fleeting ones, are work and, when "No" isn’t a part of the vocabulary of the relationship, hard work.

I have no regrets about the relationships I have pursued and the things I have said "Yes" to, but I can only imagine the relationships I have missed out on because of a underlying disquiet of having to say "No" to a request for assistance. I am also challenged by how many of my relationships have potentially been built on rocky foundations due to unset or under-defined expectations and boundaries brought about by a lack of "No".

To be clear, the missing "No" shows up most frequently in my personal life, not my professional one. When being asked to handle something that I or my team does not have the capacity to complete, I as a leader and manager need to be able to assess that and say "No". I do this frequently, but given the statements above, that too is a skill (and a muscle that needs frequent flexing to keep from atrophy).

The missing "No" is just as much a part of defining my "Why" as anything else in my life. Technology Support is predicated on a service mentality, the incoming request or problem to be solved, an inherent "Yes" to anything that may be needed to complete another person's work. Perhaps that is the reason why I am drawn to the field, but also a reason to be intentional as I work toward a deeper understand of how a "No" can serve others as well.