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If You Have To Be 100 Percent All In, You’d Never Accomplish Anything At All

Why this perennial life advice is kind of bullshit

There is no one bit of advice that will guide every decision you’ll ever have to make in life, but that won’t stop us from trying to craft a one-shot, one-kill approach to living better. This week, it’s “if you’re not all in about an opportunity, just say no,” courtesy of The New York Times. Tim Herrera writes that this gem is “really all you ever need to know,” and proceeds to explain why you shouldn’t do anything you don’t have hardcore passion and spark for. While that sounds great for writers at the Times, will this incredibly simple piece of advice work for you? Only one way to find out!

On its face, the advice is not terrible. Barring a tiny percentage of folks on earth, most of us are utterly beholden to life on the grid in one way or another. We have to work, we must pay bills, and we must show up places we don’t want to so people will still talk to us. Given that we can’t do much about that unless we fall into the kind of financial freedom that allows us to swing in a hammock for the rest of our earthly penance, it makes intuitive sense that we suck it up sometimes and show up, but that for the rest of our free time, we exercise our God-given right to be fascists. We shouldn’t waste our precious free time doing things we don’t want to and that don’t further our goals or better us in some way.

This advice can take myriad forms, but its popularity is so evergreen that it shows up over and over again in one form or another. I first read about this “life philosophy” a few years ago, but it appeared to me under the missive “fuck yes or no.” Written by self-help coach Mark Manson in 2013, it offered a simple principle by which to guide one’s romantic choices: If you’re not feeling unbridled enthusiasm toward a romantic partner, or, just as critically, from a romantic partner, fuck it. You don’t need that noise. Life is too short. Either care a lot, or care zero. Anything in the middle is a hardcore waste of time.

Manson was aiming at people who, in this modern era of hooking up with no parameters and no clear endgame, spend a lot of energy parsing why she won’t go out with you, or why he doesn’t call back, or why they don’t seem to be feeling you. The answer is in the question: If you even have to ask whether someone is into you, you’re already doomed. “If you’re in the grey area to begin with, you’ve already lost,” he writes. “The Law of ‘Fuck Yes or No’ also states that when you want to get involved with someone new, in whatever capacity, THEY must respond with a ‘Fuck Yes’ in order for you to proceed with them.”

It was shared widely on the internet and regarded as a radical, liberating bit of information that frees people from worrying. It’s brilliant in its simplicity: If you can’t work up the enthusiasm to be with someone with unequivocal enthusiasm? If they don’t go out of their way to make it clear they like the fuck out of you? Hard pass.

Manson was actually referencing Derek Sivers’ similar approach from 2009 in a blog post called “No ‘yes.’ Either ‘HELL YEAH!’ or ‘no.’” In Sivers’ post, which was focused on careers and the many demands to divvy up your time doing a bunch of shit you don’t need to, he laid out the same thinking in slightly different words. “When deciding whether to do something, if you feel anything less than ’Wow! That would be amazing! Absolutely! Hell yeah!’ — then say ‘no,’” he wrote. His was a panacea for the fact that we’re all overdrawn in the bank account of our free time. “We’ve all taken on too much,” he writes. “Saying yes to less is the only way out.”

I think on some level we all have a theory like this tucked away in the back of our minds. My version of it was always the notion of “being compelled.” In dating, and in job interviews, or for personal creative projects I might not get paid for, I’ve often thought of the old Oscar Wilde quote that it’s better to be hated than ignored. In other words, nothing is worse than someone with lukewarm interest in you, romantically or professionally. If someone is compelled to be with you or bring you on their team, they will act in way that supports this. They will move mountains, they will do all the things, they will never lie to you, they will always put you first. And if they don’t, fuck them. You don’t need that noise.

The trouble is, I think I got that from a rom-com or a fairy tale about this notion that people are simplistically devoted or else. Also, I don’t feel that strongly about most things. Even the people I love annoy me. I don’t want to go to most parties, or most shows, or most work events. I might not be into an idea and then, after spending some time with it, realize it has legs. It’s not because I don’t like people or new ideas perfectly fine, but because the effort often seems like a lot for something with no clear payoff. Maybe it will be a great networking opportunity, but if I’m not feeling totally prosocial I probably won’t feel outgoing enough to talk the right people anyway, so what’s the point? Maybe I could meet someone new tonight, but if I’m feeling less than witty, I might fuck it up.

Plenty of the stuff I do week to week involves making myself muster up the effort to be social when I actually feel the opposite. I’d rather stay home and do nothing, but at least half of the time I make myself go out, I do end up having a good conversation, meeting a new contact, or just having a good time with a friend that ultimately fosters the relationship. If I actually employed “fuck yes or no,” I’d say no roughly 95 percent of the time. Such is life. There is too much to do or give our attention to all the time. It’s far easier to never do any of it, particularly if I can justify it with a cool-sounding philosophy.

As humans, we easily become set in our ways, used to our routines, and as we get older, it’s harder to leave our comfort zones and seek out new experiences. Making friends becomes increasingly harder as we get older, even though we all feel lonely and isolated and still crave the new connections. The only way to deal with this problem is to force ourselves to embrace exactly the kinds of experiences we aren’t passionate about up front. You must leave your house, and go out, and talk to people, and give it a shot, or else you have no opportunity to change anything, or expand your understanding of the world, or make new friends, or change your life.

It’s worth pointing out that Derek Siver’s own advice wasn’t actually for everyone. It was specifically for people who are “often over-committed or too scattered.” Anyone who’s been in relationships over the long haul knows that there can be periods of being disconnected where things don’t line up. If this was a reason to bail, no questions asked, most of us would never have a relationship that lasted longer than three months. Many of us are in careers that may be workable for now but will need some finessing and advancing in a new direction at some point or another. That won’t happen if we say no to things we’re on the fence about. In fact, I would argue that most opportunities come from the unexpected meeting, the thing you had no intention of doing, but that later, bore fruit.

Which is why it’s disingenuous to offer any one approach as the end-all, be-all of how to live. Even Sivers offers a counter to his own argument called “hell yeah why not.” This philosophy is for people with the opposite problem he laid out in his hell yes or no approach — people whose “time is not being utilized at a high rate.” In other words, if you’re not living your dream life of highly productive engagement, you probably shouldn’t go around saying no to everything that doesn’t instantly strike you as amazing. Instead, he argues, you should ask yourself: “Am I going to do something productive with the time I save by not taking on this project, or is this just a cop out?”

If the answer is no, you should probably consider “dipping your toes in if you don’t have a better option.” I would argue most of us are in this group. We may fancy ourselves as lifehackers, but most of us waste a lot of time not knowing if we’re headed in the right direction.

I know, it’s more complicated to take on this approach of thinking of it two ways instead of one, but we’re all suckers for the easy answer. So if you really need one that incorporates both points of view, then it’s this, courtesy of Kenny Rogers in “The Gambler”: “Know when to hold ’em; know when to fold ’em. Know when to walk away; know when to run.” And if you figure it out, by all means, do tell. If nothing else, you could probably get an incredibly popular blog post out of it.