“Did someone drop you on your head and break your ‘no’ button?”
This question was directed to me eight years ago by the jovial older professor supervising my postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Alberta. I can’t remember what absurd request I’d said yes to — another conference paper, another awards committee, another class to teach or grant to apply for — but I remember how it made me feel. I was proud.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been praised for being a hard worker. At the end of my first week of first grade, I told my teacher I was disappointed that there was no homework, and she sent me home with a stack of worksheets that I happily completed. When I successfully passed the comprehensive exam portion of my PhD, my supervisor commended me specifically and repeatedly for how hard I’d worked. I had, in fact, worked my way into the hospital.
No one was explicitly forcing me to work that hard, but somewhere along the way I had internalized a fundamental message: hard work is morally virtuous.
There’s a history to this idea. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, German sociologist Max Weber linked the Calvinist belief that working hard was a sign of God’s grace to the rise of capitalism. What better way to encourage an economic system that undervalued and exploited labour than through the belief that labour is not a political issue but a spiritual one?
As capitalism spread globally through European imperialism, so too did the belief that the innate desire to work hard in pursuit of self-improvement was a sign of superiority. Key to the Protestant work ethic is the distinction between working hard and wanting to work hard. It’s the love of labour that matters, not the actual obligation to work three separate jobs just to pay the rent.
The modern manifestation of the Protestant work ethic is grind culture. A few years ago, a series of posters for the app Fiverr (like Uber for freelancers) went up around Vancouver. In one, a tousled-haired and tired-eyed 20-something stares into the camera; overlaid on their face are four sentences: “You eat a coffee for lunch. You follow through on your follow through. Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice. You might be a doer.”
A “doer” is, presumably, someone comfortably building their sense of self on the belief that sacrificing yourself to “make it” is a sign of virtue. How exhausting.
That’s why NO-vember feels so radical to me. I was introduced to the idea by my friend Cynara Geissler, who first blew my mind back in 2017 by suggesting that my productivity might not be equivalent to my worth. Easier said than believed, Cynara!
NO-vember challenges us to turn this belief into practice by dedicating ourselves, throughout the month of November, to saying no.
Why November? It’s not just the catchy name. This is the time of year when the days start getting shorter, the nights get longer and our bodies often respond with a desire to get cozy. At the same time, as the year nears its end, we can go into overdrive; our lives get busier as we try to cram in everything that needs to get done before the holidays. It’s cold and dark, and somehow we’re supposed to be working harder? NO-vember says no to all of that, instead asking us to explore what it feels like to hold firm to our boundaries and to prioritize rest.
Since I started saying no, I’ve said no to lots of things I didn’t want to do: chairing committees, speaking at conferences, letting my brain be “picked” by strangers. But I’ve also said no to things I wanted to do: peer-reviewing books I knew I wouldn’t have time to engage with meaningfully; speaking on panels that I wanted to attend without participating; serving as co-applicant on grants that were fascinating but would extend into my precious upcoming research leave.
It can be hard not to feel like celebrating the act of saying no is a bit self-indulgent. So many people lack the option, living paycheque to paycheque or balancing the responsibilities of work and caretaking. I know, as one of the lucky few academics to get a tenure-track job in the past decade, that I’ve been hesitant to even create, let alone articulate and celebrate my boundaries. After all, if I say no, does that work I turn down just trickle downhill to someone below me in the institutional hierarchy, someone precariously employed who doesn’t have the option to say no?
I’m increasingly convinced that the more I say no, the better I am at advocating for myself and my co-workers. The more I say no, the more equipped I become to mentor my students in the importance of having their own boundaries. The more I say no, the better an ally I become for my disabled and chronically ill friends, co-workers and students, who are punished for not achieving the — and this part is important — completely arbitrary expectations of productivity.
The more I say no, the more I add my voice to a chorus of people saying that rest is political, whether it’s Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha rooting calls to slow down in disability justice or Tricia Hersey creating the Nap Ministry to teach her followers that “rest is a form of resistance” and sleep deprivation is a racial and social justice issue.
This past summer, I came face to face with the importance of saying no as a form of advocacy. As universities contemplated the return to campus and sought to balance the province’s mandate for 80 per cent face-to-face delivery with students’ expressed preference for flexible learning options, my administration informed us that we would be expected to deliver all our courses both in person and online, simultaneously. That’s double the labour — labour for which my precariously employed colleagues would not be given additional compensation.
You can probably guess my response. I wasn’t saying no because I disagreed with blended delivery. I said no because, as a tenure-track faculty member, I can, where my precariously employed colleagues so often cannot. I said no because, as an abled-bodied white woman, my no is more respected than the no’s of my BIPOC and disabled colleagues.
When I first started saying no to things, it felt awful. I was terrified that I was turning down opportunities I’d never be offered again, that my career would stall, that friends would stop inviting me to things because I was that person that always turned them down. This is the lie capitalism tells us: that everything, from friendships to jobs, is governed by the principle of scarcity. Even as my career advanced to the point that I could comfortably turn down opportunities, I still struggled. Who was I, after all, if I wasn’t someone who loved hard work?
But lately, I’ve started to find the joy in refusal. It turns out that saying no is an opportunity to learn what your yes feels like. When I learned to switch my default to no, I also learned to figure out what I wanted to do and what values would inform my decisions. When I stopped taking pride in the mere fact of working hard, I started to take pride instead in doing work that aligns with those values.
NO-vember, though, isn’t about saving up your energy so you can be more productive later, or reallocating your productivity to more virtuous causes. It isn’t about productivity at all. NO-vember is about realizing that our worth has nothing to do with our productivity and that, in the context of this late capitalist hellscape, saying no is the most radical thing we can do.