Be Brave. Say No.

Being a freelancer, while not for everyone, is my idea of a fantastic career. I get to build my ideal job. I get to see the big picture across organizations and even entire industries. I get to interact with some of the most brilliant people on the planet. But to have room for all of that awesomeness, I to say “no” to taking on work. And wow, that’s hard.

Photo by Kai Pilger on Unsplash


Don’t get me wrong: being able to say “no” is one of the things that makes the flexibility of freelancing a beautiful thing. Also, saying no just isn’t for my benefit; it’s often to the benefit of the potential client, too. But saying “no” is scary. It means turning away income. It may mean alienating a contact that could impact future work. It might even mean missing out on a project that could become amazing. (Yes, it’s true. Even successful freelancers have to guard themselves against FOMO: the Fear of Missing Out.) Still, time to take a deep breath and prepare to say “no.”

Let’s look at this in two parts: when to say no, and how to say no.

When to say no

A while back, I wrote up a list of what’s most important to me in the realm of professional life goals. Because they’re really only supposed to be meaningful for me, they’re kind of fuzzy with lots of expectations implied in each and every one.

I want to:

  • be a part of improving the functionality and/or usability Internet
  • look at the big picture
  • focus on collaboration, not capitalism
  • work with people smarter than me

When a new contract comes in, I work through what the project wants compared to what I want. A contract to help a product development team make their Super Cool Thingamajig first to the expectation of significant financial reward is entirely outside my core values. There’s no collaboration. The focus is on making money, not improving the Internet. It’s capitalism in action. And, hey, that’s totally fine if that’s your thing! You can have that contract; I’m going to go hide in this corner over here and help groups with open standards development.
There are other moments that should tell you it’s time to say “no” to a project.

  • When the primary tasks of the work involve something you already know you don’t enjoy doing (e.g., waterfall project management and weekly Gantt charts).
  • When the values of the person or company you are considering don’t align with your own (e.g., a start-up focused on sales when what you want to focus on is community engagement).
  • When they require more than you’re willing to give (e.g., a contract that insists it will be 20 hours a week when you only have 5 available).
  • When they insist their budget couldn’t possibly cover your rates (though this will always be a judgment call; my rates vary based on what I think the client can pay, how interested I am in the work, and how much time I have).

Assuming you can feed yourself and your family and pay your immediate bills, don’t let the fear of missing out drive you into a contract you’re going to hate.

How to say no

Unless there are compelling extenuating circumstances, I’m going to assume that most people don’t want to burn any bridges when you say no. So, before you respond to a proposal with “HAHAHAHAH! You think I’m going to do what? You’re kidding, right?” perhaps there’s a slightly more politic way to say “no.”

  • Describe in your own words what you understand the job to be, and be very clear that that is not the type of work you enjoy and that you’ll happily refer to others that might be better suited towards the role. (Noting that you may be lying here and will not happily refer others because you think the proposal is insane, but playing nice is the key to a good reputation.)
  • Be firm because if you’re having this conversation, they’re probably recruiting you, not the other way around.
  • No, really, be firm, because they may come back with Sad Cat faces to pressure you into taking the role.

And with that, go forth, think about what you really want, and be prepared to say “no” in order to get it.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: