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  • Writer's pictureBethann Garramon Merkle

"No for it" and set your boundaries (plus a work-life harmony resource sheet)

Updated: Jan 14

NOTE: I realize there's great privilege in even being able to say/feel like one can say no. But, still, many of us need to. And, those of us who are able to must create and protect space for people who can't as readily (due to career stage, identity, socioeconomic and caregiving constraints, etc.). At the same time, those of us who can should also hold accountable the people who have said no for too long and who owe a debt of collective effort and service to our professional and personal spheres.


This is installment three in what has become my "No for it" series [1]. At the end of this post, I'm going to share a resource sheet that I've been handing out for at least a year now. My goal is for folks to have ready access to some of the resources that have helped me (and a lot of folks I've consulted with [2]) to figure out what a good no is.

But first, I'll note that I talk a lot about saying no and work-life balance (blech) versus work-life integration or harmony (especially on the Meteor scicomm podcast; start with this episode or this one). And yeah, the semantics of balance, integration, and harmony can sound trendy and irrelevant. But, I'm a person who makes a living with words, and I've found the concept of harmony most helpful for saying no when I need to.

I'm still thinking and posting about saying no for two reasons.

Reason 1

Last week, I did a guest talk/workshop in an undergrad science class. Initially, the professor who invited me wanted me to help the students to get oriented core concepts in scicomm. That was the goal because the students will do a major project that involves sharing science. But, the longer I teach, train/coach, consult on, and study scicomm, the more certain I have become that we have to start by acknowledging our own values and priorities. Without that, we can't hope to recognize and connect to the values of the people that we hope to work and share science with.

So, instead of just doing a scicomm 101 workshop and talking about the deficit model and how there's no general public, etc., I asked the students to focus on why they enrolled in this course, why they are pursuing training in science, and how sharing science effectively and inclusively ties into that. And, all that was nested inside the frame of their big "why": what do they actually hope to do, be, or change in the world?

After the class period ended, I talked for a while with a student who is pursuing several science majors. During class, they'd said my workshop got them thinking: if they were not one semester away from graduating, they would drop out completely. They put it this way:

"This [workshop] make me realize I don't care about science. I mean, I do care about science, but I don't want to do it."

Now, that might not seem like evidence that my workshop is accomplishing what I hope it is, but hoooodeeedoody, yeah! 🤩 That's actually exactly the kind of revelation that could positively change that student's life. Now, they can think about why they may have struggled with motivation, sustained focus, etc., through some or all of their coursework. Now, they can think about what's next, and how they can still leverage their considerable training to do things and spend their time in ways that do matter to them. And they have almost an entire academic year to think about how their coursework can prepare them for what they really do want their next professional step to be.

Put another way, I was once that student. I am a first-generation student and the oldest in my immediate family. I had no real role models for going to college, choosing a career path, or making life decisions in that context. As I've talked about elsewhere, I felt desperately stuck during my freshman year. Ultimately, I attended two different universities and changed my major seven times, on paper, with the Registrar, before I graduated with a bachelor's degree. In the past 20 years, I've also worked 14+ jobs, most in distinct-from-one-another sectors. Some of those jobs I did because of constraints in my life circumstances, some were opportunities, and others tied into my wide-ranging interests. But, with hindsight (and thanks to some therapy and a lot of work to articulate my own priorities now), I suspect that a fair bit of my meandering career path was due to me not knowing how to leverage my life-long priorities to drive what I did next.

Today, I can tell you a compelling (and true) story of my career path(s) that makes it all sound coherent -- as if it was leading toward where I am today. But, honestly, where I am is a happy accident. My professional, civic, and personal past have equipped me to be fantastic at the work I do now. But it wasn't until quite recently (<8 years ago) that working in a university even occurred to me. It was even more recently that it seemed possible. I'm still navigating the complex reality of being a nontraditional, first-gen academic in an atypical faculty role.

If my time with those students last week can help even one of them approach their next professional and academic decisions with a bit more clarity or discernment than I had at their life stage, that's a win.

Reason 2

I am driving my husband up the wall with all my celebration of and reporting on all the things I've managed to say no to. 😼 As I've pondered why, I've realized: I've been focused more on what I'm not doing, rather than articulating or celebrating with him the things that all my "no, nope, not that eithers" have enabled me to do, say yes to, pitch, or even - marvel of marvels - complete.

While that distinction matters for our dinner conversations, it's actually still very important that people put some focus on the nos. That we discuss, share, and even celebrate the boundaries that we set. These boundaries, these nos, do some really important things that merit the light of day.

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