Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.
Saying no to an opportunity feels wrong, especially when you’re in college or just starting in your career. You’re being offered an opportunity, a big project, or a new role — how can you possibly say no? What if this doesn’t come my way again? What will that do to my image if I turn something down? Will I look ungrateful, or worse, lazy?
College is a unique environment — there are so many people, all of them just like you! Most of them have just moved away from home for the first time, and everyone is trying to find their sense of purpose here. Your school is likely doing everything they can to find everything available to you — it can be overwhelming at times. Student organizations, jobs, internships, extracurriculars, sporting events, even parties — it can be hard to delegate your time to fit everything in.
But if you’re like me, you feel bad when you don’t take on everything that comes your way. I’m only going to be here for four years, and I’m paying SO much money for this, why would I pass up anything? This thinking got me in over my head fairly quickly. Opening in a student organization position? I’m in. Need a volunteer? You got it.
It was while serving as president of two organizations, treasurer of one, and officer of another that I realized I had a problem letting things pass — I just wanted to be involved in everything!
It is extremely difficult to draw a line in the sand when so many opportunities are coming your way. You feel guilty not accepting them, because you know that in four short years, you’ll need to prove to an employer that you’re different than all other applicants.
There is an art of saying yes to the right things — and letting others take the roles that are just space fillers on your résumés. Letting things pass takes power and control. This goes for work that doesn’t have to be yours as well — delegating your tasks and asking for help displays more leadership and team building skills than just putting your head down and completing the work alone.
The common response to this is, “But if I don’t do the work, nobody else will” — and you know, that may be true. It also displays tremendous leadership skills if you let others fail, rather than bailing them out of their own mistakes, every time. You’ll never help anybody grow if you never allow them to see the effects from their lack of accountability.
Now, all of this being said, how do you go about declaring this new and improved way of working and living?
First consider your long-term goals — even if you can’t see ahead to the next 10 years, what do you aspire to have accomplished in the next year? Does signing up for the board of that student organization fit this goal? Will completing that group project by yourself actually propel you towards the goal — or will it just leave you with bloodshot eyes and a ton of stress? My guess is the latter.
Second, you need to become comfortable with asserting your decision to others. If you state that you will not be writing, editing, and creating the presentation for a project, but you later let others pressure you into doing it — your word will never be taken seriously.
This leaves room to negotiate with your team, as well as wiggle room in your schedule.
What you’re willing to do: What’s the minimum you should be contributing to make it fair?
What you’re able to do: If you have to take on more responsibility, what is the maximum that you can handle?
What you’re not willing to do: This is everything else that you didn’t list above.
If something will not ultimately lead you to your goals, you should heavily consider if you want to sacrifice your time on it. Staying firm on your vision, true to yourself, and saying “No” — and meaning it, can ultimately advance you in both college and your career. There is no need to feel guilty by turning something down if it doesn’t suit you, because it’s very likely that there is someone who has been waiting for this.
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