No can do — sorry!

I never used to say no.

When you work freelance, you memorize the phrase “No problem!” when asked to tackle something you’ve never done in your life but pays. If you say no to everything outside your comfort zone, you’ll starve. Nor will you grow your skills and client list.

So when an editor suddenly emailed me with a 24-hour turnaround — to profile Bruce Heyman, nominated as the U.S.’s new ambassador to Canada — I said O.K. The money was awful, $600 for 1,200 words. But I figured I could do it within five or six hours, and keep my usual rate of $100+/hour.

But, within two hours of starting work on it, I called the editor, (a former colleague in Canada,) and said: “Nope. Not going to happen. Sorry.”


— I called Goldman Sachs, where Heyman works. I emailed and called several PR people there, using sources shared by a Wall Street reporter who’s a friend of a friend, explaining my urgent deadline. I could tell this was not a priority. The PR woman called me back at 5:00 p.m. that day — a mere eight hours after my initial call.

— The one live person I got at Goldman in PR kept saying “I don’t know him. I just got off a plane from Brazil.” Chill, dude.

English: Goldman Sachs Tower, Jersey City, New...
English: Goldman Sachs Tower, Jersey City, New Jersey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

— I started Googling Heyman. He likes to drink green tea. That was about the extent of it. Not a good sign.

— I started calling the University of Chicago to reach former White House staffer David Axelrod, since Heyman is a big Obama fundraiser. After five mis-directed calls, I was told that the university has no public relations department (!?). I was told  they’ve never heard of him or the policy institute there he is supposed to be heading.

Senior advisor David Axelrod during a meeting ...
Senior advisor David Axelrod during a meeting in the Oval Office, May 29, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

— I started looking at the names of his fellow Chicago-area fundraisers. Billionaires, every one. Would they take a call from some Canadian wire service freelancer? As if.

I weighed the stress and bullshit of chasing all these people all day long — for $600 for a story no one I know in the States would read. Not worth it.

The editor was grateful I let her know right away.

Have you ever ditched a paying gig, and quickly?

How did it turn out?

24 thoughts on “No can do — sorry!

  1. Working freelance, I had the opportunity to write for a number of amazing career coaches who helped me to understand just how important it is for women in particular to practice setting guidelines, saying ‘no’, and asking for exactly what we want. Noticing what kind of work allows you to stay sane while making ends meet is incredibly valuable, whether freelance or full-time. There are times when I have the ‘I’ll never do that again!’ moment, and this realization is crucial to understanding what I want out of my client and my career. It is those experiences that give me the confidence to say ‘no thank you’ when I know the opportunity isn’t a good fit.

  2. The only gig I’ve ever “ditched” was as a waiter at an old folks home, but that was because I got a better job offer with better hours and decided to go with that instead. I’m still at that better-paying gig, getting experience for life after college.

  3. Regardless if you are free lance writer or a self employed business owner. You need to learn to say No. Especially after you have yourself established. There is no shame in telling a client No I can’t or won’t do that. Time is money, but relaxing and not stressing is priceless!

  4. The only one I ever walked out on was as a waitress. I made it through 1.5 days of training. I showed up on day two and my hair tie (which was a red bow) was too colorful and when I went on my lunch break (unpaid obviously) I got yelled at when I came back for not telling anyone where I was going on my lunch. I walked out. If that’s how day 2 was going, I never would have made it, and it’s definitely not worth $2.35/hr.

  5. I know a wedding photographer who has a “no asshole policy”….if the contract has been signed with the bride and groom and suddenly he is dealing with a bridezilla/groomzilla(?), it’s been agreed that he has the position to decline/void the job. I’m sure it keeps people in check, and gives him the freedom to walk away from a stressful and rather unpleasant experience. He makes it very clear the the couple as well. I’ve not had that experience (yet) and I hope I never do, most of my clients have been very laid back and easy going.

    1. My husband also shoots weddings and has this in his…He spends a fair bit of time with the couple to get to know them. We had hoped he would photograph an old friend of mine for her ceremony but she turned out to be a crazy control freak. No $$$$ was worth losing a friendship over. We’re still pals.

      I wish I could have so clear-cut a policy but I’d be broke! 🙂

  6. I am actually currently going through a phase where I am trying to make a very conscious effort to say “no” to more work. On top of my full time job, I have a second job screening nursing home applicants. I am called when there is a referral and can either accept it or decline. It’s really good money, so I almost always accept it if I can. But each one takes an average of five hours, which takes me away from what I really want to be doing with my free time, which is writing my book (a hobby that I love but has so far paid $0) . I’ve been accepting so many screenings lately that I’ve been getting a panicky feeling in my chest. Many days I pray that no one will call with a referral, because in the moment I know I won’t be able to turn down the money even though I could really use the time to renew myself.

    On Friday I did something that was totally new for me. I accepted one, but then when the panicky feeling started to set in almost immediatly, I called back to say that I had overestimated myself and wouldn’t be able to take that one afterall. It was an incredibly liberating feeling, and I’ve had a wonderful weekend of writing.

    1. This is huge. Good for you!!!

      There are so many reasons we grab the cash, (and resent our need for doing so) when, depending how truly desperate we are for income right then, we may really need to rest, relax, see a movie, play with the dog or — enjoy our hobbies and side interests for sheer pleasure.

      Americans are totally brainwashed (sorry to be so blunt) into believing that our greatest value to one another, and to ourselves, is purely economic — $$$$. So untrue. The nation is filled with worn-out people who are “highly productive” for their capital-owning employers. They are deeply time-poor for themselves and they they love most. For many people, that is NOT pure cash.

    1. I hear a blog post, Ms. C…?

      It’s great to be responsible and mature and have a good work ethic. It’s another to remain in abusive, toxic environments that leave us with almost no energy for the rest of our lives. Oh yeah, that. I barely survived my (arguably) high-status, well-paid job at the NY Daily News. It was a nightmare. No job is worth being miserable all the time.

  7. Great post. I was once offered $1 per word (good money considering my relative lack of paid writing experience) by an organization I was on the fence about. But I took the assignment because the rate was far better than I was being offered elsewhere, and I hoped to get more work from other places as a result. But when they came back to me for more articles, they insisted I sign a freelance contract that I considered unconscionable, Plus they had edited the heck out of my article, to the point where my name is now attached to something i would never write or even endorse. So I said no. No regrets.

    1. Sounds familiar.

      I recently did some work for a website that not only killed two stories they’d assigned (without telling me they did not want them — good thing I did not work on the and waste my time) but dicked around with my other payment for weeks. Now they’re all over me, retro-actively, to sign their writers’ agreement. I told them I feel the same urgency about getting it back to them they felt in getting my payment to me.

  8. Just ditched a gig that would bring me in over £250,000. Why? Because my health means more to me than the money and I know that when I’ve recovered then I’ll earn a lot more than that.
    Courage or stupidity! Guess I will have to believe in myself that it will all work out in the end.

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