No Man


Early on in a PhD program at the university, most of us are recommended to attend a two-day course with a petrifying title: “Taking Charge of Your PhD”. The goal is quite obvious from its naming, though what isn’t as clear at the get go is the method. Thus, naturally, it is quite unsettling when a good chunk of the course is spent training participants to answer ordinary professional requests (interspersed with a few ridiculous ones) with a “NO”.

It’s no surprise that this seemingly silly bit of the course is a recurring topic of coffee-break conversations among colleagues; most of us struggle to find a clear link between this exercise and our research. To make things more consternating, participants are urged time and again to exclude any explanation as we exercise this professional left-swipe. Is this the secret ingredient to the so-called Dutch directness everyone keeps talking about, I remember wondering. It’s in principle an employer encouraging quasi-rude behaviour at the workplace. For what? That’s hard to say.

The message is certainly opposite to what many of us grow up with. A “yes” is often equated to a positive attitude towards life, we are told. Therefore, the sudden appearance of a few anti-Terrence figures (as if from a spoof to Peyton Reed’s Yes Man) who are convinced in the opposite and wish us to unlearn the affirmative can be a head-scratcher.

But it may start to make a bit more sense as the research program chugs along, and tasks and deadlines pile up. One realizes that a lot in that pile didn’t necessarily belong there and was one’s own doing. Every positive nod at meetings, a casual “yeah, sure” in the laboratory or even agreeing to the voice in our own head is now a bullet-point in a list with no end.

“Of course, I’m available, let me just quickly check my agenda and squeeze it in somewhere”. If one is to believe the “Taking Charge” course, much of that could have been avoided with a straight-faced “no”. I think the available evidence is sketchy, however, so there seems to be no choice but to test it out.

Preliminary results are in and as it turns out, the harder I try the coveted “no”, the more my straight-face resembles a death-stare. A polite, unescalated, negative is an evolutionary anomaly that few are capable of. But for now, there’s the luxury of time and some patience, another evolutionary anomaly. And if nothing works, there’s a sequel (obviously) course to Taking Charge of Your PhD. Would I sign up? Maybe!

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