'Maybe' is Selfish

tl;dr Don’t hedge your answers when somebody is asking you for a commitment; “Do, or do not. There is no try.” (Yoda) Saying “maybe” is, at best, your way of preserving your ego, and at worst, your way of trying to avoid a commitment.

Michele Leroux Bustamente tweeted her fondness for this article, and while I agree with the author’s premise, I disagree with some of the reasoning and rationale, and with some of the proposed recommendations on how to proceed.

Critique #1: ‘Maybe’ means …

To start, the author says (complete with snowy-dog meme picture that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the actual text), “You can’t execute on maybe. You say maybe because you falsely believe it’s helpful. In reality, you need to be liked. … You say maybe because you want to feel included and important without encumbering yourself.”

Actually, my experience with people who waffle on these answers suggests some far more subtle things are at stake here:

  • Isn’t it kinder? I don’t want to say “no” out loud because, well, “no” just has such a bad reputation. I mean, “no” is the equivalent of rejection, and who really likes rejection, right? Isn’t it kinder to give them an ambiguous answer so that they can walk away with their pride intact?

  • I don’t know if I can. Wow, your request challenges me, and I’m genuinely not sure if I can do it. It’s potentially something I could do, but there’s obstacles, including but not limited to: my time, my skills, and/or my faith that I could really do it.

  • I KNOW I can’t do it, but I don’t want you to think less of me. My ego’s on the line here, somehow, and while I don’t want to agree, and have you hold me accountable when I fail later, I also don’t want to disagree and then have to explain why I’m saying no. (A lot of software developers fall into this one, it seems.)

  • I don’t believe in what you’re doing. Yeah, that experiment you’re running that will generate all kinds of money playing the stock market? Yeah, apparently the only one who doesn’t know you’re full of shit is you, and I don’t really want to be the one to tell you.

  • I don’t think you’ll actually execute. You’ve had all these requests before, and they never actually amounted to anything, and rather than argue with you about it, it’s easier to just toss off a “maybe” and remain ambiguous.

  • I really don’t want to be responsible for this. What you are proposing is a thing that might backfire, and if it does, I don’t want to be in the backdraft when it blows up.

I’m sure there’s other reasons, too. Those are what leaped to mind first.

Critique #2: ‘Maybe’ is harmful

He continues: “Every time you say maybe, you paralyze others. Should we find someone to do the job, or will you? Will you feel offended if you show up and someone else has filled your role?”

Partial agreement; in some cases, you’re paralyzing the other with your maybe, but in most cases, it’s a far different problem.

Interlude: 50 Shades of ‘Maybe’

By the way, there’s more than one way to say “maybe”; the author points out four, but there’s literally thousands:

  • “If I can.”
  • “I’ll do my best.”
  • “I’d like to, but I’m not sure…”
  • “If I don’t show up, move forward without me.”
  • “It’s distinctly possible.”
  • “I can see both sides.”
  • “That’s an interesting idea, but…”
  • “Have you gotten approval for this yet?”

… and so on. One of my favorites, of course, is the classic “Go ask your mother.” Or its corollary, “If it’s OK with (somebody else), it’s OK with me.”

Problem: Not committing creates miscommunication

It’s been my experience that a “maybe”’s biggest problem is the fact that people will hear whatever they want to hear, so if you come back with a “maybe”, those who want to hear “yes” will hear it, and those who want to hear “no” will hear it. We learn this very quickly as parents:

  • Kid: “Mommy, can I have a pony?”
  • Mom: “Maybe someday, dear…”
  • Kid: thinking That’s not a no! That means yes! Hooray!

What’s even better about it, “maybe”, when interpreted this way as an answer, has the pleasing short-term effect to us of making the questioner go away! Success! Our answer actually accomplished more than what we thought it would do, so internally we reinforce the logic we used from the earlier list above (kinder/don’t know/don’t believe/whatever), and we will start going to it even more often.

At least, until it blows up on us.

Problem: The time bomb of percevied commitment

Because that’s the lurking danger: “Maybe” is a ticking time bomb of perceived commitment, and a lurking miscommunication waiting to happen, which will usually end in bad emotional juju between these two people, and potentially a lot more (depending on the situation):

  • Employee: “Hey, boss, can I have that promotion?”
  • Boss: “Maybe somebody, Bob…”
  • Employee: thinking Wow! He thinks I could do it! I mean, he didn’t say “yes”, but he can’t really commit to it right now since there’s all this HR nonsense he has to go through, but if he didn’t think I was right for it, he’d have just said so, right?
  • Employee: (later that night at home) “Honey, guess what? My boss thinks I’m good for that promotion! Go ahead and book the expensive vacation to Hawaii, we’re going to celebrate!”

Then, when the miscommunication becomes clear, Really Bad Things come to roost. I don’t have to draw an example—I’m sure each reader has their own story they can draw on.

Problem: Honesty and reputation

“Maybe” has another nasty side effect—when that time bomb finally does go off, and you are presented with the need to clarify your “maybe”, usually in the opposite result than what the requestor assumed, you will develop a reputation in their mind for being dishonest.

  • Employee: “Hey, boss, can I have that promotion?”
  • Boss: “Maybe somebody, Bob…”
  • (Three months pass…)
  • Boss: “And I’m proud to announce that Janet has received the promotion.”
  • Employee: thinking THAT DICK! He promised it to ME! OK, boss-man, you want to play it that way? Fine, two can play at that game, you back-stabbing liar.

If the conversation ever goes to a verbal one, you will be on the defensive immediately, and you will have to remember that you said “maybe”, first of all, and then, be placed in the unenviable position of having to explain—now, while emotions are running high—what you “really meant” by that “maybe”.

These conversations generally don’t end well.

Solution: Commit

Frankly, the answer to the problem lies in the realization that not committing is not acceptable. And “committing” here doesn’t mean “yes”; yes, there’s a group of people out there who believe you should say “yes” to everything because then your life is far more interesting and challenging than if you didn’t (and they even made a move out of it), and frankly, yes, you should take a few chances here and there, I agree.

But what I’m talking about here is more fundamental: commit to either a “yes” or a “no”. It’s harder, but it’s more honest, and yes, sometimes it requires you to face that argument up front that might get pushed off to later if you just do a “maybe”:

  • Kid: “Mommy, can I have a pony?”
  • Mom: “No, dear. Horses are expensive, you’re too young, and we live in an apartment.”
  • Kid: “WAAAAAH!”

Having said that, though, sometimes we can actually get to a better result by being honest this way:

  • Kid: “Mommy, can I have a pony?”
  • Mom: “No, dear. Horses are expensive, you’re too young, and we live in an apartment.”
  • Kid: “WAAAAAH! You think I’m not old enough to have a pet!”
  • Mom: “Oh, dear, is that what this is about? Tell you what—let’s start with a goldfish, and if you take good care of it for a year, we can talk about getting a kitten or puppy after that, OK?”
  • Kid: sniffling “But why can’t I have a kitten or puppy NOW?”
  • Mom: “I need you to show me you’re responsible enough to remember your chores before I can feel good about getting you something that will depend on you more.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. The communication is clear, unambiguous, and direct. And what’s better, you don’t have the uncomfortable situation of being forced to explain a miscommunication later.

  • Employee: “Hey, boss, can I have that promotion?”
  • Boss: “Wow, Bob, I didn’t know you were interested. Hmm. Here’s the thing: you’re missing some of the key skills that promotion would require, and I’m not certain you’d have a chance to demonstrate those skills before the promotion date closes. As it stands right now, no, I wouldn’t give it to you.”
  • Employee: “Oh. Wow.”
  • Boss: “That said, Bob, I like that you’re interested in growing your career, and that’s part of what I’m here for, so let’s you and I start talking about how we can get you those skills so that you’re primed for the next opportunity that arises. Would that work for you?”
  • Employee: “Oh! Wow! Yeah, that’s great!”

Net result: positive progress, and crystal-clear perspective.

Solution: How to Commit

The original author offers a list of very New-Age-ish “Follow your energy” stuff that I don’t find particularly helpful. (And I find his “Execute on compassion” to be particularly dangerous, since—as mentioned above—most people think the compassionate thing to do is to say “maybe” rather than “no”.)

Here’s my list of suggestions:

  1. Don’t answer right away. These questions often come out of nowhere, and most of us don’t wake up in the morning and contemplate all the answers to the questions we might be asked today. So give yourself a moment to think about it first. “Wow Bob, I didn’t know you were intersted. Hmmm.” Then, just shut up and think.
  2. What does your intuition tell you? Our intuition is pretty often accurate, so at least take a moment to reflect on what it’s telling you. It’s not the complete answer, but it’s a good sign that this is where your heart wants to go.
  3. Spend a few minutes weighing pro and con. What would be the result if you said yes? What would be the result if you said no? How does this decision actually affect anything? If we discover that the answer is pretty trivial, then pffft who cares? Go with yes. (Why yes? Because of that earlier “always answer yes” thing—it turns out that if there’s not much downside, your life will probably be more interesting if you go with “yes” than “no”. Carpe diem, man.)
  4. Express your commitment clearly. The words “yes” or “no” should show up there somewhere. Forcing yourself to say “yes” or “no” makes your communication that much more clear, and that much less ambiguous. It will not always go over well, but it’s far better to just take the bitter medicine now than let it fester, ferment, and get that much more bitter (and that much larger!) in the future.
  5. Be willing to express your rationale. Notice that I say “rationale” there, instead of “reasons”. “Reason” is something that implies logic and fact, and sometimes, you just simply don’t want to do this. That’s OK! Sometimes, we don’t want to do things. I don’t want to eat broccoli. My kids don’t want to do homework. Heck, I don’t want to do homework. And those are legitimate feelings, so long as they’re taken into consideration appropriately. “Honey, Daddy just hates horses. Can’t stand them. If you want to get a horse when you move out of the house, that’s up to you, but that’s just not something I’m going to let in while I’m living here.” They may disagree with it, and want to claim that your feelings are misplaced or that you should be able to set those aside for the good-of-whatever, but now at least we’re being clear about what’s going on, and that allows the conversation to move to a new level of communication.

‘Maybe’s are for emotional wimps

In the end, really, the use of a “maybe” is your way of wimping out of something you don’t want to do, and not only are you trading off pain now for pain later, but you’re also not being honest with anybody—not the questioner, and not with yourself. You’re selling your own feelings and decision-making process short, and you’re setting yourself up for a harder process later.

“Do, or do not. There is no try.” —Yoda

Just commit.