Live Through This

Say Yes

The not-so-secret password to fun, adventure, and lifelong happiness.

Illustration by Marjainez.

Illustration by Marjainez.

Escape of any kind—whether it’s cutting math class, busting out of prison, or taking a solo trip to Bali—rarely happens by accident. It usually requires serious action, something I didn’t understand for the longest. I spent my entire youth sitting around waiting for the boys I had crushes on to magically fall in love with me, and was somewhat flummoxed when they didn’t. It never occurred to me that I would actually have to do something to make that happen.

While my total passivity in all matters concerning my own preferences and desires was totally ineffective in getting those preferences and desires fulfilled, I wasn’t ready to just get out there and TAKE WHAT WAS MINE. I was still too insecure, too unsteady on my feet, to make demands. In retrospect, I bet that if I had just insisted on getting what I wanted, I would have gotten most of it. Even if you’d told me that then, though, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. What I do wish I knew then is something I’ve only recently discovered, which you will hopefully make good use of while you’re still young. It’s the secret to making all kinds of fun things happen, and it can be summarized thusly: SAY YES.

Saying yes, as a rule, to what’s offered/suggested to you is a perfect halfway point between going out there and taking the world by storm and waiting in your bedroom for something exciting to happen. (Sitting in your bedroom is a wonderful way to make certain things happen, like taking naps and singing songs to your cats, but you know what I mean.) Saying yes is the first and easiest way to actively choose a different kind of life.

The summer after my freshman year of high school, I met a pair of fraternal twin boys. They were two years older than I was, and the best-looking, most mysterious creatures for miles, the kind of boys that prompt urban legends. (“I heard X was in a mental institution!” “I heard Y climbed out the window of his English class!”) One of them was fair and as handsome as a movie star from the ’50s; the other one was dark and brooding and, oh god yes, my favorite. The brooding boy was my friend, in a way. On a few occasions, he picked me up in his parents’ minivan and we cruised the streets. Sometimes he came over and skulked around my bedroom, looking at my bookshelves and photos and (I hoped) me. I would sweat profusely and not know what to say. Whenever he asked me to do anything, I quickly did the math in my head: Was I too terrified to say yes? I usually was.

The big test was when he invited me to go to his parents’ house in the country for a weekend—with other friends, not just the two of us. I lied and told him my mother wouldn’t let me. The idea of spending that much time with him was too scary to be even a little bit fun. What if (IF!) I had to go to the bathroom? What if I farted? What if he tried to kiss me? (OK, maybe that one was an exciting/scary idea.) What if he realized I’d told him that Nebraska was my favorite Bruce Springsteen record because it was the only one I had? I felt like I had to say no. Looking back, I think the boy thought I was vaguely mysterious, sort of unknowable and cool (ha!), when in reality, I was too afraid to speak.

College was much the same—I liked boys but didn’t know how to actually make them my boyfriends. I had friends I loved but was afraid to tell them when they hurt my feelings. I was basically the most extroverted, loudmouthed shrinking violet on the planet. Most of my professors thought I was an idiot, and they were right. They were right because I was pouring all my energy into my diaries, and none of it into action. I wanted to be a writer, but I was so scared of taking a college-level fiction class that I (laughably) proclaimed it was “beneath me.” (It wasn’t.)

But all that time, I was getting ready. You know how marathon runners eat a huge plate of pasta the night before a race? That was me, for my whole life. I was storing things up—unrequited love, ambition, drive, all of it. As soon as I graduated, something clicked. I’m not sure what the magic ingredient was that prodded me into action—it may have been being far away from the competitive atmosphere of college, and feeling (right or wrong) like I was finally an Adult. But something got me off my ass, and I started to WRITE. I wrote a novel in three months, and then another, and another. I was on fire. Were my novels any good? No. But it didn’t matter. Because I was in motion, working as hard as I possibly could toward a goal. You couldn’t have stopped me with a brick wall.

I applied to four graduate schools, and got into one. Disappointingly, it was the one I least wanted to go to: The University of Wisconsin–Madison (go Badgers!) was the farthest one from my home, in the town my (serious) boyfriend was least psyched to move to. I was scared to move away, and to force an unwanted change on my partner. I made myself do it anyway. And grad school turned out to be one of the greatest experiences of my life. I loved the program and I loved living in Madison, and the boyfriend who moved there with me became my husband, another big YES in my life. (If living through three Wisconsin winters with someone doesn’t seal the deal, nothing will.) I never would have had that experience had I followed my instincts instead of throwing caution to the wind. Because at the time, my instincts were inclined toward self-protection, not growth or happiness. They were based on fear, which is the worst reason not to do something that you suspect might be good for you.

I’m writing this to you from a borrowed bedroom in Nashville, Tennessee, some 900 miles from my bedroom in Brooklyn, my husband and our four-month-old son in tow. Why? Because I said yes to a job that, at first glance, sounded impossible. My mentor from Wisconsin (see above) had recently moved to a job at Vanderbilt University, and there was a job opening for the spring semester—just one semester, four measly months. The pay wasn’t great. They wouldn’t pay our moving expenses, or put us up, or offer benefits. I said yes anyway. We found a house swap, strapped the baby in the car, and sent the cats to my parents’ house. I’m not sure it makes great financial sense, but it makes FABULOUS adventure sense. The questions I asked myself were: Will this opportunity ever present itself again? Will I regret it forever if I say no out of fear? So I said yes.

If I’m being fully honest, I don’t always follow my own advice. Whenever I get an email about someone’s birthday party at a bar, I know there is a 3% chance that I’ll go. The same goes for seeing anyone’s band, and the chances dwindle down to nothing if the band is supposed to play after 10 PM. I could blame this on my very small baby, but it’s not his fault. I don’t much like going out at night, and parties full of strangers make me anxious. Still, what fun stories am I missing out on by staying home?

Here in Nashville, I drive by a row of bars—honky-tonks, they’re called—every day, doubtful that I’ll ever go inside. Maybe if I say yes here, right now, it’ll force me out of my comfort zone. Put the baby to bed and put on my dancing shoes? Say yes, Emma, say yes. ♦


  • sandyalison February 19th, 2014 3:26 PM

    Thank you for the sage wisdom, Emma. All too often I said no in high school and most of college. But in the last year, I said yes more times than I can count. I quit my job. I cut off all of my hair. I joined a gym and started working out with a trainer – and I am getting stronger (go figure?). I applied to grad school, something I’d been putting off since 2009, and I got in. I am pushing through this winter, eyes ahead on the spring. I’m going to run an 8K. I’m going to quit another job. I’m going to be a student, and say yes to every opportunity on every bulletin board on campus, because who knows where the ride shares and cook offs and open mics will take me?

    Very excited for The Vacationers, and bravo! You saying yes is a wonderful thing.

  • Laia February 19th, 2014 4:13 PM

    <3 everything about this.

  • paige.xo February 19th, 2014 4:16 PM

    A few years ago, I realised that keeping up with everyones expectations of me was boring and depressing, so I started living for myself. I say no to things that I don’t want to do and saying yes to everything that interests me. You really can do whatever you want. I mean, it sounds really lame, but nothing is impossible if you work hard for it.

  • elouisec17 February 19th, 2014 4:55 PM

    I’m nearing the end of school and hopefully approaching the start of university in another year and a half. All throughout school I was and still am known as the ‘quiet’ and ‘nice’ girl who sits in the corner and smiles all the time. I’ve let my shyness and like paige, everyone’s expectations of me hold me back. I don’t really think I have achieved something that I am truly proud of mostly because I haven’t pushed myself out of my comfort zone, too afraid of judgement.

    I can totally relate to the boyfriend situation. I’m seventeen, never had a boyfriend but plenty of crushes. Too afraid to let them see the real ‘me’. I want to move forward with my life this year instead of being stuck in the same rut. I’m adopting the ‘just say yes’ slogan to the things I think I will regret if I don’t.

    Thank you for this great article, It’s a true inspiration to be more pro active in my own life. I guess my shyness is something that I just have to fight along the way!

  • mollysee February 19th, 2014 4:55 PM

    I can relate to this so much. I recently graduated from college. I’ve always been reserved and gravitated toward not doing things over doing things. And I find myself regretting a lot. There is so much more I could’ve done in high school and college, so I blame myself when I feel frustrated with where I am in my life now. This motivates me to start moving more, not make excuses, and say yes to myself.


  • itsrebeccam February 19th, 2014 5:49 PM

    This is everything I never thought I needed and more.

  • Stephanie February 19th, 2014 5:58 PM

    Emma, you are my hero! I heart this so hard!

  • meghanj February 19th, 2014 7:09 PM

    Emma I am always struck when reading your articles about the parallels in our lives, I read things you have written for Rookie and take comfort in the fact that there is another creature like me and her life has turned out fine (as far as I can gather). Thank you for your words, they really mean a lot to me.

    • Emma S. February 19th, 2014 8:39 PM

      Life has turned out better than fine! Life is terrific. Thanks, Meghan. xoxoxo

  • vintagebarbie February 19th, 2014 7:12 PM

    I love this post and the artwork to go with it!

  • Estelle February 19th, 2014 9:00 PM

    OMG does your mentor’s name rhyme with Blorrie Bloore?? Love this x

  • stephinfection February 19th, 2014 9:04 PM

    Ugh I was feeling so self-doubty and pessimistic about the future all day today and this made me feel SO much better. Sometimes I get trapped in these spirally thoughts about how I’ve been too tentative and insecure my whole life and oh my god it’s too late for me I’ve wasted my life! But like, I’m 21. And a million times more confident and ready to stop being afraid of the world than I was at 16. So, yeah this is lovely and exactly what I need to hear at exactly the right moment! <3

  • clairedh February 19th, 2014 9:53 PM

    My bf and I on our trip to America stayed with the coolest guy in Boston through airbnb. He didn’t have much of a day job so when he asked us if we wanted to do stuff, even mundane stuff, we just SAID YES. It turned out to be one of the best experiences ever. It’s so awesome as an introvert to meet people who openly and honestly want you to come with them on adventures. My next goal is to take the YES attitude into the rest of my life and become someone who initiates adventures.
    Ps. I feel like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is like the super exaggerated version of this concept haha

  • sophieneu February 19th, 2014 10:21 PM

    wowow this is one of the greatest things I’ve ever read on here. I’m only a sophomore in high school, but I see myself slipping more and more into an introverted lifestyle when really I just want to be out experiencing things like every other high school kid ever!! And that’s because of my fear of saying yes and fear of asking and getting rejected and I’m rambling but I just wanted to say THANK YOU FOR THIS! <3

    • mintskaa February 23rd, 2014 9:29 AM

      girl, i feel you so hard! i’m a sophomore too, and i feel like i’ve become more insecure and taken on the image of that ~introverted quiet gal~ since freshman year. gotta get outta this shell. best of luck to us!

  • sarahkemi February 19th, 2014 11:43 PM

    This was exactly what I needed today <3

  • Violet February 20th, 2014 12:20 AM

    This is so totally me ! ! !
    Thank you so much Emma, I needed this as well.
    You’ve just put words on a feeling that lasted for years which I couldn’t really describe or stop.
    Diagnostic is the first step to healing, right?

  • ScarlettRed February 20th, 2014 10:10 AM

    I relate to this and love it! Bookmarked as a Rookie favourite.


  • thebrownette February 20th, 2014 11:27 AM

    This is a great article. Personally, I’ve struggled with the same thing, but my apprehensiveness to Do Things stems from not wanting to ask my parents’ permission. The more I do it, the less uncomfortable it is.
    TIPS for asking permission:

    1)Plan ahead. Know what you’re going to ask, how you’re going to ask it, and anticipate what they’re going to ask you in return (transportation plans, safety, etc.). Have an answer. BE PREPARED.

    2)Ask them when you can *sense* they’re in a good mood. You know what I mean. You can kinda tell when your parents are upset, even if someone who doesn’t know them as well wouldn’t notice it.

    3) Just take a deep breath and do it. You already know what you’re going to say, so just say it. Be prepared for them to say no and react maturely if they do. Trust me, it’s best!

    I know this seems pretty basic, but this really helped me get over my anxiety of Asking To Do Things I Wanted To Do. Now I have no problem asking for permission to drive to friend’s/go to a concert/volunteer/etc.

    The more you do it, the less uncomfortable it will be, I promise!

  • Nadifa February 20th, 2014 9:17 PM

    This is a great article. Thanks for the tips.
    And your high school crush is one of the twins…….. Because of that, I immediately clicked :’(

  • Ella W February 21st, 2014 10:47 AM

    So much love for this..

  • Tiana February 21st, 2014 12:41 PM

    Love this article so much! Definitely going to start saying yes more rather that sitting alone in my bedroom. :p

  • double-fantasy February 22nd, 2014 1:17 AM

    hell yeah!!! this is so true and so important. i only really learned/realized this not that long ago, and i’m still trying to really follow through with this kind of attitude. but like…. it’s completely unbelievable the kind of stuff its brought into my life already. idk. its important as fuck

  • mintskaa February 23rd, 2014 9:31 AM

    Emma, thank you for this amaazing article! I can relate to it so much & I’m so happy for you and how you pursue your dreams and take control in such a bold and fabulous way. How did you get past that insecurity that was holding you back from doing things?

  • lovebronze February 24th, 2014 10:38 PM

    This article is absolutely lovely to me because it describes ME, to a tee in fact. The fear. The worrying. The unused (and hopefully soon used) ambition.

    & as matter of fact… I think it just helped me pick what college I’m going to attend. Thank you for sharing this. <3

  • Miss Erin February 27th, 2014 1:42 AM

    Thank you for this. SUCH a beautiful article. Words feel inadequate but this is such a good thing for me to read right now.