Why I Said No To The Job Of A Lifetime & Yes To Myself

Photo courtesy of Celina Caesar-Chavannes.
From 2005 to 2015, I owned a successful, award-winning research management firm. I read books on how to succeed and what strategies to use to get ahead. So when Sheryl Sandberg said to Lean In, I leaned in twice as far, because as Black women we are supposed to do everything twice as much as our counterparts. I almost fell flat on my face — I was putting so much into my business and less on the truly important things in my life, like family and friendships. (I later realized that I did not need the Sandberg lean, I needed the Celina swag.)
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With that failed attempt, I moved onto Shonda Rhimes’s book, Year of Yes. I figured, Shonda is a Black woman, let me try her method. So I did. I spent months saying yes to just about every opportunity that came my way. I purchased two new condos (one we owned, the other fell through because we could not afford it), started working with different clients, went on lots of family vacations, ate out, went to events, won awards, and had the time of my life. I even ran as the Liberal Member of Parliament for Whitby in 2015 and won. The universe was offering a smorgasbord of opportunity, and I sat at the table eating her bounty.

I was in the prime of my life, in the job of a lifetime, but I immediately started to get an uneasy feeling.

But within a very short time after winning the election, I changed course. And I started to say no. I was in the prime of my life, in the job of a lifetime, but I immediately started to get an uneasy feeling. I knew I was living my purpose in helping people, but it just did not fit. I often said that the job was killing me… literally. When it was time to renew my Parliamentary Secretary role with the Prime Minister, I did not fight for it. I did not want it. I felt it was more of a title, and less about actual work. When I was asked to renew my Parliamentary Secretary role with International Development, I said no. I loved the position and the work Canadians were doing around the world for the most marginalized, but it was no longer for me. When I thought about running again for my seat, I knew that it was no longer a fit, and said no to putting my name forward. When it was time to decide to stay with the party that I started my political adventure with, I knew that it was time to walk away, sit as an Independent, and not settle for less than what I wanted for myself or the people I represented.
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With each no, I felt more and more guilty. Here I was, privileged to have a seat at the table, but I did not want it. Here I was, advocating for women to stand up and smash glass ceilings while turning down opportunities that would give me more prestige. Here I was, telling young women to run in politics while walking away, even though I knew I could win the next election. Why couldn’t I just stay put and say yes? Why couldn’t I go with the flow?
I recently picked up Shonda’s book again and delicately turned the pages. How did I go from a year of yes to the personification of no? The answer lay on the fifth page, in a quote by Cristina Yang, the character played by Sandra Oh on Grey’s Anatomy: “If you want crappy things to stop happening to you, then stop accepting crap and demand something more.” This, I realized, was the hidden message in Year of Yes — with every no I said to someone else, I was saying yes to myself. It was a painfully beautiful realization of my power and autonomy to make my own decisions. I was not about to wait for someone to throw me out of politics or a political party. I was not going to give someone else the authority to decide my fate. I was going to say no, because it felt right, and it felt right because I knew my worth. I am valuable. 
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The power to walk away, to say no, to never settle, comes with a deep understanding of who you are and what you bring to any situation or organization.

The power to walk away, to say no, to never settle, comes with a deep understanding of who you are and what you bring to any situation or organization. When I no longer felt valued, or that the value I brought was appreciated, it was easy to walk away. I knew full well that I had capacity to contribute, make a difference, and smash glass ceilings through other mechanisms. Saying yes would have made me feel crappy, and compromised my integrity and what I believed in. Saying no was my salvation. A chance to stop accepting crap and demand more. Not just for me, but the communities of people that I serve and love. 
So, in 2020, I will begin a year of yes again. Yes to everything that I am passionate about. Yes to undertaking projects and lending my brand to organizations that make a difference in our communities. 
When describing the exit of Cristina Yang from Grey’s Anatomy, Shonda writes, “She has learned to not let go of the pieces of herself that she needs in order to be what someone else wants. She learned not to compromise. She’s learned not to settle. She learned, as difficult as it is, how to be her own sun.” She could have written this about me exiting politics and exiting 2019. 
It’s time to say yes to the sun. Yes to being unapologetic. Yes to being authentic. Yes to being me.
Celina Caesar-Chavannes is the former Liberal MP for Whitby and a mother of three. A thought leader in equity and inclusion, she is currently working as a consultant and completing a PhD in Organizational Leadership. Read her Refinery29 column about hair discrimination here, and follow her on Twitter @iamcelinacc.
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