The arduous art-form of saying “No”

Neha Lee
6 min readNov 20, 2020


Understanding contractual language and saying no to bad business deals

Artwork by Neha Lee

2020 has been many things but most importantly, for me, a teacher. “How could the most disastrous year of my life teach you anything”, you ask? Well for starters, it helped me find my voice.

Don’t get me wrong, if you know me you’ll know that I always had one–an introverted and afraid one–but things are different now. Growing up, I was always concerned about what peope would think/say about me. But what I’ve learned, with time and many unpleasant experiences, is that if I don't want to be associated with such people then I personally do not care what they have to say.

We are taught to purge ourselves of negativity, toxic behaviors and bad habits. We spend years building our talents, habits, routines, friendships and social lives but why weren’t we taught to apply these good behaviors when it came to doing business?

Why do we accept a bad deal even though we know it’s bad?

Why are we not taught to say “NO” when it comes to a bad job just like we are taught to say “NO” to a bad touch?

Why are we treated like another cog in the machine when we aren't cogs, but people?

We read, we talk, we walk, we speak, we understand. When did we become things and when did human value become disposable?

I am an Art Director and have been successfully freelancing for approximately a year now. I have always enjoyed contractual work and have found it liberating. Above anything else, I feel respected- my opinions, ideas, creativity, expertise and most importantly, my time, is respected. In these 12 months, I have seen many clients come and go. I’ve have had fantastic experiences and some really terrible ones too. I learnt to say NO. I learnt to stand up for my skills and my experience and I have walked away from opportunities that did not make me feel good. Of course, it was difficult at first…

“Maybe you shouldn't be so picky, Neha”

“Maybe you are over reacting”

“If you say no who knows when you’ll find your next gig”

“Am I being too emotional?”

“Hmm.. I could use the money right now”

“This would look great on my resume even if it doesn’t pay well”

“If this is the standard contract that the other contractors have signed it must be fair….right”

These are just some of the thoughts that would fill my day when I had a new opportunity come my way. I am lucky and blessed to have a job during a global pandemic and further blessed to be in a position to choose who I work with/for. I have learnt that self love is applicable not only in my personal life but in my professional life as well.

Here are 20 things I have learned as a freelancer in 2020:

  1. Trust your gut. Where there is smoke, there is fire.
  2. Read the contract. Not once, not twice, but AT LEAST three times.
  3. If you have a trustworthy person in your life, a partner/husband/wife/business consultant/friend, let them read it too. Sometimes having an extra pair of eyes helps you see things in a completely different light and from a different perspective.
  4. If you are a auditory learner, have the contract read to you.
  5. Be clear about your base pay.
    Your hourly rate needs to make you happy. If it makes you unhappy, you will be unhappy performing the task EVEN if it is something you love to do. Do not settle for less- you’ve worked hard to finesse your skills.
  6. Do not let someone tell you your hourly is too high when you have the experience. Remember as a self employed person you are in charge of paying your own taxes, your insurance, subscriptions, softwares, hardware and other utilities that help make your space a functional work space. You are running your business. Don’t let a stranger disrespect that.
  7. Be precise about your job description.
    DO NOT let an employer add services you do not provide in your contract. These words are legally binding. Failure to perform services will put you, the freelancer, in a bad position subject to legal repercussions.
  8. Just because a job “looks good” doesn’t meant its good for you.
  9. When verbal agreements do not match the written contract- RUN.
    Unless you want to negotiate. That’s YOUR choice. You are offering them YOUR services, not the other way round.
  10. You do not have to explain your decisions to anyone.
    If you weren’t happy with the terms and conditions you do not have to explain anything. They are not entitled to an explanation. However, if you want to point out where mistakes were made then you have every right to as well. Remember, its your business.
  11. Poor communication from your potential employer is a RED flag.
    This will be a factor that will affect you adversely. Waiting on someone for a response, especially if he/she/they are bad communicators, is disrespectful of everyones time especially yours.
  12. NEVER lie about your skill set.
    If there is a task you don't do as well as others in your skill set be honest about it. Lying about a skill you don’t have will hurt you, directly or indirectly.
  13. Do not compromise on your goals for the sake of a temporary contract.
    Do not let a stranger make you feel small because you said no. Again, it’s not their business. It’s yours.
  14. Contracts do not need to have tricky language.
    They only need to be clear. Using words that can mean many things can lead to vagueness and miscommunication. Do not use words you don't normally use to describe a task. Every word is legally binding.
  15. Opportunities come and go. Don’t beat yourself up.
    My father would always say, “As one bus leaves, another arrives.”
  16. NEVER sign a contract right away.
    Let it simmer. Think about it before you make a decision. What might feel great at the beginning might start to rot in a matter of hours.
  17. Mistakes happen. We are humans. NOT cogs.
  18. Keep Hustling. Yes, it can be discouraging but don’t stop the hustle. It pays off. I guarantee it.
  19. Your intuition is not as random as it seems. We might not always realise it, but the brain is constantly comparing our current situation with our memories of previous situations. So when a decision feels intuitive, it might in fact be based on years of experience.
  20. Be kind to yourself, Always.

When we are children, we learn (almost everything) through practice. If we do not practice saying no, then we will never be comfortable saying no. We learn from experiences and mistakes, and we all learn differently. I find that hourly work especially in the design/art world is often disrespected. Rules that apply to most hourly professions don't necessarily apply to us as our work is “JUST creative” and not analytical enough. As artists and designers we have spent years honing our skills, shown great resilience every time someone said “This should be a hobby” or “There’s no money in it” and worked as hard as anyone else. If you, or a friend, have had similar experiences, let’s chat!