The Power of No, artwork by Tala Safie

Sabrina Hall is an interactive art director and graphic designer with Scholastic. Born and raised in the Bronx, New York City, by parents who immigrated from Costa Rica, she believes that “as a woman of color… the design field lacks diversity of thoughts on various topics, such as work-life balance.” Here, she shares how she gained the confidence to manage her work and personal life better by learning to say “no.”

When I was a freelancer for around six years, I was always working, looking for work, or pitching my work. My fear of not succeeding as an independent consultant drove me to say “yes” to every project and work opportunity that appeared.

Things changed a few years ago, when I was in the midst of a large project, and working 70 hours per week to ensure that I made the deadline. I was beginning to lose steam after six weeks of working like this. It was a Friday evening and I had been emailing with the client back and forth to discuss their feedback. As 11 p.m. approached, I asked the client one last question, to which they replied something along the lines of, “No, I can’t get back to you on this now—it can wait until Monday.” It made me think: Why didn’t I say “no” to the timeline of this project? Or at least to the one extra round of feedback that was outside of the contract parameters?

As a woman of color in the design industry, I worried that I would not be given the chance to work on certain projects if I said ‘no.’

Why did I say yes to what would amount to a perfect storm of exhaustion? This was a turning point for me; I realized I needed to prioritize my wellbeing, both inside and outside of work.  A few months later, another project came in from the same client. They had a six week deadline to which I kindly said “no.” I informed the client the job would take me 10 weeks to complete. They still hired me. From then on, I realized the power of “no,” and how it enabled me to prioritize my time and to work smarter.

Previous to that revelation, I worried that I would not be given the chance to work on certain projects if I said “no.” As the only woman of color designer at a lot of my workplaces, I felt like I had to prove myself all the time. I was fearful that opportunities would pass me by if I said “no” to the circumstances surrounding them. I have had experiences where my saying “no” to a demand to stay late without reason was seen as “abrasive,” “angry,” or “aggressive.” Now, my strength comes from those experiences, and enables me to speak up for myself and my work.

Ladies Get Paid—the platform and private Slack group for sharing advice and tools for career advancement—has been a brilliant resource. I discovered it when I was negotiating a contract for a job. I knew that I deserved to earn more money, but didn’t know where to start. In the group I saw that women were tackling this and other questions, such as ways to manage time, prioritize their pay, and figure out a better work-life balance. Through learning from the experiences of others, I managed to negotiate a fair contract for myself.

Imposter syndrome ultimately proved harmful, because I was always trying to outdo my own work.

I’ve always been someone who placed a lot of pressure on myself to succeed. For years I had doubts about my work, and for some time I felt unable to thrive and survive as a freelancer. I so often find that I’m one of just two or three women of color at work. This used to make me doubt myself and question whether I deserved to be in the design space. I felt like I had to work harder to prove—both to myself and to others—that I did. It created a cycle of always working, and of always saying “yes.” 

Imposter syndrome was a helpful catalyst in propelling me to move forward through the first years of freelancing. But it ultimately proved harmful, because I was always trying to outdo my own work. I eventually came to realize people wanted to work with me for my approach and my design style. I still struggle with imposter syndrome from time to time, but remind myself that it will pass—that I’ve worked very hard to succeed and thrive as a designer.