When everyone and everything is interesting, it's hard to say no. But it’s what you leave out, not just what you put in, that forms a story, that makes a life.

I like things. Full disclosure: a lot of things. More things, perhaps, than can be reasonably liked by one person. To me, rose-colored glasses have always seemed a curious concept as the world seems shiny enough without them. So I steer clear of conditions that might increase the likelihood of increasing the world’s sparklehood.

Choice then, becomes the primary tool to navigate like, as it gives each thing its priority, assigning an algorithm for liking, for doing, and for being in the world.

You see, for the like-striken, it’s hard to say no. Everyone and everything is interesting.

As I suffer from this condition myself, something a friend said to me several years ago has stayed with me:

“It’s easy to say no if you love something.”

Wrong. Wrong, I thought at the time. If you love something, say yes. Say yes to everything. Yet what did he mean about loving something, I quietly wondered. Did he mean to imply that having a focus for one’s passion also functioned as a tool to help make better choices?

In a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe said there are two kinds of writers: putter-inners (like himself) or leaver-outers (like Fitzgerald). These categories, like all categories, are of course oversimplified, but they still illustrate a great point. Just like saying yes, saying no creates your story. It’s what you leave out, not just what you put in, that forms a story, that makes a life.

Creative pursuits hold an inherent need for choice, whether we consider music, art, literature, dance, or design. Every great story is surrounded by white space of some kind. Blank spaces are powerful. The author and designer choose not to lay out a page with text to every edge. Its white space is part of the story it tells. What we choose to leave out creates the story.

Consider your favorite novel. You probably don’t recall the most memorable character in the book doing the most mundane of tasks—eating breakfast, getting dressed, using the bathroom, tying shoelaces—day in and day out. The author made an intentional decision to leave these details out. He or she, the leaver-outter in that situation, crafted a story about another arc that didn’t need those ordinaries.

As a reader, you didn’t consider those absences, but that didn’t mean they weren’t there. Their presence, like the silent subjects of sentences or the silent strength of typographic scaffolding, creates the supporting structure to guide the main story, the primary choices, that the author, the artist, the creator is making.

The same is true in layouts in design. In pauses between crescendos in music. In absences in architectural archways. In blanks in the maps of oceans. Rather than fill the spaces with unnecessary distractions, their creators have chosen to leave these areas blank. And the blanks speak for both what is and what is not there.

Choice-makers are doers. And doers seem to also be leaver-outers.

I’ve always paid attention to and wondered at the leaver-outers of the world, so I do often come back to that phrase:

“It’s easy to say no if you love something.”

No matter what it is—be it a business, a person, a piece of art, a career, a song, a family, a way of life, or a pursuit of any kind—it’s easy to say no to all the other choices that will present themselves if you truly love something.

Finding that thing is the hardest part. But that’s another lesson.

Liz danzico

Liz Danzico is creative director for NPR in digital media and founding chairperson of the MFA in Interaction Design program at the School of Visual Arts. She lives in New York and has written for Eye magazine, Fortune magazine, and Interactions magazine. She also writes occasionally at Bobulate.

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