As part of my desire to stay sharp and key in to living as best I can, I like to occasionally take classes or workshops as a sort of tune-up. After all, I’m a life coach and I owe it to my clients to keep my own house in order, so to speak, while shepherding them through their own challenges.

When I read that Sheri Salata, an entrepreneur I’d met back when she was president of HARPO/OWN, was leading a five-day workshop called Write Your New Story 2021, I knew it was the perfect way to set a fresh tone for the year.

Each day last week (it was afternoons for me in the Northeast) we’d meet for an hour and later post our short writing assignments on a private Facebook page. I was one of thousands, so I got right away that my own focus and transparency would enhance my experience in such a large pool of participants.

I had a handful of takeaways from the workshop, but I’m here to share one. The assignment was to answer these questions:

What No’s have you experienced in your life? What opportunities have come out of those No’s?

These are the kinds of probing inquiries I like to give my clients and students in writing prompt classes. They seem simple, but if you give them some real thought, surprises often surface.

Here’s how this one went for me, total stream of consciousness:

Well, let’s see. You tried out for cheerleading in grammar school and got cut. You were devastated, completely ill-equipped to handle rejection. Many years later in adulthood when you told that story to an acquaintance, she brightened, clearly waiting for the redeeming part. There was none. You were afraid to try out for anything for years.

While a senior in high school, despite a lack of family encouragement to go to college, you applied to Trenton State College as a business major (because, why not?). The rejection letter had a bright spot, though. It said if you applied under another major you might get in. Your guidance counselor, noting you were strong in English, recommended you apply as an English major; you got in. Whew. That switch turned out to be pivotal in setting you on the right path in your career.

Years later, established as a reporter and columnist at a mid-sized newspaper, you applied for a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan and got a rejection letter. That, too, came with an understanding you could reapply. You did so the following year and became a part of the 1996-97 class in Ann Arbor. It was a life-changer in your 30s.

OK, so did I kill this exercise or what?

Actually, you haven’t heard the best part. As I scrolled through memories and milestones in my mind, I started to realize how many times I’d heard YES. At one point I was like, wait, has anyone ever said NO to me? (Let’s not get into dating here. That’s an entirely different column).

I started rattling off in my head the jobs I’d held starting in high school:

You worked at a bakery two years before it was legal for you to work. You applied to a department store and got the job. Because your mother was the manager of a temp agency, you got some tough, well-paying assignments and were often asked back. You got into college and quit after a year and half, but your feisty journalism professor intervened and insisted you go on an interview at a local newspaper; you got the part-time job even though you were already working full-time doing clerical work. YES.

After seven months of working two jobs, you quit the boring clerical job, kept working at the journalism one, and went back to college. A major non-profit saw your byline and plucked you from journalism to public relations, a fulltime job with benefits and travel and your own office. When PR didn’t feel like a good fit, you applied to the competitor newspaper, had a solid interview, and were told there were no openings, but you’d get a call when something opened up; you left skeptical, but had a fulltime job there within six weeks. YES.

Your work and ethic there for a decade led to having a respected voice in the community, a promotion, and eventually a move from Central Jersey to the New York City market in what was now web journalism. Fox Sports? YES. NHL? Yes. Oxygen Media? YES. A chance to learn TV producing in New York, of all places? YES. In a post-9/11 world, a decision to add a meaningful life coaching component to your resume? YES.

Does all this sound like bragging? It’s not. It’s a dawning realization.

From 2002 to the present, nearly 20 years if you’re keeping score, I have been an independent contractor. That means applying, networking, pitching and then more applying, networking, pitching and then, well, you get the idea. This did not and does not come easily to me.

And now I know why!

What prepared me for all the tedious rejection that typically needs to happen in order to get one freelance story pitch across the finish line? In, by the way, a completely different journalism landscape.

Early in my career I worked hard and jobs fell in my lap or came for me. Good jobs that tapped into my writing gifts. Also, the right people often came along and suggested I try this or that and I did and was successful. I paid attention and stayed focused and thrived.

It was a big adjustment to switch to independent contractor after a layoff from a TV producing job in 2002 because then it became about generating my own work. I still find it challenging even if overall I enjoy the freedom of it. But my goodness have I beat myself up about it on the regular without a full understanding of how my own life patterns affected me.

Deep breath.

I will take the energy and discovery of this exercise into 2021 as I tackle things I still want to do in journalism, coaching, and teaching. There are a lot of (scary) ebbs and (joyful) flows, but ultimately I feel quite fortunate.