I was midway through Zendaya’s Vogue July cover story when I paused, scrolled back up and reread one of the paragraphs a little more slowly:
“I got in a room with the heads of Disney Channel,” Zendaya says, recounting a meeting that took place four years ago, when she was sixteen…For her to sign on to K.C. Undercover, she decided, Disney would need to meet demands. First they would need to make her a producer. Next she objected to the show’s title, which at the time was Super Awesome Katy. “I was like, ‘The title is whack. That’s gonna change.’ ” She then rejected her character’s name (“Do I look like a Katy to you?”) and insisted that the show feature a family of color.
Sixteen years old. Apparently, my eyes hadn’t deceived me when I read it the first time. Her age startled me in the context of this particular story because the “demands” she makes seem more in line with the experienced wisdom of a world-worn, middle-aged adult — not only because she was smart to dismiss the show’s hilariously bad original title (Super Awesome Katy?? R U kidding me, Disney?), but also, more importantly, because she clearly possessed the ability to say “no” — a skill that most full-grown adults struggle to attain over the course of their life.
Zendaya’s “nos” didn’t stop there. She goes on the describe how she rejected additional proposed aspects of her would-be character: “I wanted to make sure that she wasn’t good at singing or acting or dancing. That she wasn’t artistically inclined. I didn’t want them to all of a sudden be like, ‘Oh, yeah, and then she sings this episode!’ No. She can’t dance; she can’t sing. She can’t do that stuff. There are other things that a girl can be.”
“There are other things that a girl can be.” As I read these words, they rang with double meaning, because just like there are other things a girl can be besides artistically inclined, there are also other things a girl can be besides inherently, relentlessly, habitually acquiescent.
Mental-health therapist Megan Bruneau writes in Forbes, “So many of us – and particularly women – have a hard time saying, ‘No.’ We’re socialized to help, to nurture, to put others first; to never turn down opportunities or disappoint. And so we take on work that we don’t need to take on. We attend events that we don’t want to attend. We go on dates when we’d much rather be doing laundry or catching up on emails or reading.”
In other words, our inability to say “no” is not only wasting our time, but it’s also holding us back from doing what we really want to be doing and being who we really want to be.
Zendaya’s prescient awareness of this reality is no less remarkable at her current age of 20 than it was during the scenario she described taking place four years earlier: “A lot of people don’t realize their power,” she says in Vogue. “I have so many friends who say yes to everything or feel like they can’t stand up for themselves in a situation. No: You have the power.”
Zendaya hasn’t even reached legal drinking age, but somehow she’s figured out one of the greatest secrets to success — and it’s clearly paid off (quite literally), considering her rapid rise to stardom. Her emphasis on the importance of saying “no” actually echoes the sentiments of some of the world’s most successful leaders and innovators:
“Focusing is about saying no.” — Steve Jobs
“The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes. It is very easy to say yes.” — Tony Blair
“We need to learn the slow ‘yes’ and the quick ‘no.’” — Warren Buffett
It’s not lost on me that all three of these quotes come from men, but that’s what makes Zendaya’s unapologetic allegiance to the word “no” all the more important. In exercising this power, she is making a radical declaration of her own value and her right to be the most important person in the room — a right she’s earned through perseverance, hard work and talent. It’s essentially the opposite of Imposter Syndrome. I hope it’s contagious.