About saying “no”


Yesterday I was listening to a podcast by Brett Terpstra, Systematic on the 5by5 network with Merlin Mann as a guest. The high intensity, high velocity discussion was, as usual, excellent. My interest peaked during their discussion of the difficulty of saying “no”. As I see it, there are a couple of possible reasons you may not say “no”, or rather, say “yes” to everything.

Not saying “no” because you are afraid

This has been written and talked about a lot, so I’ll just go over the gist of those ideas:

A lot of people are afraid of saying “no” to other people or to opportunities to do certain things. They don’t want to disappoint, they don’t want to irritate or even anger. The problem there, of course, is that the more you try to satisfy the other person by never saying “no” to them, the less you will have room to say “yes” to things you care about yourself. By saying “yes” to everything that passes your way, you live all lives but yours. And you may well be fine with that. But it’s a slippery slope. If you said “yes” yesterday, you’re more likely to just give in tomorrow as well. You’ve done it before, you don’t want to be the contrarian, and what better is there to do? And before you know it, you’re 70 years old, you look back on your life and think: “What the ** just happened?”

An important defense against this just saying yes to everything is to have a good idea what you are all about and what you want to achieve. What makes you tick? But again, there is an assumption here. You need to know who you are.

However, what if you don’t know what you’re about? What if you don’t know what you want? What if you say yes because you are afraid that saying “no” may exclude you from that one essential opportunity that will allow you to discover yourself?

First, in my limited experience, life does not tend to work that way. Stuff you are likely to encounter, you will eventually encounter. This is less about some grander scheme and more about the fact that we live in a small world and the number of life experiences tends to be both more limited and at the same time a lot more intense than we believe them to be. But that’s another blog post.

Second, how do you know it’s an essential opportunity if you don’t know what you are all about? So stop worrying about that. Because, again, in my limited experience, you seldom find yourself by looking through other people’s eyes. You will more likely and quickly discover what you are about by honestly looking out of your own eyes at yourself.

Is the solution knowing what you’re all about?

Well, it’s certainly part of the solution. If you know what you want to achieve, what you are about and what makes you tick, saying “no” to opportunities which do not align with that vision of yourself becomes a lot easier. After all the direct opportunity cost is not doing something that brings you a step further on your path of 10.000 miles.

BUT, there is a big but here, which I’ve not seen too much written about: your vision of yourself may not be challenging yourself enough. You may be too entrenched in your comfort zone.

Just think about this for a minute: it’s cosy. It’s safe, or at least it appears to be. It’s known and comforting. There are no real difficult challenges there. You may have decided that it’s okay to settle. To accept that this is what it is. That you are fine to operate from that specific, well known perspective. But it may just be that you’ve settled for less than you are capable off. So, the question is: is that really what you want to look back on when you’re 70 years old?

A case in point

I recently got a call from a former colleague and old friend. She had a bit of a challenge: she was offered an excellent but risky opportunity. Now, she could stay in the situation she was, which was a safe situation which played to her known strenghts and was squarely inside her comfort zone, or she could risk changing course and going with another opportunity. Lots of risk involved, less security, but more excitement and learning opportunity.

The fact she even called me to tell her that told me enough about what she wanted to do. She knew what she wanted to do. She wanted to jump into the unknown of a new job opportunity. It’s close to her competencies, but outside of her comfort zone from many perspectives. It is, in other words, the ideal place to learn. I did not give her an answer. I told her to listen to what she was telling herself to do, and be wary, but not afraid of the risks involved. After all, even your comfort zone is prone to risks. You’re just so used to them you may not even see them anymore.

In conclusion

If you know what you want to achieve, and saying “no” comes very easy to you, it’s entirely possible you’re on the right track and everything is going well in your life. Congratulations to you.

However, It’s also very possible you are too deep inside your comfort zone and are missing significant opportunities to learn. If there is no difficulty in your decision taking, dare to question whether you are still at the edge of your development curve.