Why I Started Saying “No” to Great Opportunities
It is, perhaps, a peculiarity of the age we live in that we get to choose between what’s good, what’s better, and what’s best. 600 years ago our ancestors didn’t enjoy such luxury. I sometimes imagine my teenage self transported back to the Middle Ages and my ancestral home of Stuttgart, Germany.
Me, 600 Years Ago
“Josh, time to wake up.”
“But it’s still dark outside…”
“It’s 4 am. Time to get to work.”
“Work? Why can’t I sleep in?”
“Because if you sleep in the cows won’t get milked, the crops won’t get harvested, and we’ll all starve to death. Now get up you lazy no-good!”
I also enjoy thinking about my ancestors being transported to our day.
“It’s Pokemon Go.”
“Does it milk cows?”
“No, people play it for fun.”
“You mean kids?”
“No, grown adults, too.”
“You mean the king plays it?”
“No, normal people, too.”
“Aren’t they busy working so they don’t starve to death?”
“Trust me, starving to death is the least of their worries.”
Our ancestors would be amazed at the opportunities we have before us. Their choices mostly came down to working or starving. A serious injury like a broken leg could be a death sentence or banishment to poverty. By contrast, some of the “difficult” questions I have to wrestle with include:
- Should we hire the SEO or the bizdev guy first?
- Should I write a blog post today? (you now know what the answer is)
- What country do I want to live in next?
- What’s my next step on the road to getting a PhD?
- Should I agree to be a moderator at a startup event, or hold out for a speaking slot?
No matter how I answer these questions I won’t starve. Nothing bad will happen. I only have good choices. In fact, it’s gotten to the point where I have so many great choices I can’t possibly take advantage of them all.
Can I Say “No” and Maintain an Abundance Mentality?
It’s not that I lack an abundance mentality. I’m all about having an abundance mentality and I firmly believe we’re all capable of doing so much more than we typically believe we can do, but one can only run so many businesses, speak at so many events, and write so many books and articles. All the positive thinking, time management, and productivity hacks won’t turn me into a 2-minute mile runner. There are limits.
An abundance mentality doesn’t mean you ignore limits, it means you embrace true limitations, reject false ones, and when in doubt you default to optimism and creativity. If the goal is to run a 2-minute mile under normal circumstances, then this is impossible. That’s not being pessimistic, that’s realistic, as any pessimist will tell you. But what if the circumstances aren’t normal? The Olympics have rules about running a 2-minute mile, but what if I’m trying to figure out how to help a soldier on the battlefield transport himself one mile in 2-minutes with minimal assistance? Then we can start talking about prosthetics, robotic exo-skeletons, and other means that might make a 2-minute mile a reality.
In my role as an influencer I want to do more speaking engagements, but I don’t want to spend a lot of time traveling or away from my family. If I didn’t have an abundance mentality I might come to the conclusion that I can only speak 30 times per year because any more than that is out of control and just won’t work. But if I have an abundance mentality I’ll ask “How can I speak more without traveling and without being away from my family?” And of course there are plenty of ways to speak more by doing podcasting, podcast interviews, webinars, etc. Who says you can’t give a keynote from the other side of the world via Skype?
And yet despite an abundance mentality, you will still reach real limits to your abilities. As strategy experts will tell you, the key to strategy isn’t so much what you choose to do, it’s what you choose not to do. When you have too many incredible and amazing options, that means saying “no” to great opportunities.
In 2013 my wife and I moved to Hong Kong from Salt Lake City, Utah. I wanted to network myself into the startup and business scenes in Hong Kong as quickly as possible so I began attending various events, mostly in the evenings. There was no end to the amazing events I could attend or the people I could meet, and I was having a great time. Then I realized I hadn’t been at home at night for the better part of three weeks, which wasn’t working out with being a husband and father. My wife and I sat down to discuss it and I said “Ok, I’ll only attend events that are great opportunities.” I then scanned the upcoming events on my calendar and realized they were all great opportunities. I couldn’t go to all of them and give attention to my higher priorities.
I’ve had similar experiences writing for Forbes and other publications. I can write a post like this one you’re reading in 20-40 minutes. But if I want to interview someone and turn their comments into an article it will take me at least 3-4 hours, if not 7-8. I get 50-100 requests from individuals, PR agencies, and other sources every week pitching me to write articles. Many of these pitches include the opportunity to sit down with a powerful CEO or other executive and chat with him or her. These are great opportunities, but I simply do not have the time to accept even a tenth of them.
In these situations and many others, I have to say “no” because I’m limited by time and priorities. In the case of going to events, my wife and I decided I would have one night each week to go to events and meetings, and every other night I would be at home unless there were an emergency or truly exceptional circumstance. In the cases of doing interviews for stories, I simply don’t accept those requests anymore. Why not? Because they don’t meet my long term goals.
Saying “No” Means Thinking Long Term
I once heard a story about a boy who was learning to drive a tractor on a farm. He drove the length of a field to plow it, and when he turned around and looked back it was a messy, zig-zaggy line. His father always plowed in perfectly straight lines. He drove back, trying to hold the tractor steering wheel as firmly as he could, looking carefully at the ground, and yet when he reached the end of the field again the second plow line was even messier than the first.
“What am I doing wrong?” the boy asked his father. “How come I can’t plow straight?”
“There’s a trick to it,” his father responded. He then explained to the boy that in order to plow straight, you need to focus on something far off in the distance like a tree or post that is right in a line with where you want to plow. Instead of looking at the ground right in front of you, you keep your eyes on that far-off object.
The boy tried this, and his next plow line was perfectly straight.
I didn’t grow up on a farm, but I would think of this story every time I mowed our lawn when I was growing up and sure enough, it worked.
Saying “no” is like knowing when to adjust the steering wheel on that tractor. If you’re looking at the ground around you, it’s too easy to say yes and no to the wrong things because you aren’t looking at where you really want to go.
Saying “No” Also Means Thinking Short Term
Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully. ― Samuel Johnson
There is such a thing as thinking too long term. It’s easier for me to say “no” when I have a clear goal with a deadline that’s close enough to scare me. I do trail running, and if I said “I want to run a 100 mile trail race in 5 years,” this wouldn’t be scary enough to me to get me out of bed Friday morning to go train. I could do zero running for the next three years, then train for two, and still be fine. If I want to make sure I keep up on my exercise regimen, I sign up for an event that is far enough away to give me time to adequately train, but which is close enough to scare me so that I’m very reluctant to miss a single day of training.
I recently began mapping out my goals for the next two years and it became clear to me I need to say “no” to some great opportunities. I know that two years will zip by in no time at all. And as I clarify my goals and ambitions, I can see that certain things will have to go, and go quickly. I can see the cost of saying “yes” and the time that will be freed up for what’s most important to me if I say “no.”
Putting the Short and Long Together
Saying “no” became easier for me when I developed a clearer idea of what my long term plans were. It became even easier when I mapped out the sub-tasks that needed to happen in the short term in order to reach my long term objectives. Here’s how I’m doing it with a real life example:
Goal: Give a 20-minute, unscripted business presentation in front of a live audience in Mandarin before June 30th, 2017.
Notice I didn’t say that my goal was to learn Chinese. That may be my ambition, but it doesn’t make for a very good goal because it leaves too many questions unanswered. What does it mean to “learn” Chinese? When would I learn it by?
Now that I have my long term goal, I need the short term part.
Sub-task #1: Identify all available methods of learning Chinese by July 23rd, 2016 including cost, time investment, and other factors.
Sub-task #2: Sign up for class or program by July 28th, 2016.
I now know what my long term goal is, and the short term sub tasks that will get me there. I merely have to execute on the details.
This isn’t the first time I’ve tried to learn Chinese. I got audio programs from Pimsleur. I have a book I want to read. I’ve thought about putting basic characters up on the walls. All of those options have been available to me for the past three years, and I’ve spent perhaps 10 minutes doing anything about it because I had no specific goal, just a vague ambition. It was too easy to say “yes” to things that got in my way. But with these simple goals and sub tasks outlined above I will soon be enrolled in a program and then anything that gets in the way will be easy to say “no” to.
Making it Easier to Say “No”
If you struggle telling people “no,” then one trick to avoid saying “yes” and committing yourself is to say “Let me check my calendar and get back to you,” or simply “I’ll get back to you on that.” If you get in this habit, then you can say “no” later when you have time and space to think, rather than acting hastily under pressure and ending up committed to something you can’t or don’t want to do.
The Secret Skill Bill Gates and Warren Buffett Share
When Bill Gates and Warren Buffett were asked what the secret to their success was, they both responded “Focus.” Not only are people who say “no” more successful, those are the people we like better. Nobody likes the yes-man who promises everything to everybody and never delivers because he’s pulled in too many directions.
Saying “no” doesn’t mean doing less. It doesn’t mean you are negative. It doesn’t mean you lack an abundance mentality. On the contrary, saying “no” to good things means you can say “yes” to better things. Saying “no” may be negative in a limited sense, but it’s positive from an overall perspective. When you choose less, it allows you to do more. If that isn’t abundance, what is?