‘No’ has gotten a bad rap. When we hear ‘no’ we tend to associate it with bad things, negative outcomes, not being able to do or get something. But ‘no’ has another side – a creative, positive, enabling side – and one we shouldn’t lose sight of. The fact is that, as much as people may dislike it, the world is full of choices and limits. And without a willingness to say ‘no’ to some things we can never truly say ‘yes’ to other things. Unlike what many people believe, ‘no’ is not the enemy; ‘maybe’ is. ‘Maybe’ means that we cannot truly commit to someone or something that we love or want. ‘Maybe’ robs us of creativity and energy. It may keep our options open and it may seem safe, and while sometimes those are appropriate choices, as a general approach to life ‘maybe’ inevitably leads to failure and unhappiness.
“We Can’t Not Do That”
Really? I am always amazed when I hear someone say “…but we can’t not do this.” It is typically said with great conviction and energy and faith. But if we step back and think about it, what it really means is that the speaker simply doesn’t like the set of outcomes that s/he associates with the action. “I simply can’t give up my cable TV subscription,” means “I don’t want to give up my cable TV subscription.” “We can’t let Greece leave the Eurozone” means “I don’t like the idea of (or am scared by the consequences of) Greece leaving the Eurozone.” In other words, the response “We can’t say ‘no’ to [X]” really means one of several things…
- I don’t like the idea of [X]
- I am afraid of [X]
- I don’t want to consider [X]
- [X] will bring unknown consequences and I am scared of the unknowns
But an unexamined refusal to even consider saying ‘no’ to certain possibilities denies us the very possibility of saying ‘yes’ to many others. It keeps our attention, our resources, and our energy locked up and unavailable for better, healthier, and more productive pursuits.
Early in my career I worked in a division of a large company. I returned to the office from an industry conference one Monday to learn that our division was being shut down (“reorganized” was the technical term) and that we were all being assigned to other divisions. I remember thinking: “They can’t do this to us!” “What will become of the important work we were doing?” “What will happen to our products and our customers?” “What will this mean for me, my job, and my career?” In other words, my first reaction was “They can’t not keep this division alive!” But, of course, they could shut us down and they did. And though I mourned some of what was lost, I also learned an important lesson: the unthinkable is not only possible, but frequently brings benefits that none of us could previously have imagined because we were so focused on the status quo that we were blind to the possibilities beyond it.
This is of course an example of what Joseph Schumpeter termed the ‘creative descruction’ that takes place every day in healthy, free-market economies. The short-term unpleasantness that it entails is the price we pay for an economy that is vibrant, creative, and healthy over the long term. Without the ability and willingness to say ‘no’ to some companies and some kinds of jobs, we doom ourselves to stagnation, and a loss of future posibilities for everyone.
“Getting Fired Was The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me”
The power of ‘no’ is equally powerful in our personal lives. Many of us find it more difficult to take advantage of, however, because we ourselves must try to weigh the certain discomfort in the short term against the possibility of long-term opportunity. Change is uncomfortable at best and frightening at worst for many. Yet we probably all know individuals who will admit to being glad that they were fired at some point in their careers. They know that they probably wouldn’t have had the courage to make the change themselves. They were paralized not only by the prospect of near-term pain but also by the well-known psychological tendency to avoid decisions that may bring regret. But when they are forced by circumstances beyond their control to deal with the change, they not only find a way to cope but frequently also find themselves freed to persue their dreams as they had never before imagined possible.
Saying ‘no’ to certain things in our lives frees us to say ‘yes’ to others. Holistically seen, ‘yes/no’ is a single positive choice – not a good one coupled with a bad one. In order to become an adult we must give up being a child. In order to pursue our deepest dreams we must give up doing things that we don’t care as deeply about. ‘No’ is the key to ‘yes.’
Unleashing the Power of No
How can you find a way to leverage the power of this dynamic in you own life without waiting for impersonal forces to act upon us? First, reframe your thinking about ‘no.’ After all, saying ‘no’ ultimately isn’t about denying yourself at all; it is about getting something you want even more than whatever it is that you are letting go of.
Identify your purpose, your passion. What is it that you are most passionate about? What do you want to do before you die? Indeed, what would you most regret not having done if you were told that you would die tomorrow? These are tough questions, yet if you want to get the most out of your life you must not ignore them. Mark Twain said, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” If you don’t know the answer to this question, then spend at least some time every week, every month, trying to figure it out. Figuring it out at 60 is better than not figuring it out at all.
Smaller goals are OK too. If you are struggling to discover your life’s passion, don’t give up. Try identifying smaller goals that you believe will help along the way. Do you yearn to be proficient at something? To you want to be financially stable enough to simply devote more of your time to a cherished activity? Do you want to change careers? Be explicit about smaller elements of your life that you believe will help make you truly happy.
Focus on what’s under your control. Identify what elements about your imagined future are under your control and which aren’t. For example, getting elected to public office may not ultimately be under your control, but getting involved in politics is. You can’t predict how much money you may make as an entrepreneur, but you can decide you want to start and grow a company. You may not be able to quit your job right now in order to be a full time homemaker, but you can probably identify ways to cut down on your work time or look for a job that gives you more flexibility.
Identify stepping stones. Don’t get discouraged if your goal seems big or far away. Just imagine it as a series of smaller steps taken over time. You don’t need to succeed overnight. You just need to identify a reasonable first step and get started moving in the right direction.
Keep your eye on the prize. Then begin with the first step. If you’re like many people, you will quickly bump up against time and resource constraints. This is where the power of ‘no’ comes in. Make an inventory of how you’re currently spending your energy and money. Now, how can you re-direct some of those resources? If you’ve identified a goal that you’re truly passionate about, then it will seem natural to re-focus your energies on it. Saying ‘yes’ to your life’s goals may require that you say ‘no’ to other activities that are of lesser value to you, but if you’ve done your homework you will realize that you will be getting more than you are ‘giving up.’
You’ll be leveraging the power of ‘no’ to move toward the life of your dreams.