Learning To Say No To Good Things

Posted by on Apr 9, 2013 in Life | 5 Comments

Learning To Say No To Good Things

Entrepreneurs never want to pass up a good deal.

We thrive in the shimmering halo of possibility. We’ve learned through experience that one opportunity almost always births another, and that it’s our job to see the things others miss. We are always on the alert for the next Whatever. Our ears are constantly perked and our eyes are open wide. If they aren’t — if we don’t stay available and flexible and receptive and enthusiastic — we miss those things that make us, and our businesses, grow.

Literally, we create real things out of no-thing; this is the only sentence on our job description (if we had one).

As we grow as entrepreneurs, however, a new challenge emerges: learning to say NO to good things.

This is hard, because our experience has taught us to not do this. One of the reasons we were able to create a business from scratch is because we said YES to a million things others said NO to. We saw opportunity where others saw certain abject failure. We refused to relent when others may have quit.

But a never-ending stream of “YES” simply isn’t sustainable, for a couple of reasons:

First, we have to learn to say no to good things when they’re attached to the wrong people.

As your career progresses, you will inevitably come across amazing, potentially world-changing ideas that you want to be a part of. Your honed marketplace instincts will kick in and scream “PAY ATTENTION” — loudly, right in your ear. But as you learn more about the idea or project, you’ll also learn more about the people who are behind it.

Like they say: everybody’s normal until you get to know them.

Ideas that look good (and probably ARE good) on the outside can have not-as-golden insides, and the insides are always about the people.

I am not talking here about scumbags or assholes, by the way. Hopefully your instincts told you to stay away from those people altogether. I am talking about really decent people with really, REALLY great ideas — but who don’t treat you like you should be treated. This area gets rather gray very quickly, and it’s why learning to say NO to these opportunities is so damn hard.

As an entrepreneur we should develop obscenely strict standards for the kinds of behavior we’ll tolerate inside our inner circles, and we should be fanatical about protecting it. All the money in the world isn’t worth spending your time beating your head against a brick wall. Be militant about finding ONLY situations that are healthy and in alignment with the way you deserve to be treated.

Second, we have to learn to say no to good things when they don’t fit our long-range strategy.

When you’ve created something real, people will notice. Recruiters may stop by and say hello, random people will track you down on Twitter and want your attention, and opportunities will present themselves.

First off, this is amazing and we should be forever grateful that there are people who seem to give a shit about what we’re doing. We may work hard to get what we’ve got, but we’re absolutely no better than anyone else, and for someone to seek out our expertise on, well, anything should be a ever-humbling experience.

We should also be very careful.

As your business grows, very well-intentioned others will attempt to pull you in a thousand directions. You’ll get invited to job interviews and nonprofit boards. You’ll be asked to guest post on blogs, share people’s content, and help friends-of-friends. I’m sure many people have opinions on how to handle this; my current policy has three parts:

  1. First, be nice to everybody.
  2. Second, be straightforward and don’t bullshit people.
  3. Third, have a larger strategy that helps you know when to say NO.

The first two are hard, but not complicated. The last one is not-so-hard once you have it, but it’s really complicated to get there, which is why I want to talk about it a little more.

For me, a larger strategy starts by getting crystal-effing-clear about the “noble cause” of your career. Start here:

  • What’s the big problem in the world that you’re on a life’s mission to solve?
  • When you think about the state of the planet, what pisses you off more than anything else?
  • What is the one thing you’d like to be known for?

These are a few of the questions that helped me find my noble cause (which, if you’re curious, is: to improve the wellbeing of people by creating better places to work).

Without this “noble cause” I wouldn’t have a clue what to say NO to. I’d end up fracturing my attention in a million unproductive ways. (It’s hard to stay focused even with this, honestly. When your “problem to solve” is appropriately large, it leaves you many ways to get there.)

I’ve also found that, for me, family and health and balance are a crucial part of my “life strategy,” and that my sincere desire for those things also helps tremendously when having to say NO. Whatever your equation is, find a way to get your long-range target on the wall, and use it to filter out the stuff that won’t help you hit it.

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Additional recommended reading:Is Giving The Secret To Getting Ahead” from NYTimes.com

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Image by Happystock (Shutterstock).

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If you liked that post, then try these…

Recognizing A Revolution by Josh Allan Dykstra on April 25th, 2011

The Epic Fail of California (and Why It Matters) by Josh Allan Dykstra on October 4th, 2009

Reality & TV by Josh Allan Dykstra on July 14th, 2005

5 Comments

  1. Lucy Michael
    May 10, 2013

    Thank you so much. This is exactly what I needed and so few people talk about it. Learning to say no to requests for help was hard enough, but ‘no’ to great opportunities? I struggled!

    Reply
  2. Jake Meyer
    May 29, 2013

    “First off, this is amazing and we should be forever grateful that there are people who seem to give a shit about what we’re doing. We may work hard to get what we’ve got, but we’re absolutely no better than anyone else, and for someone to seek out our expertise on, well, anything should be a ever-humbling experience.”

    I love this statement. A lot of big businesses, small businesses and people in general forget this. I always grateful for those who appreciate my work and people who treat me with respect when out in the world.

    Reply
  3. Algis Tamosaitis
    May 30, 2013

    Having to say ‘no’ is so counter to what society teaches us but is invaluable to being a successful entrepreneur. Couldn’t agree with you more.

    Reply
  4. Sharí Alexander
    May 30, 2013

    “First, we have to learn to say no to good things when they’re attached to the wrong people.”

    AMEN! My phrase is, ‘there are some people I would never do business with. I don’t care how green their money is.” It has saved me from tons of headaches. And the times I’ve broken that rule, I’ve regretted it greatly.

    Reply
  5. Sabrina at MyMiBoSo
    June 4, 2013

    Josh, you’ve bit hit with the genius stick :).

    As my baby business grows into its toddler stage, I’m noticing that I’m getting contacted more and more by people who want me to join or review their new programs and books.

    At first, I was so flattered – how did they possibly find me in this huge sea of people on the internet! – and I was saying YES…just because they said YES first.

    Now that I’ve become more clear about my #3 above (which is, by the way, to guide young, creative women to learn how to listen to their intuition and take action on it so that they can create more joy and meaning in life), it has become so much easier to embrace the “sacred NO” and focus on those things that light me up and are in line with my mission in life.

    Reply

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