Once there was a girl who learned to say “yes” to her mother’s requests to please her and “yes” to her friends so as not to make waves and “yes” to her teachers to get good grades.
As a business owner she learned to say “yes” to every opportunity to speak for free and “yes” to all possible clients who asked if she could do something for them different from the previous client and “yes” to every shiny online object that someone said would save the day and make her an extra 6 figures in 6 months and “yes” to her child’s every demand and “yes” to her partner’s every request.
By the time she was 37 she was “yessed to death.”
I know this woman well, and what I’d say to her is the same as I’d say to you: To fly, leap, or wisely grow, you need to learn how and when to say “no.”
In Jonathan Evison’s novel Lawn Boy, the 23-year-old main character, Mike Munoz, has spent his young life appeasing his hard-working mother, avoiding his unreliable father, and taking care of his mentally challenged brother. He sums up his yearning and his situation like this:
I’d like nothing more than to spread my proverbial wings and fly the f#$k away from my current life, or maybe just get above it for a while. At this point, I feel like I’m nothing more than what everybody needs me to be or whatever the situation demands of me.
For the past few years, I’ve taken stock of how I’ve said “no” at different stages of my personal growth and of our consulting business & community Tracking Wonder’s growth.
I’ve also been helping busy executives and accomplished professionals on one end and entrepreneurs on the other end learn when and how to say “no.”
The story above is not a gender-specific story or an age-specific story. I’ve heard versions of this story from seasoned men and women, CEOs and lawyers, people in IT and freelance design.
Not all “no”s are equal, and while there are no universal formulas, there are four key ways in which you can be true to yourself, your brand, and your business.
1. Say “No” To What You’re Fixating On
It’s easy to get enthusiastic about the endeavor you’re building and all of the possibilities for growth that the thought of saying “no” seems impossible. But here’s the paradox we live in: Possibilities seem limitless while our human potential is limited.
In fact, much of what leads to overwhelm, fatigue, and burnout is sourced at our own mental habits. Our thoughts can just as easily burn us out as they can fuel us. I know what it’s like to flounder with an errant mind. I know what it’s like to thrive with a delighted mind.
So if you’re letting your mind say “yes” to the next big project or the big shiny offer or the big but complicated client that constantly distresses you, try this: Observe the fixation. Let it go. Redirect your focus on where you really flourish.
2. Say “No” to Opportunities that Drain You Or Don’t Test You
If you own a business that is in the first three years or so of operating, then this one is particularly aimed at you.
When starting out, you’ll be tempted to say “yes” to every opportunity that comes your way, and soon you might find yourself taking on too much – facing overwhelm or burnout.
Try this instead:
- Say “no” to opportunities that don’t allow you to test your assumptions – your assumptions about where your strengths best serve, with what kind of clients or audiences you best engage, and what concrete value you really offer.
- Say “no” to prospects that will drain you either because of disposition, their overriding resistance to change or to what you offer, or because their problem is not one your brand is best suited to solve for.
If you’re an employee or contractor or “intrapreneur” on the job for the first few years, you may not have the flexibility to say “no” at every turn, but you can start advocating for what roles & responsibilities and projects you’re best suited for. Trust yourself in these instances to build a professional life which serves you.
3. Say “No” to Something You’ve Done Before
By the time you reach a more established career stage, your brand likely has earned a solid reputation by saying “yes” in the right ways and by creating signature offers along the way.
Your brand has a signature, an ArtMark™, and you may have a small team or assistants. How can you be expected to grow with “no” when people have come to expect a certain product delivery or content delivery from you?
To grow with “no,” try this:
- Say “no” to something you offer – a service, program, or event – that no longer lights your or your team’s genius up, that no longer is aligned with your brand’s evolution & vision, or that is not delivering excellent, signature value the way you hoped.
- Say “no” to a product you offer that’s not selling well. Too many products for sale might crowd your customer’s choices and cloud your priorities.
- Say “no” to tasks or offers or opportunities that drain your finite energy and time more than restore your energy.
- Say “no” to opportunities that do not reinforce your brand signature.
Saying “no” in this way can feel risky, but doing so makes space in your finite time, focus, and resources to say “yes” to what’s next for your brand.
4. Say “No” To Yourself
By the time you become an established brand, you will have learned the vital lesson that Do It Together Beats Do It Yourself.
But if you’re a CEO, founder of a growing brand, or someone ready to scale at a different level, then it’s time to up your game if you’re going to move toward the stage of effortless mastery.
- Say “no” to as many tasks as possible that constantly pull you away from your genius and that could be automated or should be delegated.
- Say “no” to opportunities that do not fully maximize your best attributes and strengths.
- Say “no” to people – customers, colleagues, consultants – who do not have your or your brand’s best interest at heart and who do not elevate you.
Ultimately, you might fire yourself from a lot of activities where you once had been valuable and where you once identified your worth. Instead, trust the skills and worth of the team you have built around you, and allow yourself to be “dispensable” in a certain domain of your work.
This advanced stageoften involves your training others to do what you’ve done so you can devote your finite time to other areas of brand & personal evolution.
The Potential in “No”
Get curious about how you can test out saying “no.” Remember, with growth comes growing pains, and those pains reframed often are voluntary challenges.
Part of our quest as entrepreneurs, creatives, professionals, and business artists is to finesse how we face those challenges with a little less worry and a little more wonder.