In running our businesses, there’s a tendency to want to say “yes” to new things and opportunities that present themselves in our path. “Yes” to new partnerships, “yes” to a new line of products, “yes” to just about anything that we think might offer us even the slightest chance to get ahead. It’s ambition that prompts that response, certainly, and an openness to try anything that’s commendable, but it’s also the harshness and permanence of saying “no”. “No” feels like we’re doing injury to whomever is asking, or that we’re foreclosing ourselves to possibilities or potential, and so we’re inclined to say yes. It’s certainly something salespeople are aware of, as anyone who’s gotten a hard sell has no doubt noticed. We want to agree and get along with others, and we’ve all said “yes” a time or two when we didn’t mean it for the sake of harmony.
boy holds blackboard with NO letters
There are plenty of reasons to say “yes,” and often it’s the right and necessary answer in the moment. But there is also value in telling people “no,” in risking creating disharmony in service to your own needs or wants. And there’s power in the word as well, particularly in a world where agreeance is the norm and the expected outcome.
The ability to say “no” is something that’s largely lost to us when we’re working for others; it should be jealously guarded once we enter into business for ourselves, and yet we seemingly cede it along the way. We start our own business for exactly the reason that we want to do our own thing, and yet at some point we end up feeling captive to the various stakeholders we take on along the way. There are investors or advisors who want us to do or try something, or employees with their own ideas — parties that you want to keep happy for any number of reasons. And so you agree to some things that are good ideas, sure, but also things that you might not absent that context, and in that way you make small, gradual compromises to your own ideas and ambitions.
Reclaiming the word “no” as part of our prerogative is an important part of managing both our businesses and our lives. Not an unreasonable or capricious “no,” simply for the sake of asserting that prerogative or proving a point, but “no” when it’s warranted, when you are presented with an offer or opportunity that you don’t want. And even that direct of an answer might be tough for many; often we prefer to hem and haw, offering up excuses and non-committal answers, hoping that the question will simply be forgotten or withdrawn. Or we return an answer of “no” with a deluge of reasoning, hoping to soften the blow and maintain our esteem in the minds of the other party. Neither hedging or equivocating are necessary, though; it’s your time, and your company, and with some exceptions, you don’t owe anything to anyone.
Perhaps the person most in need of hearing “no” is yourself. As entrepreneurs, we have a tendency to want to take on too much ourselves, to the point of driving ourselves to exhaustion. We feel we owe it to those who are supporting and depending on us to give everything we have to the venture, and so we are wont to push ourselves beyond reason. That means working crazy hours and taking on every opportunity that comes our way, regardless of what bandwidth we have outstanding. That way lies burnout and ultimately failure, and don’t we owe it to those same people to be the best version of ourselves, and discerning as well? Sometimes you have to tell yourself “no” to the new offer coming in the door or “no” to that extra late night or weekend spent working for the sake of your own well-being.
It can be challenging to come around to the idea of reintroducing “no” as a more regular part of your work life (or personal life too). It can go against our inclination and some other advice out there on the topic. It also runs up against our nature and our conditioning on how we interact and exist within groups; no one wants to be the squeaky wheel, or stick in the mud, or any such term for dissenting voices. But you didn’t get into business to do what everyone else does; you wanted to forge your own road forward, and it’s one that should include paths you’re OK with not taking. #onwards.