Moving from 'Yes' to 'No'

Once you begin to establish yourself with any kind of domain authority, as an expert, or show any spark of mastery or brilliance, it's inevitable that others will begin petitioning you to help or collaborate or give to their projects.

(This is a good thing — a clue that you're moving in the right direction and have been inviting others into your joy as you practice your craft.)

Often what has gotten you to this place is the fact that you are a gift-giver, a connector—a “Yes" person.

But as any "Yes" person can tell you, there is a catch-22, a cloudy side of this agreeable Yes-attitude.

The very posture that is moving you along the right path can also become overwhelming, distracting, and potentially render you ineffective at doing the art —that is, the meaningful work—which got you to where you are in your journey.

As the many requests for your time and talents increase proportionate to your skill, the need to prioritize and streamline this process of giving gifts becomes increasingly important.

We’ve mentioned briefly how ‘but’ can often render whatever came before it useless, BUT (<—see what I did there) there is a powerful way to use this contingent “but” to set yourself up for success.

There is a way to use "but" to clarify and create space for more creativity, more art, more meaningful work.

There is a way to be a "Yes" person—giving of your time and talents—in a generous and focused way that supports and even accelerates your journey.

However, you need to create the appropriate boundaries to protect yourself, your work, and ultimately keep first things first (both personally and professionally). 

Lead people in their ask of you.

One of the most powerful ways to say "yes" without losing momentum, focus, and direction is by leading people in their ask.

So, yes, say "Yes."

By all means, validate their idea and inventiveness and courage in sharing it with you. But clarify your involvement with guiding questions.

  • YES! That idea sounds amazing, BUT how do you see this playing itself out?
  • YES! I love the concept, BUT what obstacles do you foresee us having to navigate to execute well?
  • YES! But what initiative will this take in the form of your time, money, and energy? 
  • YES! But give me an idea of what what you’re looking for specifically—that is, time commitment, emotional commitment, resources, when you want to ship this, how is my help a win-win for both of us given both our goals, aspirations, vision.

Learn to ask powerful questions to help clarify before jumping in.

(Any time I’ve gotten a "no" or a no-response, I can probably trace it back to my lack of clarifying. It seems complexity and ambiguity are the enemy of execution and getting a "yes" and buy-in from other playmakers.)

[NOTE: This may be perceived or feel inflexible or difficult or unreceptive, but for the protection of both the asker and the giver, appropriate boundaries should be established for good things to flourish in the relationship and with the initiative. Clarifying expectations and boundaries is rarely ever a regrettable move.]

Yes-No Spectrum

The caveat (and somewhat paradoxical element) of this framework is that you will gradually—out of necessity—be forced to move from "Yes" to "No" in order to guard your ability to produce and ship your most meaningful work.

This generous posture—the "Yes"-attitude—which helped grow you to where you are, can choke you into ineffectiveness if it goes unchecked.

Inevitably, you will hit seasons of life where you may feel scattered, distracted, and overwhelmed by all the plates you feel pressured to keep spinning and all the people you desire to please and help.

It is the side effect of being a "Yes" person and a gift-giver and doer of work that matters. You hit seasons where you've said "yes" to too many good things in your life.

If you slow down enough, you'll recognize these good things are actually hindering your ability to execute effectively on any single one of them. If you’re lucky (and self-inquiring enough) you'll recognize the dire need to recalibrate and establish appropriate boundaries. 

You move along the YES-NO spectrum of giving lavish and abundant gifts on your road from amateur to professional, and slowly whittle away the things which are ultimately unnecessary and distracting on your journey.

You move to a more restrained demeanor and find yourself generally choosing between one of two options:

  1. NO, used the majority of the time; or
  2. HELL YEAH! used only when appropriate (and of course, never around your grandmother).

[Thank you to Derek Sivers for teaching me long ago this HELL YEAH-or-NO framework.]

This will be undoubtedly difficult because you will be saying no to some very good projects, initiatives, and requests and upsetting people you care about. But you do this in order to be great at your main focus and tackle the priorities you know produce the most meaningful results in each area of your life.

It should also be noted: just because you establish boundaries and find yourself using “No" like millennials use “Bro," does not mean you stop giving gifts. It may feel this way or even be perceived this way. But in fact, you are trading short term people-pleasing for long term effectiveness and impact.

Your focused and guarded work IS your gift. You’ve worked tirelessly to find your voice, refine your craft, make the right connections, and progress towards mastery; your work is one of your greatest gifts you can give.

We'll leave you with this quote from Tim Ferriss, a guy much smarter than me and who Wired Magazine has called the "Superman of Silicon Valley:"

"What I thought I wanted—which is freedom in the form of infinite options—is not actually what I want at all. It's very stressful, and you end up [fatigued from having no focus] and you didn't get sh*t done...I'm in a way, trying to figure out how to say NO to a thousand things so that I can be fully creative on one or two things."