In our early careers, we’re taught to say yes to everything; but soon, as we gain more experience, we face the opposite problem—a stream of opportunities, with uncertainty about what to say no to. We each only have 168 hours in the week to take care of our personal and professional commitments.
That’s okay, though. Saying no is a skill, and it’s one that opens up new doors. Each time you say no, you take the first step to saying yes to something else. Here are three things you’ll need to learn to say no to if you want to experience success in the long run:
Say no existing commitments
Quitting sucks. The famous saying goes, “Winners never quit, and quitters never win.” It’s a great adage to hit home the value of perseverance and grit. However, at any point, each winner has—and needed to—quit. Every person who has done anything worth doing has made an important, and deliberate, decision to quit something, in order to make the space for it.
Seth Godin wrote a short book entitled The Dip about the topic of quitting, but it’s more than that. It’s a book about saying no, in order to focus, so that you are free to say yes to something else—whether you know it or not. As he writes, expanding on the topic, “The way you become the best in the world is by quitting the stuff where you can’t be the best. That leaves you the resources to invest in getting through the Dip.”
In this case, our resources are mainly our attention, our morale, and our motivation—valuable assets that we can’t outsource to anyone else. This level of focus is crucial even at the corporate scale. Former Apple designer Jony Ive put it eloquently: “What focus is, saying no to something that with every bone in your body you think is a phenomenal idea. And you wake up thinking about it, but you say no to it. Because you are focusing on something else.”
Because quitting is so frowned upon, we’ve publicly disguised what quitting looks like: this CEO is becoming a chairman, that creative director is becoming an adviser. Read between the lines. Someone is scaling back their commitment and preparing to quit. Know that you may need to do the same at some point, and prepare yourself.
Say no to other definitions of success
Saying no is the key to keep yourself from being spread too thin. Rather than splitting your attention to pursue a number of ideas adequately, commit to just doing just one thing really, really well. In a Hot Ones interview, Pusha T says:
“I am the Martin Scorsese of street raps. That’s how I want to be seen. Even just creatively, Scorsese gives you The Departed, Goodfellas, and a host of other joints. You never say, ‘Hey, I want him to make a love story.’ That’s how I want you to look at me rap-wise.”
You can also choose to serve a specific group of people, and to say no to the rest. You don’t have to be the best to everybody. You just have to be the best to somebody that you know—or have decided to get to know—better than most other people. In order to do that, you have to define what you’re not going to do, and who you’re not serving or making things for.
When that happens, your brain naturally focuses, learns how to make better work, and opportunities start coming your way. You also draw in people who appreciate artistic integrity and count on you for your expertise. You feel energized, like you’re capable of setting an unrealistic goal, and you’re gaining momentum.
Eventually, as you put in the work, you start a self-fulfilling dynamic that is contagious. People believe in you because you believe in yourself, and you believe in yourself because you know what you’ve committed to doing and your vision isn’t blurred by mainstream symbols of success.
Don’t try to be the best for everyone. Aim instead to be the best for someone, and define who you won’t.
Say no to quick, easy opportunities
These days, there’s no shortage of shiny opportunities. Emerging markets include web3, mushrooms, and NFTs—among many others.
Rather than choosing to chase each of these—and incurring unnecessary financial risk which could hurt your focus—you can stay committed to making the thing you’re best at. You can say no to copying other people. Picking the low hanging fruit isn’t always worth putting down what you’re doing; plus it’s the fruit that everybody is chasing, which means it’s not scarce.
Let the other people chase the quick wins and glittering lures. Focus on your craft and your life’s task instead. If you don’t know what it is, focus on finding it.
Herbert Lui is the author of Creative Doing, a book of 75 prompts that unblock creativity for your work, hobby, or next career. He writes a newsletter that shares three great books every month and is the editorial director at Wonder Shuttle.