Learning to say “no”

On becoming a non-yes man

By stef

No. Absolutely not. No way. Sorry, that’s not going to happen. I think not. Afraid not. Sorry, no. Uh-uh, don’t think so. Good luck with that. No, no, no.

It’s rare that you’ll hear me uttering these phrases. Probably too rare. My natural inclination is to say “yes” when presented with an opportunity, or when someone suggests an idea. I am much more comfortable saying things like:

Yes. That's a good idea. Sure, why not? Fine. What could go wrong? Okay, let's try that.

I often talk about how I try to be in a “yes, and…” mode when in conversation (instead of saying “yes, but…”). It leads to positive suggestions, it’s a tool for improving ideas. And it’s fun. Yet there is a huge difference between using “yes, and” to accelerate serendipity by accepting an opportunity on the spur of the moment, and really thinking through whether you should say “yes” at all.

Yessing yourself into a corner

I think I’ve been saying “yes” a little too much over recent years - I’ve often yessed myself into a corner

Every opportunity has a cost. For anything you say yes to, you’re also saying no to something else. You just maybe aren’t aware of it, or can’t quantify it at the time. What if the thing you say yes to means you don’t do the thing that you say no to, and the latter turns out to be something that would have made you much better off?

Even worse, what happens if, by saying yes you get yourself stuck into something that’s very difficult, stressful, or expensive from which to extract yourself? The bad startup idea, the promise to a friend that becomes a burden that destroys the friendship, the thing that looks like a good idea but means you’re burning the candle at both ends because you’re doing it in your spare time… I’ve experienced all of these and more. The corners that “yes” can get you into are sometimes worse than the ones from a “no”.

Sunk opportunity cost

Has the “yes” cost you the potential value of the “no” when you are in a “yes corner”? Possibly, if you want to look at it that way. But I think that it’s best to look at that only while making decisions about the future, not to evaluate the past. It’s very unhealthy to constantly review your own situation in shoulda-coulda-woulda terms. Here’s an idea:

Sunk opportunity cost should have no bearing on future decisions.

A simple rule, adapted from Paul’s thinking on how he evaluates his decisions around investments and projects. It’s certainly making me feel better about all those startup ideas that I rejected as “legal nightmare”, “too hard” or “just a joke”, only to see a similar idea flourish into a huge business. Damn! Why was I spending my time building a failed social network for dads when I should have gone for music streaming? No matter. The yes was said, and the no was implied. The opportunity cost is sunk. It’s gone. Move on.

The popularity “yes”

Everyone likes you if you say yes more than you say no, right? I’m no longer so sure about that. People tend to like you if they can see that you’re being generous, helpful and supportive, sure. But to say “yes” to something, and then not be able to follow through, well that’s much worse than saying “no”. Far better to do a few things well.

I started the year, as many of us did reading what other people had been writing. One article stuck out. By someone who is well-liked, who is popular and who enjoys a modicum of local celebrity. My friend Ben. In his 2013 round-up piece was this gem:

I am forever saying yes to people, yes to coffees, to projects, to meetings, to speaking engagements, to press calls, to looking at someone else work, to ideas, to parties, to dinners.

The net result is my time for me and my own projects becomes squeezed leading to an inflated sense of urgency and stress.  A wise man in denim one said to me: “The power of your yes is defined by how often you say no”. I shall be endeavouring to say no a lot more this year, please don’t be offended.

And to pull out the phrase that I’ve been thinking about for some time now:

The power of your yes is defined by how often you say no

I’ve been there. I’ve got better over recent years in turning things down, defending my time and not accepting things that could be nightmares, even if it’s an opportunity from a well-meaning friend. Not having to do three jobs at once any more is very helpful too. One year I was startup founder, second shooter photographer, freelance web dev all at the same time!

And it’s not just me. Nick Brisbourne, who’s one of the people I pay attention to in the London tech scene, spurred me to finish this piece with an observation piece about Nest’s CEO’s use of the word “no”:

I learned the power of ‘no.’ No is really important. Entrepreneurs are told to say ‘yes, yes, more, more.’ To help you focus, to help you really understand what you’re doing, you have to say no a lot. When you say yes to everything, you get distracted. When you say no, you have to get the one thing you’re doing really right.

A useful thing to bear in mind about what “no” is. No is the opposite of the “yes and”, and on the team at Makeshift, Nick so far has been my “no”. And thinking that through, there’s a dynamic there about me opening up opportunities with little hacks and experiments, and Nick refining things down. Sometimes in quite an epically brutal way. 

No. Kill it.

This year, we spent months, and about £85,000 ($140,000) on a finance startup idea. A beautiful idea. One that I thought, and still think, has huge potential. And just like that, one day we had a meeting and said “no”, and we killed the project. That’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. It was like a gut-punch. You can read a full write-up of why if you like.

But the dangers of continuing, and sucking resources away from the other things we are building would have been even worse. So we killed one of our darlings. That’s a “no”. That’s a decision about being able to say “yes” to other things.

In a previous piece I talked about “don’t just do one thing”. I still stick to that, but this year, with the fact that a surprising number of the things we made are growing (I thought we’d manage two, we seem to have about four actively used products), it’s important that we reduce our scope.

So, I suspect you’ll hear a few more occurrences of the word “no” from me this year. And that’s so when you hear me say “yes”, you’ll know I mean it.