In Praise of No

Why it sometimes pays to say No when everyone expects you to say Yes

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Elton John was wrong when he sang that “sorry” seems to be the hardest word. No, nowadays the hardest word is, er, “No.”

Think about it. 

There’s a reason the villain from the first James Bond film wasn’t called Dr. Yes: Nobody likes saying or hearing the word No. 

It smacks of puritanical party-pooping, which runs against the grain in a have-it-all world. It suggests missing out on stuff or letting others down. Small wonder modern parents struggle to say No to their own children. 

Even when we yearn to give the thumbs down, other people can make it hard to do so. These days, “refusing to take No for an answer” is almost a badge of honor in the business world.

Changes in the job market have made the word No even less palatable. More of us are now self-employed, and the first rule of freelance club is Never Turn Down Work, Ever. A consultant friend of mine has a motto: “Say Yes, Yes, Yes to everything—and then figure out later how to cram it all in.”

Which is just as silly as it sounds. Sometimes the smartest move is to say No, even if you’re a freelancer.

Delivering a smiling Yes to everyone may seem polite, but it can cause more offence in the long run. Many of us accept invitations and then fail to show up because we’re too tired or overbooked. 

One way to avoid that kind of rudeness is to be honest with people—and yourself—and RSVP a gracious No up front. Besides, saying Yes to everything can strap you into a hamster wheel where there is never enough time to think, listen, rest, dream, savor or connect with other people. You end up racing through life instead of living it.

Resisting the pressure to say Yes brings other benefits too. It stops you being a doormat. It lightens your schedule so you can focus on the stuff that really matters. Hearing No more often might also make us less selfish, less inclined to expect the world to indulge our every whim. 

And the more you hear No, the sweeter Yes sounds.  

Bottom line: one of the secrets to life is knowing when to say Yay and when to say Nay—to pinpoint what is essential and let the rest fall by the wayside. A good place to start is to pause, look at the big picture and reflect on what really counts. That way you can weed out the stuff that only seems essential, and then chuck it in the No trashcan.

Let’s give the final word to one of the masters of the business universe. When asked for advice on how to stay ahead of the pack, the fabled investor Warren Buffet made it clear that less Yes is more. “The difference between successful people and very successful people,” he quipped, “is that very successful people say no to almost everything.”

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