On Saying “no”

“The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes. It is very easy to say yes.” – Tony Blair

Confession: I don’t like saying “no”. Saying “no” feels negative, closed, and lonely.

I associate much success, personal growth, happiness and good fortune to saying “yes”. Saying “yes” is taking advantage of available opportunities and leaning in with a why-not attitude. Saying “yes” I have been afforded wonderful opportunities to travel the world, find unexpected treasures, and have found friendships and relationships I will treasure forever. I pride myself on my fearless jump-in-with-two-feet-and-try attitude. However, by saying “yes” so much – I have unwittingly missed out on many opportunities.

I have said “yes” for reasons I am not proud of – for fear, insecurity, or distrust. I’ve said “yes” because I fear that I might miss-out on an opportunity, because I can’t rely on others, or because I don’t want to burden someone else. By saying “yes” so much – I at times find myself overwhelmed with obligations and am forced to say “no”.

Recently – I said “yes” to a new job with lots of opportunities for travel. By saying “yes” to an exciting new job – I was at the same time saying “no” to many other parts of my life – and I knew it. Traveling so much has forced me to say “no” far more than I am accustomed to. Just in the last few months, I have said “no” to my usual running routine, “no” to a friend’s birthday party, “no” to time with my sister, and “no” to studying for graduate school. Ones “yes” meant quite a few “no’s”.

It is only recently that I have begun to understand that saying “no” is equally as powerful to finding occasions to learn, grow, and expand. It’s not possible to do everything, and “yes” to one opportunity – often means “no” to many others – clearly visible or not. I have been forced to start to become comfortable with “no”. Saying “no” has allowed me to relax, time to myself to read, and time to be successful.

At work – prioritizing comes easily. There is simply so much time and resources that it’s fixed. However, personally – prioritizing is hard. I want to do everything, to take advantage, and not limit my opportunities. But if I continue to say “yes” quite so much, I will be overwhelmed with opportunities that I will not be able to take advantage of, or be successful. I need to say “no”.

Historically, “no” is plain uncomfortable for me. It’s negative, sour, unfriendly, and cold. But what if “no” meant time to reflect, time for traveling, time for running, and time to become an expert. “No” can create just as many opportunities as “yes”.
With my default “yes” I have built a very full life. I am lucky to have a life full of family, friends, a great job, and even a wonderful partner. I have girlfriends to run and go to yoga with, colleagues to join in on happy hour, and mentors to guide me through complicated decisions. I wouldn’t trade any of this for the world. The question – is what will I be able to achieve by being able to say both “yes” and “no”?

A few resources on saying no:

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