In 2015 the fortunate minority of the world population lives in times where our careers, relationships, and hobbies are less constrained than ever. Less constraints means more choices. In dealing with choices we could:
- say yes to everything
- default to no
Seth Godin examines each approach (within the career context) in his book Linchpin:
There are two ways the linchpin can use ’no’.
The first is to never use it. There’s a certain sort of indispensable team member who always finds yes. She always manages to find a way to make things happen, and she does it. It’s done. Yes.
Those people are priceless.
Amazingly, there’s a second kind of linchpin. This person says ’no’ all the time. She says no because she has the strength to disappoint you now in order to delight you later. When used with good intent, this negative linchpin is also priceless. She is so focused on her art that she knows that a no now is a worthy investment for the magic that will be delivered later
The second wins in the long term, although it’s often the ‘yes’ person who is celebrated. Undoubtedly there is value to this kind of person, as Godin indicates. A gladiator who can be thrown into any fire at any time, and not only come out alive, but more importantly (at least for the thrower) to have actually put out the fire. That is phenomenal. But there are at least two issues with such an approach:
- not sustainable
- misallocation of resources (time, energy)
The “say yes to everything” approach is like the Secret Service agent protecting the president. We see the problems arise here, 1) in this extreme analogy he can only do it once (or maybe twice). In typical life situations we can unconditionally say yes many more times, but with still some very real limit before things go downhill. 2) He jumps unconditionally to take the bullet. And it’s precisely that unconditionality that makes him valuable. He cannot (and should not) stop to decide whether this particular bullet worth taking. This is where the analogy breaks down… While all bullets carry with them a high chance to kill, typically opportunities do not have similar impacts. In fact, they have vastly different impacts. Orders of magnitude different. To boot, the impact often has nowhere near a proportional relationship with resources required.
So really, saying yes “to everything” is a delusion, because every yes implicitly carries with it a host of nos. Taking a page out of economics, there is never zero opportunity cost. In this way it is disappointing that Godin does not clearly differentiate; while both add net value the second approach adds markedly more in the long term.
Note, the second approach is phrased as “defaulting to no”, and not “saying no to everything.” In other words (specifically, those of Godin) this is using no “with good intent.” This is a recognition that in most contexts, and for most of us, the number of opportunities available far exceeds our limited resources (notably time and cognitive ability); defaulting to no allows one to fill our finite bucket with what brings real value. Defaulting to no allows us to “choose our battles.”
Thus, defaulting to no does not mean:
- being negative or shooting down ideas
- not wanting to take on fires
- not willing to go above and beyond
Rather, defaulting to no means:
- selectively saying yes and putting heart and soul behind it
- taking on the right fires and challenges
- using one’s own judgment in collaboration with that of others
Thanks to Seth Godin, who shares brilliant anecdotes and insights every single day on his blog.