Things to say no to if you want to succeed

In our early careers we learned to say yes to everything; but soon, as we gain experience, we are faced with the opposite problem: a flood of opportunities, with uncertainty about what to say no to. We each only have 168 hours a week to fulfill our personal and professional obligations.

That’s okay, yes. Saying no is a skill and it opens new doors. Every time you say no, you are taking the first step to say yes to something else. Here are three things you need to learn to say no if you want to experience long-term success:

Say no existing obligations

Quitting sucks. The famous saying goes, “Winners never give up, and quitters never win.” It’s a great saying to touch the value of perseverance and guts. At any point, however, every winner has — and had to — quit. Anyone who has done something worth doing has made an important and deliberate decision to stop doing something, to make room for it.

Seth Godin wrote a short book entitled: the dip on the subject, but it is more than that. It’s a book about saying no to focus so you’re free to say yes to something else – whether you know it or not. As he writes, expanding the topic, “The way you become the best in the world is to stop doing things where you can’t be the best. Then you have the means to invest to get through the dip.”

In this case, our resources are primarily our attention, our morale, and our motivation—valuable assets that we cannot outsource to anyone else. This level of focus is critical even at a company level. Former Apple designer Jony Ive put it aptly: “What’s the focus, saying no to something you think with every bone in your body is a phenomenal idea. And you wake up thinking about it, but you say no to it. Because you focus on something else.”

Because quitting is so frowned upon, we have publicly disguised what quitting looks like: this CEO becomes chairman, who becomes creative director becomes advisor. Read between the lines. Someone is scaling back and preparing to quit. Know that at some point you may have to do the same, and prepare yourself.

Say no to other definitions of success

Saying no is key to avoiding being spread too thin. Instead of dividing your attention to adequately pursue some ideas, you commit to doing just one thing very, very well. In a Hot Ones interview, Pusha T says:

“I’m the Martin Scorsese of street rap. That’s how I want to be seen. Even just being creative, Scorsese will give 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 quickly.’

You can also choose to serve a specific group of people, and say no to the rest. You don’t have to be the best for everyone. You just have to be the best for someone you know – or have decided to get to know – better than most other people. To do that, you have to define what you are not going to do and who you are not serving or making things for.

When that happens, your brain naturally focuses, learns to do better work, and opportunities come your way. You also attract people who value artistic integrity and count on you for your expertise. You feel energized, as if you can set an unrealistic goal, and you gain strength.

Eventually, while you’re at work, you begin 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’re committed to and your vision isn’t clouded by regular symbols of success.

Don’t try to be the best for everyone. Instead, strive to be the best for someone and decide who you don’t want.

Say no to quick, easy opportunities

Today there is no shortage of shiny opportunities. Emerging markets include web3, magic mushrooms and NFTs.

Rather than choosing to chase each of these — and take unnecessary financial risks that could hurt your focus — stay committed to making what you do best. 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 everyone is looking for, meaning it’s not in short supply.

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