“What you do today is important because you are exchanging a day of your life for it.” ~Unknown
Are you afraid of saying no in your professional life because you think you’ll miss out on a big opportunity? I’ve learned that a quick yes can sink a lot of ships. God only knows I’ve taken on too much at times because I feared I’d miss out on something life changing.
We view opportunities as golden nuggets that are few and far between, so we snatch them up before someone else does, even if they don’t really excite us. But many of them are nothing more than fool’s gold—a superficial resemblance to what we actually want.
It’s just so damn hard to pass on something that sounds promising like a new role at work, a chance to join an exciting new project, or an invitation to pitch your business idea (even if it’s hats for cats). And we’d be stupid to say anything but yes because it’s now or never, right?
This is a sh*t storm brewing up a triple threat of overcommitted, overwhelmed, and overloaded, when all those exciting opportunities start feeling more like burdens.
Grace Bonney is an author, blogger, and entrepreneur who knows a thing or two about this struggle. Bonney wrote The New York Times bestseller In the Company of Women, a book featuring more than 100 stories about women entrepreneurs who overcame adversity.
Bonney had this to share on saying no:
“The biggest fear most of us have with learning to say no is that we will miss an opportunity. An opportunity that would have catapulted us to success, or that will never come again. And most of the time, that simply isn’t true. I’ve found that the first part of learning to say no is learning to accept that offers and opportunities are merely an indication that you’re on the right path—not that you’ve arrived at a final destination you can never find again. If someone is choosing you, it means you’re doing something right. And that is the biggest opportunity you can receive—the chance to recognize that your hard work is paying off. And if you continue to do good work, those opportunities will continue—and improve—over time.”
I know what she’s talking about because I used to put myself in this situation at least once a year. I would ignore this lesson and believe that this time would be different (and it never is).
I remember one time I was sitting on the edge of my bed feeling like I had been kicked out of an airplane without a parachute. I could hear a violent whoosh sound in my ears as my boss picked up. “I don’t think I’m going to be able to come in today, I’m…”
It was too late. I was already freefalling. I was experiencing my first panic attack. I couldn’t finish the sentence. The tears started coming as I blurted out, “I’m sorry, I’ve taken on too much and it’s hitting me all at once.”
I was in a full-time job I loved, I had returned to school to become a certified coach, and I was attempting to start a business. As if all of that wasn’t enough, I’d also accepted an invitation to kick off a new innovation team because I thought it would look good on my resume and I was afraid I might never get an opportunity like that again.
It’s sad to say, but my partner was left with a burned-out, easily agitated shadow of support. In an attempt to give us a better life, I had made life miserable.
I sucked all the fun out of these exciting opportunities by pushing myself to a limit that clearly wasn’t sustainable.
But then I did something magical. I started to say no.
From then onward, I used three questions to help me filter possible opportunities in order to gain clarity.
What does this opportunity mean to me?
Why is this opportunity important to me?
What does this opportunity give me?
Answering these questions helped me see that I’d put zero thought into a lot of stuff I was saying yes to because I was trying to create a “successful” life.
But I knew what I wanted my days to look like and what “success” actually meant to me. And more importantly, I understood that success without fulfillment is the ultimate failure.
My north star of success is freedom. Having the freedom to invest my focus in the things that matter to me. Which means I need to do less so I can enjoy more.
Now I’m not willing to accept an opportunity unless it truly excites me and I take something else off my plate. I’m unwilling to sacrifice my values. I trust that bigger and better opportunities will continue to come my way (if I keep improving and honing my craft).
This gives me a measuring stick I can reference before I take on any new opportunities. Because a big part of saying no is the power it gives you to go all-in on something awesome when it comes across your plate (without being overcommitted, overloaded, and overwhelmed by sh*t you don’t care about).
Bonney shifted my thinking of how I view opportunities. Rather than see an offer as a one-off that I need to jump on, it’s a sign that I’m on the right path. If someone wants to partner with me, it means I’m doing something right. As long as I continue to do what got me noticed in the first place, the opportunities will continue and improve in the future.
Life is too damn short to be overcommitted, overloaded, and overwhelmed by a schedule of projects and people that bring you no joy. In the words of philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”
Don’t see saying no as letting people down. You’re actually letting people down when you say yes, but don’t have the capacity or the enthusiasm to knock it out of the park. If you won’t say no for yourself, say it for the rest of us, because the world is a better place when you’re working on things you love.