It’s not what we say “yes” to that makes up our life, it’s what we say “no” to.
“No” is a word I used to hate, even avoid. As a recovering perfectionist and ex-people pleaser, it also wasn’t part of my vocabulary.
But as I’ve grown up over the years—alongside the humbling lessons of starting, building, and growing a business—I’ve learned to love the word “no.” In some cases even crave it. “No” for me does not have to mean rejection, an indicator of worth, or necessarily not liking something. “No” for me means focus.
Have you ever been told to “focus”? If you’re anything like me you have. I used to see “focus” as laborious, stifling, and to be frank, a back-ended way of telling someone to stop creating and dreaming. I would envision my 4th grade teacher telling me to focus when I just wanted to do group work in school. Or my parents who used to tell me to focus on my major and not pursue the “distractions” of x, y, and z so I could graduate sooner. But what if focus didn’t mean capping off creativity, possibility, or potential? What if it meant clearing space so the creativity, possibility, and potential you actually care about have room and space to flourish? When I began to think of saying “no” in this light, a new context became clear for me.
We live in an age and society where you don’t need to be one thing anymore. There’s such a thing as being multi-passionate, multi-dimensional, and completely non-binary all at once. Boundaries are made, broken, and reinvented overnight, and the concept of identity is constantly in flux as we grapple with the world and our place in it. The possibilities can be endless. But sometimes too many choices cause us to make no choice at all—a catch-22 of today, and something I’ve definitely faced navigating life and business. When the world is your oyster and data is literally at the tips of your fingers, at what point is being able to do and be anything no longer liberating but exhausting?
Though Steve Jobs wasn’t exactly the kindest human on the planet, he was undeniably pretty brilliant. Did you know he used to have trouble saying “no”, too? Most creators do because our minds are bubbling with ideas and opportunities all the time. But what separates a single idea from a visionary is our ability to pick and choose wisely what we say yes and no to—not just in our craft, but in life. Jobs once said, “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things.”
As I look at my blank notebook, contemplating what I want to focus on this year, I can’t help but think of things from the mindset of: what do I want to say “no” to in 2021? What are the “nos” worth saying so I can actually focus on the select “yeses” of my life? What are some nos I can be proud of this year?