Other factors being equal, an astonishing amount of success in life boils down to the words “yes” and “no”.
Woody Allen said:
I made the statement years ago which is often quoted that 80 percent of life is showing up. People used to always say to me that they wanted to write a play, they wanted to write a movie, they wanted to write a novel, and the couple of people that did it were 80 percent of the way to having something happen. All the other people struck out without ever getting that pack. They couldn’t do it, that’s why they don’t accomplish a thing, they don’t do the thing, so once you do it, if you actually write your film script, or write your novel, you are more than half way towards something good happening. So that I was say my biggest life lesson that has worked. All others have failed me.
Showing up is, in my mind, a form of saying “yes”. When you’re trying to change your circumstances, saying “yes” plays an amazingly big role.
Yes to the open-mic night. Yes to the call for proposals. Yes to the meetup invite. Yes to the last-minute speaker slot that opens up, no matter how much of a hassle it is to change your plans. Yes to the audition. Yes to the local community organizer who is looking for some help. Yes to the OSS project that needs a new maintainer.
This isn’t some airheaded yes-to-the-universe new age woo-woo. All of these “yeses” involve doing some legwork first. You have to be in the right place to hear the question. You have to do a little research, be on the right mailing lists, follow the right people. Fortunately, the Internet makes this part relatively easy, assuming you have access.
But it’s not all about saying “yes”. Some of the biggest turning points in my career so far have stemmed from saying “no”. For instance, the time I had a new consulting job all lined up, waiting for me to say “yes”. Instead I said “no”, because I wanted to work on my own projects full time for once. I spent six months or so scrambling to get by on two-hour consultations while bootstrapping my screencasting business. Now screencasting is my full-time job.
Saying “no” is just as much a super-power as saying “yes”. The first big “no” is scary, but it’s also a profoundly empowering moment. Saying “no” is a statement about what opportunity is more important to you in the long run. It’s a declaration of independence. Saying no to 11 things can be the key to kicking ass at a 12th thing. Saying “no” can clear the path to new opportunities. And somewhat counter-intuitively, saying “no” can bring more requests to your doorstep. A confident “no” is an announcement that you are a person with a goal; not just an opportunist or a person with boundary issues.
Of course, this leads naturally to a big question: when do you say no, and when do you say yes?
This isn’t a simple question. An ill-chosen “no” can throw away a big opportunity. And the world is filled with people who are more than willing to take advantage of your willingness to say “yes”.
I can’t claim to have mastered this decision. But here are a few thoughts:
Start with “yes”.
Say “yes” to things that scare you.
Say “no” to things that bore you.
Say “yes” if you are bored or feeling uninspired.
Don’t say “no” to generic opportunities. Wait until people are asking you, specifically, to do things before you start saying “no”.
Say “yes” to to requests from people you respect.
Never say “yes” to anyone who promises you’ll get rich quick.
Don’t say “yes” to “opportunities” that cost money. Unless someone you respect, who is not broke, and who does not benefit also vouches for it.
Say “yes” to children, as often as possible.
Say “yes” when people less successful than you ask for help or advice. Karma works.
Say “no” to people who always seem to have a new project every six months, and none of the projects ever seem to go anywhere.
Say “yes” to that thing you don’t feel qualified for.
Say “no” to a “once-in-a-lifetime deal”.
Say “yes” to a chance to meet people.
That’s all I can think of right now. Feel free to suggest your own in the comments.