The 19th century humorist Josh Billings once said, “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”
One of my fellow entrepreneurs who follows this column has told me over the years I should meet Seth; that we shared a simpatico trope and were fellow travelers. So I sent Seth Godin an email inviting him for a cup of coffee. Here is his reply.
Alas, I hate meetings and have figured out how not to do them. I’m sorry but we’ll have to be fellow travelers from afar.
Good luck with your work and with your new book.
So much for meeting Seth Godin.
Nevertheless, the rejection of my invitation got me thinking about the art of saying no in business and in life.
Like most active entrepreneurs I am always up to my ass in alligators–looking for 48 hours in every day. I really try to live a balanced and mindful life of revery, quality time with my daughter, maintaining an open servant’s heart to my clients, exercising, reading, and deepening my personal relationships. (Not to mention watching the Mets in the World Series.)
I want to be a good and whole and useful person. While I feel I am generally on the right road, I have a tendency to be a people pleaser. I have not yet found a healthy ease with setting boundaries with the result that I am often over-committed.
For example, I’ve recently accepted board seats for a nonprofit theatre and a small public company. I unquestionably have qualities to offer to both and want to be as helpful as I can, yet I find myself quite anxious with over-busyness and full of an unease and dread that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew.
Master entrepreneur Henry Ford related that when he had a problem in his factories he would find the busiest man around and set him to solving the problem. There is some wisdom to this, in that very busy people are busy because they are good at what they do and are innately competent and efficient. So, as you get more competent in life, you get asked to do more.
I certainly admire my colleagues who have a clear-eyed capacity to say an unhesitant “no.” Note Warren Buffet, who says, “We need to say the slow ‘yes’ and the quick ‘no.'”
In his book Good Business, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi recounts being rejected by his academic colleague and good friend Peter Drucker at Claremont Graduate School in California. Csikszentmihalyi sent a note to Drucker requesting an interview, to which Drucker dryly replied, “I keep a large wastebasket in my office just for requests like this.”
Those business folk who have mastered the prompt, salubrious clarity of the definitive no certainly have a step up on me. I long for an adamantine certainty in knowing my limits. A healthy and engaged business life demands a consistent sense of boundaries. For myself, I’m afraid the people pleaser too often wins out. While I want to be everywhere, learn everything, and collaborate with everybody, I cannot. The ability to say an appropriate and graceful (and sometimes blunt) no is a tangible business value.
So I can’t do it all. At least not well. In a large sense, there is a graceful vitality and even love in mastering the appropriate business no. Over commitment can almost be an act of violence against the self. You need to say no to the penultimate in order to do well that which is ultimate.
Catholic mystic Thomas Merton puts it this way. “The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation in violence. The frenzy of the activist destroys his inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of his own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”
I certainly can’t state the conundrum better that Thomas Merton.