Great employees say “yes!”
Great entrepreneurs say “no.”
On the surface, it may seem like saying yes — to new ideas, events, and possibilities — is the healthier and happier way to live life. We’re always told to take chances. Open your mind. Step outside of your comfort zone. Often, this translates into a sense that you need to say “yes” to every opportunity that comes your way.
But I’m here to assert the opposite: if you want to get anywhere as a solopreneur, you need to get really damn good at saying “no.”
“No” Wasn’t In My Vocabulary
I was practically born a people-pleaser. I used to be the person who would apologize when someone else stepped on my foot. The type who would drop an important freelance project to answer a random call. The type who would endure hours of discomfort rather than speak my mind about my own needs.
I withdrew from one college and flunked out of another because I was busy managing the emotions of those around me — especially boyfriends. I was always saying “yes” to every invitation, every gathering, every date, even when I was double-booked, because what if I said “no”?
I might hurt someone’s feelings.
I might get a reputation for being rude.
I wanted so badly for everyone to like me that I went on like this for years, laughing when I didn’t find things funny, agreeing when deep down I disagreed firmly. I would flit from task to task at work, at home, always busy and “getting stuff done” but never really making progress toward anything big because I just needed to take on everything at once.
I hit my breaking point in 2014, shortly after my divorce. I was paying rent on two separate houses in order to support myself, my ex, and a close friend who was recently homeless. My daughter was three, and I was also paying daycare for her so I could work full-time. I drank a lot and went out to eat a lot because I felt like I deserved it — which further weakenked my financial situation and my health.
One close friend put it to me bluntly: “Amanda, it’s like you have three kids right now. But you really only have one.”
She was right. But I was afraid if I didn’t take care of my friends or partners in this way — that if I didn’t go far above and beyond the call of duty — that they would stop loving me or they would leave me altogether.
It was strange, but my desire to give and say yes wasn’t a result of my having a well full of love that others could draw on (that’s almost where I’m at, now). My desire to give and say yes came from deep insecurity and fear.
Taking on Too Much At Work
On top of that, back in 2014, I said “yes” to every project my main client threw my way, and over the course of a few weeks I fell behind on every one of these projects. I said “yes” to being my sister’s maid of honor, because it was obvious that I should play this role when she so kindly did the same for me years before.
What happened over the following year was a tragic domino effect: every “yes” turned sour as, one by one, I failed my clients, my family, and my friends.
I lost my home and turned to living mobile because I couldn’t afford rent anymore. I sold everything I owned to make ends meet, and moved out of state to start over — but really, I just wanted to run away.
My story is an extreme example of what happens when you say “yes” to everything, but it shows how our best intentions can turn around and destroy everything when we’re busy doing, doing, doing and getting nothing done.
Take Care of You, So You Can Take Care of Others
Anyone who has experienced burnout at work has probably gotten there out of fear: fear of being fired, of losing the sale, of letting a client down. When you’re an employee, sometimes, saying “no” actually can mean losing your job. As a result, you get into the habit of saying “sure!” anytime you’re confronted with a challenge. You don’t want to appear stubborn or unwilling to learn.
But when you’re an entrepreneur, saying yes to everything can become the death of you, because there’s so much to say yes to. There are always new ideas, new productivity apps, new ways of doing things. The tech entrepreneur community is practically brimming with newness and excitement — and it can feel like saying no to any of it might set you back or make you lose out.
But in reality, saying no is what will keep your business going — and what will keep you healthy.
Much in the same way that I started learning how to say no to unreasonable demands and unhealthy behaviors, you, too, can learn to say no to everything that isn’t setting your business up for success in the long run.
Try it. Next time a client asks you to do something outside of your specialization, say, “that’s not my area of expertise, but I’d be happy to connect you with a colleague of mine who rocks at that.”
Or next time you get an email notification while you’re elbows-deep in an important project, turn your phone over and check it later.
Say “No” to the Right Things
Sort your true responsibilities from the imaginary ones. Yes, you do need to get your client’s ad campaign ready by its launch date in two weeks — but that doesn’t mean you should put your sales efforts on hold just because they’re ongoing.
The sales you do this week could mean you’ll have a new client in two weeks, but the ad campaign will be due in two weeks no matter what.
Bottom line? The ad campaign can wait.
It’s an art to be able to recognize the difference between something urgent and something that really can wait. Some people are naturally better at this than others.
I still struggle. The promising sound of a new text message (just got one, actually, and checked it) can be immensely hard to resist at times. But we all know we shouldn’t be popping over to Facebook while working, or doing the laundry while we should be preparing for a call.
The more dangerous distractions are those disguised as productive activities, like:
- Taking on a project that’s not in your wheelhouse, and may require a steep learning curve
- Allowing a phone call with a client to go 30 minutes over the scheduled time
- Reading industry emails as they pop up in your inbox
- Answering a friend’s question about your area of expertise in the middle of your work day
- Scheduling a personal appointment in the middle of your work day because you work from home and have the “flexibility” to do this
- Filling the majority of your hours doing client work, when you should be carving out regular time for sales, marketing, and administrative tasks
Practice saying no, or at least saying not right now. While letting the wind carry you can be a great way to experience life when you’re on vacation, you’re not on vacation right now. You’re at work.
Decide where you want to go, then go there.
And say “no” to everything that gets in your way.