Saying "yes" when we should be saying "no" can seem like a small thing in the moment. But over time, such compromises can create a life of regrets. Greg McKeown explains how he learnt the importance of "no" and why we should all be saying it more often.
Image remixed from Picsfive. (Shutterstock)
"A 'no' uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a 'yes' merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble." So said Mahatma Gandhi, and we all know how his conviction played out on the world stage.
I had the opportunity to apply Gandhi's example of prioritisation to my own life, hours before one of my daughters was born. I felt pressure to go to a client meeting the next day. But on this occasion, I knew what to do. It was clearly a time to be there for my wife and child. So when asked to attend the meeting, I said with all the conviction I could muster...
To my shame, while my wife lay in the hospital with my hours-old baby, I went to the meeting. Afterwards, my colleague said, "The client will respect you for making the decision to be here." But the look on the clients' faces mirrored how I felt. What was I doing there?! I had not lived true to Gandhi's saying. I had said "yes" to please.
As it turned out, exactly nothing came of the client meeting. And even if the client had respected my choice and key business opportunities had resulted, I would still have struck a fool's bargain. My wife supported me and trusted me to make the right choice under the circumstances, and I had opted to deprioritise her and my child.
Why did I do it? I have two confessions:
First, I allowed social awkwardness to trump making the right decision. I wasn't forced to attend the meeting. Instead, I was so anxious to please that even awkward silent pauses on the phone were too much for me. In order to stop the social pain, I said "yes" when I knew the answer should be "no".
Second, I believed that "I had to make this work". Logically, I knew I had a choice, but emotionally, I felt that I had no choice. That one corrupted assumption psychologically removed many of the actual choices available to me.
What can you do to avoid the mistake of saying "yes" when you know the answer should be "no"?
First, separate the decision from the relationship. Sometimes these seem so interconnected that we forget there are two different questions we need to answer. By deliberately dividing these questions, we can make a more conscious choice. Answer the question, "What is the right decision?" and then "How can I communicate this as kindly as possible?"
Second, watch your language. Every time we say, "I have to take this call" or "I have to send this piece of work off" or "I have to go to this client meeting", we are assuming that previous commitments are non-negotiable. Every time you use the phrase "I have to" over the next week, stop and replace it with "I choose to". It can feel a little odd at first — and in some cases it can even be gut-wrenching (if we are choosing the wrong priority). But using this language ultimately reminds us that we are making choices, which enables us to make a different choice.
Third, avoid working for or with people who don't respect your priorities. It may sound simplistic, but this is a truly liberating rule! There are people who share your values and as a result make it natural to live your priorities. It may take a while to find an employment situation like this, but you can set your course to that destination immediately.
Saying "yes" when we should be saying "no" can seem like a small thing in the moment. But over time such compromises can create a life of regrets. Indeed, an Australian nurse named Bronnie Ware, who cared for people in the last 12 weeks of their lives, recorded the most often-discussed regrets. At the top of the list: "I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me." (Read the Top 5 Regrets here).
We may not develop Gandhian levels of courage immediately, but surely we can do better than having to look back on our lives and regret that we lived by someone else's priorities.
If You Don't prioritise Your Life, Someone Else Will [Harvard Business Review]
Greg McKeown is the CEO of THIS Inc, a leadership and strategy design agency headquartered in Silicon Valley. He was recently named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. Greg did his graduate work at Stanford. Connect with him on Twitter @GregoryMcKeown and read his Harvard Business Review posts here.