No. It’s amazing how this simple two-letter word has spawned so many articles, studies and blog posts. How do you feel when you hear or read those two letters? Should we say NO more often, or less often – to our kids, to our boss, to our customers, to the never-ending stream of information available to us today?
Depending on your perspective at any given moment, “no” can have positive or negative connotations. Inherently, the word is negative. But what about all those articles on “The Power of No”? Sometimes it feels great to say no. In other cases, saying no can mean missing a wonderful opportunity. How can we balance the purpose and the pessimism of no?
The Purpose of No
No gives us a sense of control. It defines limits and boundaries. Whether you’re talking about spending, investing, parenting or productivity, limits are essential. We simply can’t say yes to everything and everyone or we will inevitably burn out. (Incidentally, April was Stress Awareness Month. )
Here are a few of the ways limits can help with different parts of our lives:
Spending: Obviously, we need to limit our expenses to an amount that is well below our income. Build savings, not debt. That requires restraint.
Investing: When investing our hard-earned savings, we need to limit our risk and maximize our reward potential. This is much easier said than done, and will mean different things to different people depending on their risk profile. Still, investment boundaries are essential. Consider stop loss levels, tactical asset allocation and rebalancing as risk management options.
Parenting: One of the best books I ever read on parenting was Barbara Coloroso’s Kids Are Worth It. In it, she draws a distinction between “brick wall” and “jellyfish” parenting. Brick wall parents have too many boundaries, and jellyfish parents, few or none. Rather, she advocates “backbone” parenting: lots of logical limits combined with plenty of flexibility.
Productivity: In order to be more productive, we need to place strict limits on how we spend our attention. Multitasking doesn’t work. Neither does overtasking. There are only so many minutes in your day, and days in your life. Spend them wisely.
The Pessimism of No
Seth Godin had an excellent blog post a couple of weeks back on The Coalition of No. It was a great reminder that, while “no” is essential in some of the ways we described above, it can become a negative influence (literally) if we use it too often. Here’s Seth on the dangers of the coalition of no:
It’s easy to join.
There are a million reasons to say no, but few reasons to stand up and say yes.
No requires just one objection, one defensible reason to avoid change. No has many allies–anyone who fears the future or stands to benefit from the status quo. And no is easy to say, because you actually don’t even need a reason.
Limits can be very useful, but they’re also – well – limiting. Used in excess, they prevent us from moving forward, setting goals, learning new things, and reaching for our dreams. These are the things that engage us, give our lives meaning, and enrich us in ways that money just can’t. (If we do them just right, by the way, they can bring in money too – see Apple.)
Pushing Boundaries Without Chaos
How about a few ideas on how pushing boundaries can help rather than hurt? We can embrace change and flex boundaries without breaking them. That’s the idea behind backbone parenting and it can apply to all sorts of things. Try these corollaries to our list of purposeful limits:
Spending: Can you save a little extra in order to realize a long-time dream like starting your own business, going back to school or taking that vacation you thought you could never afford? What are you willing to risk or give up to get there?
Investing: Are you willing to invest a little in yourself? What habits are you willing to break to do it? How about learning a little more about investing and risk management so that you can understand investing better? Even if you want to use an advisor, at least you’ll have an idea whether they’re worth their fees or not.
Parenting: I can vouch for the idea that letting go can be quite unnerving for a parent. We want to protect our kids, to keep them safe at all costs. Not only is it our desire, it’s our duty. But saying no too much can be just as harmful as saying yes to everything. I like to say yes as often as I realistically can so that I can utter a firm no when I need to. I’ve found that you have to know your own kids too. What’s perfectly safe for one may be a risky proposition for another.
Productivity: Could you grow your business faster or snag that promotion at work if you pushed a few boundaries? What if you came up with a creative idea to solve a problem – and actually told somebody about it? What if you stopped just mailing it in like a lot of your competitors or coworkers? What if you cared, took that extra step, and went above and beyond the call of duty?
The Bottom Line
There you go. “The bottom line” is itself another kind of boundary. It signals a moment to pause and tabulate where we stand. What’s the bottom line on those two little letters? N-O. No is simultaneously essential and poisonous. Like any other tool, it can help a lot, but only if we know how to use it properly.
How do you balance the power of no?