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Why we need to learn to say no to yes for a good worklife

In ‘Smart Growth’, author Whitney Johnson argues learning to say no is part of maturing as a human being and create more focus on work and life

Learning to say no can involve painful identity adjustments.  (iStockphoto)

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"Yes” lifts us off the launch point. The more we say yes, the more opportunities become available to us. But saying yes too often siphons momentum. We need to learn to say no to yes. During the final week of writing before this book’s manuscript was due, for example, I didn’t hem and haw and feel angst like I often do when I am asked for something. Pretty much, no matter what the ask, the answer was no. Being clear on the pressing priority, the pain that I often feel when I say no was alleviated. Saying no without nagging regret is essential for all of us if we are going to focus and transform.

Also read | Book excerpt: A man from Wall Street attends a poetry event

Ryan Westwood (co-founder-CEO at Simplus) understands this. His first foray into business was at age eleven. Inspired by an English class assignment on “Why I want to be an entrepreneur,” Westwood put price tags on all his beloved baseball and basketball cards, got the owner of a local shop to let him set up a kiosk in his store, and sold his sports cards, earning about $10. It felt like “magic,” he says. By age forty, he’d built and sold two companies. In his second business, Simplus, he transformed it from a “broad Salesforce implementer,” to one in which “we only implement one Salesforce technology. We said no to everything else. It took incredible discipline and is counterintuitive to an entrepreneur. But by focusing and differentiating, we landed contracts with the biggest companies in the world.”

As a from-the-cradle entrepreneur, Westwood tends to see S Curve opportunities everywhere. But being a smart growth leader, he knew that to grow Simplus, he would need to transform himself first. From a career standpoint, he said, “I started pursuing [only things] related to Simplus. Anything related to my book, anything related to a podcast, anything related to anything that did not promote Simplus, I said no to it.” Simplus employees followed his lead. They also narrowed their focus, made sacrifices, and kept their efforts concentrated rather than diluted. Westwood hung a sign in his office that read “Simplus.” During meetings he would repeatedly point to it and say, “The main thing is the main thing.” Through focus, supported by uncounted “nos,” Westwood became a smart growth aficionado. After five years, Simplus sold for $250 million to Infosys. This success was not just a victory for Westwood; it transformed the lives of many of his employees.The company sale made it possible for families to buy homes and realize other dreams.

The book cover.
The book cover. (Harvard Business Review Press)

"Yes” lifts us off the launch point. The more we say yes, the more opportunities become available to us. But saying yes too often siphons momentum. We need to learn to say no to yes. During the final week of writing before this book’s manuscript was due, for example, I didn’t hem and haw and feel angst like I often do when I am asked for something. Pretty much, no matter what the ask, the answer was no. Being clear on the pressing priority, the pain that I often feel when I say no was alleviated. Saying no without nagging regret is essential for all of us if we are going to focus and transform.

Also read | Book excerpt: A man from Wall Street attends a poetry event

Ryan Westwood (co-founder-CEO at Simplus) understands this. His first foray into business was at age eleven. Inspired by an English class assignment on “Why I want to be an entrepreneur,” Westwood put price tags on all his beloved baseball and basketball cards, got the owner of a local shop to let him set up a kiosk in his store, and sold his sports cards, earning about $10. It felt like “magic,” he says. By age forty, he’d built and sold two companies. In his second business, Simplus, he transformed it from a “broad Salesforce implementer,” to one in which “we only implement one Salesforce technology. We said no to everything else. It took incredible discipline and is counterintuitive to an entrepreneur. But by focusing and differentiating, we landed contracts with the biggest companies in the world.”

As a from-the-cradle entrepreneur, Westwood tends to see S Curve opportunities everywhere. But being a smart growth leader, he knew that to grow Simplus, he would need to transform himself first. From a career standpoint, he said, “I started pursuing [only things] related to Simplus. Anything related to my book, anything related to a podcast, anything related to anything that did not promote Simplus, I said no to it.” Simplus employees followed his lead. They also narrowed their focus, made sacrifices, and kept their efforts concentrated rather than diluted. Westwood hung a sign in his office that read “Simplus.” During meetings he would repeatedly point to it and say, “The main thing is the main thing.” Through focus, supported by uncounted “nos,” Westwood became a smart growth aficionado. After five years, Simplus sold for $250 million to Infosys. This success was not just a victory for Westwood; it transformed the lives of many of his employees.The company sale made it possible for families to buy homes and realize other dreams.

|#+|This kind of focus is a hallmark of the Metamorph. Transformation isn’t achieved if we repeatedly interrupt the process in the sweet spot. If we can’t focus and say no to new things, we risk becoming what George Leonard, author of the classic Mastery, labeled a “dabbler,” who “might think of himself as an adventurer, a connoisseur of novelty, but he’s probably closer to being what Carl Jung calls the pueraeternus, the eternal kid.” Constantly saying yes to novelty is also saying no to mastery and bidding the Metamorph opportunity goodbye.

The challenge with all this naysaying is that we say yes for good reasons. Yes facilitates relationships. It’s an essential word in a healthy ecosystem. But so is no, even though it’s hard to say. If you see yourself as a helper by nature, or expect yourself to say yes, then saying no is going to cost you emotionally. Or if others expect you to say yes, then the cost of saying no will be accepting that you disappoint other people, often people whose approval matters to you, or people whose approval you need, like a boss, an influential friend, or a future opportunity. Learning to say no can involve painful identity adjustments.

Perhaps that’s why I’m fascinated by the myth of Psyche, Greek goddess of the soul. Psyche’s heroic journey illustrates the trials and triumphs of metamorphosis. Psyche was born a mortal woman. After becoming separated from her husband, the god Eros, Psyche is given four tasks by Eros’s mother, Aphrodite. If Psyche successfully completes these tasks, she and Eros will be reunited. Initially Psyche is overcome with fear. She feels inadequate to accomplish any, much less all, of her tasks. But her cause is great. Psyche proceeds. For the final task, Aphrodite directs Psyche to journey through the underworld, a fearsome and hazardous place, and fill a box with beauty ointment. Psyche is warned that she will encounter people who will beg for help and try to distract her. Psyche must say no if she hopes to accomplish her mission. Psyche triumphs. Psyche and Eros are reunited, and Eros spirits Psyche away to Mount Olympus, where she is made a goddess. If saying yes is to be anything more than mere obligation, we must say yes to what matters most to us (our values and why) and learn to say no to that which matters less. Learning to say no is part of maturing as a human being. Everyone will do it differently. But smart growth requires that everyone learn how to do it.

We need to stay focused if we are going to fly.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Smart Growth: How To Grow Your People To Grow Your Company by Whitney Johnson. ©2022 Whitney Johnson. All rights reserved.

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