This One Word Can Change Your Career (In A Good Way)

Unsettle by Sarah Peterson
excitedJiro Ono owns a sushi restaurant. In Tokyo, Sukiyabashi Jiro is a small restaurant inside a subway station. Jiro’s sushi restaurant is extremely popular. His prices are high, his restaurant and menu are small, and he has ample opportunity to earn more money with his business. Jiro could expand his restaurant. With only ten seats, Jiro could easily earn more by squeezing another seat or two. He could move from his post inside a subway station to a larger location with double the amount of seats. After all, double the seats, double the money, right? Jiro could expand his menu. He could offer more than just the sushi that he offers. After all, if he could up sell menu items, he’d make more revenue, right? But Jiro doesn’t do any of these things. Because for Jiro, these aren’t opportunities. They’re responsibilities. Opportunities that you’re not excited by aren’t opportunities. They’re responsibilities. Jiro is focused on one thing: mastering the art of sushi. He’s given his life to the craft of sushi. He’s specialized in sushi and focused on sushi and has said “no” to all of the “opportunities” that don’t lend themselves to his one goal of mastering sushi. So, sure. He could do all of these things and potentially make more money. But if he’s not excited by them? If it doesn’t help him reach his goal? “No” is the best answer.

The Power of “No” and Why it Works

We tend to think of the word “no” as a bad thing. We’re taught to say “yes”. To keep our minds open to new opportunities. To chase the next shiny thing that is dangled in front of us.  Yet success in history shows us that “no” is the more powerful word. “No” works because it enables you to maintain your focus on the one or two things that are truly important to you. It works because it allows you to see things through until completion. It works because when you say “yes” to one thing, you’re saying “no” to absolutely everything else. Let’s say you’re working to get your business off the ground, and have the opportunity for a more demanding role at work which would require an additional 10 hours each week. By saying “yes” to that opportunity, you’re saying “no” to spending those 10 hours building your business. You’re saying “no” to the potential business that would come from focusing on that. You’re saying “no” to opportunities for business growth that you could use those 10 hours to foster. You’re also saying “no” to spending those 10 hours with your friends and family, and “no” to spending those 10 hours working out or becoming more healthy. You’re saying “no” to an infinite number of possibilities of things you could be doing with that time and mental resources. But, even if those other things are more important to you, saying “no” to the opportunity can be painful.

Why It’s So Difficult to Say “No”

Maybe you are – or know – a “yes” (wo)man. It’s difficult to say no to an opportunity because our minds run away on us. We think:
  • What if an opportunity like this never comes up again?
  • What if I say no to this potential client or contract and end up not making any money?
  • What if I say no to an opportunity that would change my entire life, make me millions of dollars and end up leading to huge, exciting things?
Research shows that we feel a loss more painful than the lack of a gain. So, if you were given $20 and then it was taken away, you’d feel it far more painfully than if you were never given the $20 in the first place, even though you’d be in the same financial position. In an experiment done by Dan Ariely at Duke University (described in more detail in his book Predictably Irrational), researchers asked a group of students what price they’d pay for NCAA Final Four tournament tickets. The NCAA games were very popular at Duke at the time, making the tickets desirable to most students. On average, the students in this group said they’d pay $150 for the tickets. The researchers asked the next group to imagine they already had tickets for the game. How much would they sell them for? On average, the students who already “owned” the tickets reported they’d sell them for $1500. You read that right. That’s 10x more than what non-ticket holders would buy them for. This is called the Endowment Effect, and has been proved in study after study: humans value things they already have far more than things they don’t yet have. You might wonder what this has to do with opportunities… The last opportunity you were presented with was likely one you didn’t even know existed before it became an opportunity for you. If you did, it may not have been something you were actively pursuing. However, when you are offered the opportunity – meaning, you already have it in the bag – you value it up to ten times more.  An opportunity offered is 10x more difficult to say no to than an opportunity never offered at all – even if the opportunity doesn’t light you up. It can be much easier to say “no” with some guidelines of what is a true opportunity, rather than something you should have said “no” to.

How to Spot a True Opportunity (And What to Say No To)

As hard as saying “no” is, it’s one of the most important things you can do for success. As Warren Buffet says:
 “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”
To get into that “really successful people” category, you need to set your priority. Notice I said “priority” rather than “priorities“. If you have more than one priority, you aren’t prioritizing anything. Everybody has one thing that works overtime for them – that 20% of actions they take that yields 80% of the results. That one thing needs to be your priority.
  • If you’re a new blogger, your priority could be writing for blogs larger than yours.
  • If you’re trying to get your photography business off the ground, your priority could be creating a beautiful portfolio.
  • If you’re an aspiring freelance writer, your priority may be to increase your writing speed and quality by practicing.
After you’ve set your priority, write it somewhere visible. Then, say no to everything that doesn’t lend itself to your priority.
  • If your priority is guest blogging, say “no” to hopping on the newest social media bandwagon
  • If your priority is writing, say “no” to starting a podcast
  • If your priority is pitching freelance web design clients, say “no” to freelance writing work.
As you say “no” to opportunities that don’t fit with your priority, you’ll find that something interesting happens: Your productivity skyrockets. You begin to get more opportunities that do fit with your priority. And your priority begins to pay off. After you’ve mastered the art of extreme focus by saying no to opportunities, you’ll realize… [Tweet “An opportunity you’re not excited about isn’t an opportunity. It’s a responsibility. “] If you’re a blogger and you say “no” to spending even half an hour each day on yet another social media platform, you’ll have gained three and a half hours each week to spend on your priority. In terms of building an audience, you could write 1-2 guest posts in that amount of time, bringing in hundreds of subscribers. If you’re a web designer and you say “no” to work that doesn’t fit within your realm of expertise, you’ll have gained hours each week to work on finding your dream clients – those clients who pay on time, make it easy to work with them, and for whom the work you do lights you up. If you’re an aspiring writer and you say “no” to a project your friend wants to work with you on that would take up two hours each week, you can use those hours to practice. And over the course of a month, you’ll have gained 8 hours of practice time, and thousands of words. With extreme focus on one priority, you’ll conquer your projects. You’ll become more effective and efficient and, yes, successful. Don’t chase opportunities for the sake of the opportunity. Remember your priority.

15 thoughts on “This One Word Can Change Your Career (In A Good Way)

  1. Gen Y Finance Guy says:

    Great post!
    I am reading “The One Thing” by Gary Keller right now and this is very much in line with the message of the book.
    Constantly asking yourself “what is the one thing I could be doing that would make everything else easier or unnecessary.”
    What is the One Thing that is going to drive my vision and goals forward?
    I remember hearing on the Tim Ferriss podcast “that if it is not a HELL YES, then its a NO.”

    • Sarah says:

      I loved The ONE Thing. It’s a great book. You’d enjoy Essentialism, too. What’s your one thing, then? =)

  2. Craig Morton says:

    Such strength can be found in that simplicity. Saying no is the little step that keeps one focused on the big adventure. “Opportunities that you’re not excited by aren’t opportunities. They’re responsibilities.” – Love that line in this article! Thanks for the inspiring clarity Sarah!

  3. Lisa says:

    Great advice! You could actually apply that same concept to just about anything you’re trying to accomplish – whether you’re trying to get your blog off the ground or get your laundry done. If the opportunity or thought or idea that has just presented itself to you does not help you achieve your goal – say NO! I would think you’d be able to move forward with greater clarity and focus when you stay on task and block out those “things” that can distract you from achieving your goal.

  4. Cathy Goodwin says:

    Very true! This is why people end up with dozens of domain names they can’t bear to give up… or take all their stuff when they move!
    Another good book is the 12-Week Year. The idea is to focus on limited goals for 3 months at time rather than think to a whole year.

    • Sarah says:

      I’ve never read the 12-Week Year – thank you so much for recommending it. I’ll be sure to pick it up.

  5. Lori says:

    Thanks for the reminder Sarah. So simple if we make a habit of asking ourselves. Here’s to conscious action!

  6. Liv says:

    I really enjoyed this article Sarah, reminds me of how important it is to not deviate from your true goals. I definitely need to say “NO” more often in my life, I have been trying to beat procrastination for good ever since I decided to launch my blog. I love your writing style, so clear and practical. Love that you use a lot of examples too, please keep this kind of posts coming!
    Ps. you mistyped “yield” here: “that 20% of actions they take that yeilds 80% of the results.”

    • Sarah says:

      Awesome, Liv, glad you liked it. Thanks for pointing out the typo, too. I would have missed it 🙂

  7. Amine says:

    Thank you Sarah for the beautiful post !
    Does the ONE thing apply to each area of life or one for all ?

    • Sarah says:

      Hey Amine! ONE thing for each area of your life. But with a caveat – nobody ever achieves true balance, so at any given time there will be one thing in your life that really does take priority over the other things.

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