Beware of the sage on the stage.
I recently attended a business networking event, which reiterated why I normally don’t do such things.
I had the misfortune of witnessing a ‘sage on the stage’ (a random local entrepreneur with modest levels of success, likely earned through timing, sheer persistence, and luck as opposed to deliberate practice), spewed forth the following verbal diarrhea.
“Say yes to everything”.
He proceeded to trace his own personal journey and said that saying yes to things is what had put him on a collision course with opportunity-creating serendipity.
Whenever someone uses personal anecdotes, you should be wary, because they are likely falling victim to the narrative fallacy — our tendency to condense complex events into easy to understand narratives, and essentially draw a linear story. As anybody who has had some level of success knows, success is anything but linear — and as Behance founder, Scott Belsky, said on the Future Squared podcast, “we tend to misattribute our success to things we’d rather remember than things we’d rather forget”.
Such anecdotal advice is also flawed for the following reasons:
2. it is easy to disregard all of the times one said “yes” that didn’t create any meaningful opportunity, or forget the times when saying “no” did
3. most things aren’t black and white
And perhaps the most poignant…
4. Every time you say “yes” to something, you are saying “no” to everything else.
Saying no is actually fundamental to our ability to navigate the world around us.
Can you imagine a world in which you responded to every advertisement you saw, entertained every cold caller, responded to every random email from an offshore web developer or SEO consultant, attended every Facebook event, allocated capital into every investment opportunity you were presented with and attended every meeting with someone who reached out to ‘pick your brain’?
You would find yourself out of time and out of money, very, very quickly.
Not only that, but you would be putting other people’s priorities ahead of your own.
In order to best evaluate opportunities and say yes or no consciously, you must first define your north star:
When I took my first entrepreneurial steps back in 2012, I wanted two things; to live a life true to myself (values) — away from the bullsh*t politics of the corporate world, and to build a business where I could earn at least what I was making in the corporate world (objectives).
In terms of process, I initially frequented meetup events that brought like-minded people together to talk shop. But I quickly realized that I could learn whatever I needed far quicker through podcasts and books (process), and that the overwhelming majority of people I met weren’t people that I could learn anything worthwhile or immediately applicable from.
As such, I stopped going to such events and instead invested heavily into consuming targeted material that would help me overcome any business challenges I was having — because it’s unlikely that the 100 people at networking events are all facing the exact same challenge at the exact same time.
This was a far better use of my time and got me closer to my north star, much faster than drinking cheap beer and pizza, and making small-talk with ‘wantrapreneurs’ at startup meetups could ever have done.
Our brains are hard-wired to conserve energy, owing to our evolutionary survival instincts, so we need to fight what author Steven Pressfield calls, ‘the resistance’, and avoid picking the lowest hanging fruit.
Going to an event to listen to people speak is far easier than reading the books, and more importantly, applying the learnings to your unique circumstances. Taking the path of least resistance often comes at a detriment to your north star.
Serendipity is a thing, and chance encounters can create significant opportunities or meaningful relationships, but these encounters are few and far between. For every person I’ve met at a networking event that created some kind of opportunity, I’ve met hundreds more where I wish I could have got that time back.
As such, while you should say “no” to almost everything that doesn’t align with your north star, it makes sense to create space for an oxymoron I like to call ‘deliberate serendipity’.
This essentially means saying yes to things you’d normally say no to but only on occasion. The frequency with which you say yes should become apparent to you the more you practice.
In a fast-changing, hyper-responsive, always-on world, where people shy away from conflict and fall victim to their path-of-least-resistance evolutionary predispositions, the ability to disconnect, say “no”, and focus is a massive competitive advantage.
It gives you more of that commodity that once spent, you will never get back; time. As Ancient Roman philosopher, Seneca, put it, “it is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much…the life we receive is not short but we make it so because we have wastefully.”
The more time you have to invest in the things that matter, that align with your north star, the faster you’ll get there — the investment compounds; a one percent improvement each day adds up to a 37X improvement by the end of the year.
And if it’s anecdotal you’re after, saying no to most things has given me the mental clarity and space to build two profitable businesses, write several books, become a writer for HBR and host a 362-episode strong podcast all in the last few years, and all while learning to skateboard, ride a motorbike, surf, travel the world and building genuine relationships.
So before you become a slave to randomness, and become a proverbial pinball, define your north star, reflect on it every time an opportunity presents itself, and say yes or no, consciously.
Steve Glaveski is on a mission to unlock your potential to do your best work and live your best life. He is the founder of innovation accelerator, Collective Campus, author of several books, including Employee to Entrepreneur and Time Rich, and productivity contributor for Harvard Business Review. He’s a chronic autodidact and is into everything from 80s metal and high-intensity workouts to attempting to surf and hold a warrior three pose.