Why Saying “No” is Essential to Success

Saying "No" Can Lead to a Better "Yes"


I have a confession to make…somehow I fell into the trap that you can do it all. And the way to “do it all” was to just keep saying yes. Another meeting? Ok. Another “quick” phone call? Why not. Another board role? Sure. You get the idea.

The problem is, it’s all a big lie. You can’t do it all.

Earlier this year, I read Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown, which presents the idea that if people and businesses do less—but better—they can focus on what they do best, helping them make a greater overall contribution. What a simple, but powerful concept that rings true now more than ever. More is not more—less is more.

Are you actually being productive or are you just staying busy? Essentialism isn’t about finding ways to get it all done or even doing less. It’s about prioritizing the most important things instead of partially committing to the trivial many. Most importantly, essentialism isn’t a one-time “Spring cleaning” of your plate. It’s a commitment to a new way of doing things—and that’s the only way it will truly work.

Just recently, I had the opportunity to hear McKeown speak at the EDGE | X Conference where he discussed the idea that “if everything’s important, nothing is.” Too often, we are asked to make commitments to projects that we may or may not feel passionate about. But as McKeown asserts, “if you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.” When we make larger, more strategic investments of time among a shorter list of priorities, not surprisingly, we have the focus and energy to do them better.

I was blown away by the simple concept. Here I was, being pulled in a number of directions and overwhelmed by my long list of commitments. I was slowly becoming spread too thin to be helpful to anyone. So, I began investing my time in a smaller handful of strategically chosen projects that I was passionate about.  For example, instead of spending my time scattered across a dozen early stage investments going at it alone I was able to achieve significantly more focus, help and leverage by joining Hyde Park Venture Partners as a General Partner. We’ve now gone on to make over 25 investments resulting in $75 million in follow-on investments in just the last 2 years.

So, how do we as seemingly intelligent people continually find ourselves here? Because truthfully, saying “no” is not much fun. Stepping back from long-standing commitments is difficult. Being the person to decline meetings isn’t how you want to be known. We’d prefer everyone to like us and it seems the best way to make this happen is to say “yes” to avoid hurt feelings. But is sacrificing your top priorities a better alternative?

In Greg McKeown’s book, Essentialism, he compares the life of an essentialist vs. non-essentialist. (Source: Greg McKeown)

Pruning Life’s Branches

Those with even a hint of a green thumb know that every living thing needs pruning to increase future fruitfulness and growth. Without pruning, things grow out of control and the health of the plant, human, project, business, etc. is at risk. This concept applies in your own work and time management—what commitments have you made that are now causing other “branches” to choke with overgrowth?

Pruning back your commitments starts by asking a few simple questions:

  • What are you currently saying “yes” to?
  • What are you saying “no” to?
  • What do you believe you’re uniquely called to do?
  • Are your current priorities helping you foster that calling?

I remember taking this approach earlier in my career when I was the VP of Worldwide Digital Marketing for Coca-Cola. At 29, I was traveling like crazy, missing out on time with my family, and was left wondering if I was truly living the life I was called to. I was playing on a big stage, but knew it came at a significant cost. Through my role on the WebTrends customer advisory board, I was introduced to the world of B2B marketing. Through interacting with many of their top customers I began to sense how technology was dramatically changing the marketing landscape, and developed a strong conviction that the most transformational marketing opportunities would open up in B2B vs B2C (seems logical now, but trust me, this was far from the prevailing thinking a decade ago). I ultimately took a leap of faith in accepting the CMO role at WebTrends. The idea of combining marketing, tech, and finance in a more entrepreneurial company was something I was not only passionate about, but something I truly felt called to.

Of course, my transition from a worldwide leader in marketing to a small team at WebTrends didn’t come without a few strange glances from my family, friends, and colleagues. After all, going after what you believe you’re uniquely called to do doesn’t come without a certain amount of risk—and often—others disagreeing with your decision. However, that doesn’t make it the wrong decision. At the end of the day, you are the one who answers for your own decision.  Fast forward a few years, and I can clearly see the connecting points of how WebTrends led to ExactTarget, and ExactTarget to Hyde Park Venture Partners. Sometimes you have to close a door to recognize an even better door to walk through.

Saying No Can Lead to a Better Yes

Most importantly, sometimes saying no can lead to a better yes. By way of example, over the last few months I was asked dozens of times how to most effectively create a demand gen plan.  While I didn’t have the ability to take all the individual meetings to discuss the topic, I was able to communicate to a much larger audience via my blog (CMOVC.com). Though I hated to say no to several meetings that I would’ve enjoyed taking, I was now able to reach an audience of thousands in a more clear and concise way than I could’ve communicated verbally.

I’m hoping to save you some of the time of my past mistakes by encouraging you to take this holiday season to both give thanks for the blessings in your life, while also feeling the freedom to prune the necessary branches. I’m incredibly grateful for my incredible family, great friends, the best partners I could hope for at Hyde Park Venture Partners, and amazing entrepreneurs I get to work with daily that are building great businesses across the midwest. The only way to keep the things you’re most grateful for at the top of your priority list is being willing to say no to other things. As painful as pruning may be, the alternative may be worse. If you’re afraid to prune to get to the essential pieces of your life, perhaps you are afraid to grow.

PS: If you need some help to get started, I found these resources incredibly helpful:

Greg McKeown:

Michael Hyatt:

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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