How learning to say ‘no’ helped me to earn a PhD and launch a successful business

learn to say noI remember it well: My wife and I quit our jobs, sold our stuff, packed our suitcases and boarded a plane destined for the UK.

We’d only been married for a year.

When we touched down in Edinburgh, Scotland, we didn’t have jobs, we didn’t know anyone and we hadn’t yet found a flat. It was a gigantic leap of faith, as you can imagine.

We worked quickly, and I was fortunate to land a part-time position the next day at a private college teaching finance and business studies. My wife also secured a great position with a large bank. But that wasn’t why we were there…we’d headed to Scotland because I’d been accepted to a PhD program (programme?) at the University of St. Andrews.

As you can imagine, we were crazy busy and I quickly learned that I had to work ridiculously hard to perform as a scholar and an instructor.

This is how I learned the hidden power of saying ‘no’, and it is one of the secrets to my success. In fact, this experience convinced me that saying ‘no’ is also one of the healthiest things any entrepreneur can do.

A large part of success is about learning to say ‘no’ rather than ‘yes’

Learning to say no to bad ideas, time wasting activities, unhealthy habits and sometimes even fun things like parties, can profoundly impact your life in positive ways and help you to achieve your goals. In short, if you are a budding entrepreneur, saying no is going to be one of the most valuable tools you can add to your skill-set.

However, in many eastern cultures and contexts, it is considered impolite to say no, so people often agree to things they don’t really want to commit to. When I moved to Asia, I struggled with this, but that is a story for another time. In the west, we might not have that same stigma associated with saying no as people do in the east, but we still say yes far more than we should.

We say ‘yes’ to dead-end jobs, junk food, to other people’s agendas, to inactivity, to wasting our time on social media, to working too much, to unreasonable client requests, to coasting through life, and to poor financial planning.  I should know, because I’ve been there.

If saying no is so valuable, why don’t people do it more often?

We’ve all heard of ‘yes men’, the kind of people who always say what they think others want to hear. I would argue that what the world needs are people who aren’t afraid to say ‘no’.

  1. They worry that it will mean a missed opportunity
    • Our quality of life is often the result of the decisions we’ve made. Therefore we are constantly dealing with opportunity cost regardless of the choices we make. Giving up one thing to do another always has a cost of some sort. You will have to choose which you value more: building a lifestyle business or doing something else. Saying no isn’t about rejecting opportunities, it is about being selective and intentional about which opportunities you pursue.
  2. They aren’t self-aware enough to realize that they have personal autonomy
    • You don’t have to do something simply because someone asked you to. I know that sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised by how often you agree to things just because you’ve been conditioned to be a ‘yes man’. Autonomy is another way of saying that you have the right to govern yourself. You aren’t a little child, other people aren’t your parents, your drill instructors, or your teachers. In most cases, you are not obligated to fulfill someone else’s requests. Nobody can force you to say yes.
  3. They fear being rejected or they fear that others will feel rejected
    • The fear of rejection is probably the number one reason why people agree to things that they don’t want to do. We often choose the path of least resistance, and try to avoid awkward situations, so we say yes to keep everyone happy. Rarely will a true friend or a person of substance reject you for saying no, nor will they feel rejected if you provide some context…they’ll understand.
  4. They have no clear agenda for the day (or perhaps, their business or life)
    • People who lack direction are blown about like a wave on the sea; they fly all over the place, moving from one thing to another because they lack an overriding agenda that helps them determine whether an activity is worthwhile or not. The solution is to get clear on what you want to accomplish with your life; once you do that, it will be easier to pick and choose what you agree to.
  5. They underestimate how precious a commodity time is
    • When you are a child, time is too abstract a concept to grasp, so you live as if you have an eternity at your disposal. As you age, you begin to realize that you only have so many years to accomplish something. Being able to say ‘no’ is an easy way to maximize your time, rather than letting it slip through your fingers. I hear self-help gurus talk about how there is a different concept of time in the east and the west…that hasn’t been my experience; either way, no matter where you live in the world, a day is still just 24hrs long.

Do any of these five points sound familiar? If so, don’t just skip ahead…think about why you struggle with one or more of these areas. Is it something you learned at home? Are you waiting for someone to give you permission to make your own decisions? Is there some insecurity that influences your tendency to say yes too much?

Here’s an objective test. Look at your calendar from last month: what appointments should you have said ‘no’ to? Which meetings or events were time wasters and which were beneficial? How many of those time wasting events were just about you keeping up appearances?

Saying no = finishing my PhD thesis and launching a successful lifestyle business

dr dylan potterWhen I was working on my thesis, it was extremely difficult to turn down offers to spend more time socializing with friends, but I wanted to complete another chapter more than I wanted to have coffee or a pint. This isn’t to say that I always said no, nor should you, but because of those times when, on a Saturday night, I plugged away behind my laptop, I was able to wake up on Sunday morning with a deep sense of satisfaction that I’d made the right decision.

The same is true in my business. I would have loved to spend more time lounging poolside at our condo in Singapore, sipping fresh coconut juice, catching some rays, and watching the palm trees sway in the tropical breeze. However, because I scheduled appointments with potential clients instead, most of which I was fortunate enough to land, I was able to hone my skills and build a lifestyle business. Because I learned the power of saying no, and used it strategically, it allowed me to grow as an individual and to experience the joy of success. Besides, too much sun is bad for your skin anyway.

You don’t want to abuse the power of saying no, and use it to become a recluse or a self-involved so-and-so…however, the tactical use of ‘no’ will allow you to stop living your life to serve other people’s agenda.

It is flattering to be in demand because everybody loves to be esteemed. Offers to lead a project, to present at a meeting, to speak at a conference, or to go to a party can be great ways to network and get exposure…but sometimes they are time traps or have strings attached. Learning to spot these on the horizon is a valuable skill. Sometimes you have to learn the hard way.

how to say no

Five ways to say no without sounding like a jerk

If you allow others to determine your schedule and how you spend your time, you will struggle to reach your goals. So, what are the best ways for busy, conscientious people to say ‘no’?

  1. Say to the other person ‘I’m sorry, but my schedule simply won’t allow it.’
    • This is true, it needs no explanation, and most people will accept it without prying further. If they do, then you might want to ask yourself why this person is being so persistent; also, if you cave, you’ve just shown this individual that you can be manipulated and they’ll keep using that same tactic over and over again to get you to say yes. I learned this from Eugene Peterson, and it has served me well.
  2. Explain that you are working on a new facet of your business/life/relationships and that you need time to dedicate toward whatever it is
    • It could be that you have resolved to get into better shape, spend more time with your spouse or children, learn a new skill, whatever. Most people’s lives revolve around going to work and coming home, so they might even admire you for your new endeavor. This also gives you an opportunity to share a bit about your lifestyle business.
  3. Ask them if it would be alright to take a rain check or to revisit the discussion at a later date
    • You don’t want to burn bridges, and leaving the door open to the possibility of saying ‘yes’ later is usually good enough for most people. This approach is a bit less specific than the other two, and works well if you don’t really want to share much information with the other person.
  4. Let them know that you’ll keep the suggestion in mind, but that you don’t think you’ll be able to commit
    • This response prepares the person for a no, but you may find them checking in later to ask you again whether you’ve made a final decision. It is less blunt, but because of that, may mean that you have to have the discussion more than once and it may seem like you’re being evasive.
  5. Just say ‘No, I’m afraid I can’t; thanks very much anyway.’
    • Sometimes it is easier just to say ‘no’, thank them with a smile, and change the subject. This takes a bit of courage, but it is the most direct approach and leaves no question in the person’s mind about your decision. This is a better technique for people you do not know well, because a friend might your matter-of-factness strange. Good response for ‘Hey, I’m having a Tupperware party this Saturday, can you make it?’ Probably not so good for ‘Hey, I’m coming back from my third tour in Afghanistan…can I buy you a beer when I get home?’ You’d be a jerk to say no to that one, by the way.

Saying no is something that you have to learn how to do if you want to run your own lifestyle business. It doesn’t mean that you are missing opportunities, being rude, or that you will be rejected. It shows that you have your own life, goals and agenda, and that while you enjoy the company of others and appreciate invitations, you simply need to say ‘YES’ to building/bootstrapping/launching/running an online business.

Questions for discussion and reflection
  1. Who do you find it most difficult to say no to? Is it because you fear they will reject you?
  2. Where would saying ‘no’ in your life have the most positive outcome on your personal and financial well-being?
  3. When was the last time you said no to a request?
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