Embrace the Power of Just Saying No

Published in UT San Diego, October 27, 2014

The power of No. To refuse or not to refuse, that is the question.

I recently read an article in a design magazine in which the guiding principle being proposed is to embrace the absence of too much — to shun excess, to live more simply (or in the case of technology, to be rigorous about what goes into a product) — even if you could have abundance. Choosing to live in 1,500 square feet when you could afford 15,000 is a way of saying no.

Right now, I am considering some “no” moments. One of my companies is in a serious negotiation about acquisition and my inclination is to tell the other side (to quote my hero Tony Soprano) “hey, fuhgetaboutit.” The details aren’t important but the BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement) seems to be to pick up our jacks and walk. I am enough of a gambler that I would like to see what happens if we give them a no. However, I am not sure the rest of the board agrees with me.

What about the daily issues for all startup entrepreneurs — to what do you agree and when do you agree to do it? I do not want to get overly existential but the phrase “less is more” comes from an 1855 poem by Robert Browning. It was later made famous by the architect Mies van der Rohe as a precept to minimalist design.

Think about saying no in politics, in romance, in shopping, in everything. What happens when you say no? I think it can be powerful and liberating. I am not leaning in, what I am doing now is practicing saying no. Can’t do it. Enough. Not available, not going to happen, can’t get there from here. The most powerful man in Hollywood is Bill Murray. He has no agent and his phone number is an 800 number where you leave a message. He lives by no.

But I do want to nuance the discussion a bit. In other words, you can always change your mind. The famous Jack Benny joke about his being robbed at gunpoint — “your money or your life” — and Benny’s long pause followed by “I’m thinking it over.”

One of my companies is developing a mobile app (I know I have railed against those in the past but as I just said, you can always change your mind), and the problem is not what to put in, but what to leave out.

Let me quote from Jony Ive, the head of design at Apple, on the subject of focus. Ive said, “What focus means is saying no to something that with every bone in your body, you think is a phenomenal idea, but you leave it out because you are really focused on something else.” He felt that Steve Jobs was the most focused person he had ever met. Jobs would say to him, “How many things have you said no to today?”

The reason we do not say “no” more often is that we want to be liked. Saying no does not endear you to anyone. So we reach the middle ground, we spin ourselves like a pretzel, we maneuver, we fill the 5-pound bag with 6 pounds and push hard on the lid.

No sounds final and absolute. But it doesn’t have to be tinged with anger or resentment; it can simply be an affirmation of choice. And on the subject of choice, we often believe that the options available are the ones we know about. We are confronted by the choices we can see — so we have to choose. But if we say no, we are deciding to believe that other choices will appear — ones we do not yet know about at this time. And those choices may in fact be better than the ones we are looking at today.

I believe deeply in the spinning wheel. I believe it is liberating to say no — politely. I believe that being OK with not being loved all the time is powerful. In his book “David and Goliath,” Malcolm Gladwell describes a key characteristic of making innovation happen as “being willing to be disagreeable.”

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Rule No. 375

If I say yes to no, can maybe be far behind?

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