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To be really successful? Say NO

I’m about to write something down that may be one of the most important things you will ever read. It was said by Warren Buffet, and here it is:

“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”

If that sentence immediately made perfect sense to you, then you are probably already en route to genuine success. If not, some clarification is needed.

Saying NO is not something many people teach us. In fact, we are taught the opposite: to say YES a lot. To embrace opportunities as they arise; to be agreeable; to be positive and optimistic; to attempt many things; to try to have it all.

All those are mistakes that await you like camouflaged pits in your path. But wait: Mr Buffet did not refer to unsuccessful people; he pointed out that the habit of saying “no” differentiates successful and really successful people. In other words, you can be successful by saying yes a lot of the time. You can engage in multiple ventures; try many things; add many hustles; keep many people happy. Your life will look pretty good, and you may be quite pleased with it.

But real success? That’s different. That’s deep; it’s focused; it has clear boundaries. It’s almost manic in saying no. To almost everything.

Why should this be so? For the very simple reason that we are given very limited time on this earth. We do not have the luxury of pulling it all off – doing all the things we want to do; running down all the paths that look interesting; spending time with every person who resonates or seems intriguing; visiting every part of the world; keeping every friend or family member happy; trying everything out; playing every possible role in our lives.

That’s why we have to choose. Choose carefully, choose brutally. And that means saying no. A lot.

Trying a lot of stuff out, being curious, being ready to give many things a go is a plan – when you’re young. After a certain age, however, you had better get your NO muscle working – otherwise you will never go deep on any one thing.

Saying no to most things is tough, make no mistake. It can cause offence with people who are demanding your time or your resources. It can lead to many regrets, if what you said no to turned out actually to be a great thing for someone else. It can make you feel like a naysayer and a wet blanket. So you need some steel in you in order to say no often. It’s not for those who aim to please, or those without any clear sense of purpose.

And that’s exactly why very few people are really successful. They’ve been saying yes all their lives – to too many people, too many projects, too many distractions. They’ve made too many commitments. They’ve swum on the surface of achievement, and never encountered the depths.

Warren Buffet has further advice for you, in three steps. First, write down a list of your top 25 career goals. Second, circle the five most important goals that connect deeply with you, that feel non-negotiable. So far, so good? But here’s the kicker: third, cross off the other 20 goals you have listed. Delete them. Expunge them. From now on, just focus on the top five.

It’s that brutal. Why? Because expending any energy on the “next twenty” will come at the cost of the “top five.”

That’s true in business strategy; it’s true in friendships and relationships; it’s true in managing the multiplicity of things that make up a life. Focus. Say no to distraction; to overwork; to seduction; to flitting around pleasing everyone by doing everything and achieving nothing.

This does not mean you have to become a sourpuss who’s instinctively negative about everything. You can be completely honest and courteous about how you say no. It’s not something you have to be ashamed of – it’s simple prioritization. No one should set your life’s agendas for you. That’s your call, your right, your prerogative. Hang out with people who understand and support your priorities, not those who try to thwart them for their own ends.

And yet, always keep a small part of yourself open to new things, no matter how focused you are in your life. Leave a window open for serendipity.

At the end of the day, however, only a few things are worth your time. Give those things your best time, not the same amount of time you give everything else. Then watch the best of your life come to life.

(Sunday Nation, 16 September 2018)

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