Have you ever noticed how your to-do list sometimes becomes longer and longer, regardless of how much effort you put into reducing it?
In the midst of that ever-expanding list, what is most important to us can get lost in the haze. While it may be challenging to extricate ourselves from all the demands placed on us, it all begins with one simple word.
Can you guess what that words is?
Saying "no" makes us more focused, more directed and, according to some news articles, even more successful.
The truth is that we simply cannot focus on our passion and purpose, on what is most meaningful and important to us if we say "yes" to everything. However, changing how we feel about the word “no” is one of the biggest steps we can take to improve our lives.
While this is a never-ending journey, here are four steps that can help us get started:
1. Become aware of our preferences.
In most cultures, it’s not only salespeople who dislike the word “no.” Many people subconsciously prefer its more positive counterpart.
You can easily find out if you have a similar preference by saying “yes” and “no” out loud. How does the first word make you feel in comparison with the second?
In my experience, most people who do this exercise feel better when they say “yes.” They might report that it sounds uplifting, or they may notice a sense of possibility, openness, and movement.
In contrast, saying “no” can have a more distancing energy tied into its meaning. It can feel like we are shutting things down, and it may even threaten our sense of belonging to a group. Many of us may have learned during adolescence that in some group settings saying “no” to a suggestion would make you the outsider.
2. Become aware of the personal meaning we ascribe to the word “no.”
In addition to the cultural and group-related reasons above, many people dislike the word “no” for personal reasons. Specifically, it is common to make this word about us, and our values. If a magazine doesn’t accept our article, if a company doesn’t respond to our job application, or if a person we dated never gets back to us, a typical response is to feel like we are not good enough for them, or that something is wrong with us.
Similarly, we may not like saying “no” out of fear that the other person will feel rejected.
3. Changing the story of what “no” means.
But what happens if we changed our internal story about what “no” means?
What if a “no” were not actually a judgment about our value as a human (or as a writer, an employee, or a date), but just a judgment of the fit between what someone is seeking out and what you can offer?
Let me use a personal example: when talking with potential coaching clients, some of them will decide that what I have to offer is not for them. Now, I could choose to take their “no” (or “not yet”) as a value judgment about me as a person, or at least about me as a coach.
However, the truth is that their “no” is not about my value, just as my “no” wouldn’t be about their value. A “no” is merely about the appropriateness of the fit between us, as well as the timing of our connection. Ultimately, it boils down to whether what someone is looking for is a good fit with what I can offer.
The best thing I could do for them (and myself) is to tell them as soon as possible that I don’t have what they are looking for.
4. Seeing the value of the word “no.”
Many people would hate to hear the word “no” from a person they went on a date with—even if they themselves had no interest in pursuing a relationship with them.
I believe that is because we do not see the perniciousness of an inauthentic “yes.” What I mean is a “yes” that we’ve said when we really want to say “no,” but we don’t listen to our intuition.
When you hear such a “yes,” it may temporarily make you feel better about yourself. It may give you hope that you have a potential partner, job opportunity, or customer in front of you. The problem is that unless the “yes” is authentic, this hope is not based on reality. Thus, an inauthentic “yes” can lead to you wasting time and energy going down a dead end, instead of spending it somewhere where it could yield great results.
Similarly, when you say “yes” to another person (even though they are a “no” for you), you may temporarily feel better because you think you are not hurting someone by “rejecting” them. However, expressing an authentic “no” is often the kindest thing you can do in a situation where there’s not a fit. In addition to saving both of you time and energy, it gives clarity and direction.
A genuine “no” can help everyone involved to find their authentic “yes.” And what greater gift could we give to, or receive from anyone?
As Richie Norton put it: “Say no to everything, so you can say yes to the one thing.”
A version of this article was first published on Elephant Journal here .
“Work is love made visible.” ~ Kahlil Gibran
In the dilemma of money or meaning, that third choice consists of bringing both of these qualities into our life.
Building a life on the basis of this third option usually does not happen overnight, but is instead a process. In this process, there is no simple cookie-cutter formula we can follow, as this third choice can look vastly different from person to person.
For one person, it can mean living one’s passion on the side while getting their income from doing other work. Some people may simply wish to make certain changes in their current career to have it be more fulfilling, whereas others may want to create a whole new career.
Here are some suggestions for beginning the process:
1. Identify where you are in the dilemma between money or meaning.
Whenever we want to change something in our life, we first need to determine exactly where we are. So if the dilemma I described above resonated with you, the first step for moving beyond it is to identify which side of the dilemma you currently find yourself on.
These questions can help with the exploration: Do you love what you are doing, but have less financial security than you would like? Do you feel okay with your finances but not passionate about what you do? Or do you feel you have neither money nor meaning in your life?
2. Identify what area you need to focus on when it comes to improving your life.
Once we have clearly identified the problem in our life, the next step is to figure out the road to change. So, if you have money but little meaning in your life, the key is to focus on anything that brings you more purpose
. One simple first step to doing this is to engage in weekly artist dates
—reserving two hours every week just to do something that feels like play. This exercise by author Julia Cameron helps one to reconnect with one’s inner creativity.
In contrast, if you do work you love but are financially insecure, focus on ways to create more money. This could mean exploring strategies to grow your business (if you are self-employed) or finding side hustles and different ways of generating income.
If you find yourself in a place where you have neither money nor meaning in your life, it can be difficult to work on both areas at the same time. In this situation, it is generally easier to focus on creating more money first and bringing in meaning later, because financial security is a more basic human need than self-actualization.
It can also be hard to give ourselves permission to really explore what lights us up if we are concerned about paying the bills. Focusing on bringing in money first gives us access to a range of resources we might otherwise not have, such as courses that allow us to explore our passion or other forms of support, such as coaching.
While there are ways to explore our passions for free or cheap (such as by getting books on them from a public library, borrowing musical instruments from friends, watching YouTube video topics that interest us), having more money gives us more options.
3. Commit to baby steps.
We are less likely to move forward in big kangaroo leaps than through consistent baby steps. Whenever we do not know what we should do to move closer toward our goal, we are likely thinking too big.
The habit of thinking too big without taking action tends to paralyze us. In this situation, the best thing we can do is to start taking baby steps. One small baby step that we take is better than a giant leap we never make.
As Paulo Coelho advises us, “When in doubt, just take the next small step.” That small step may be a phone call, an internet search, or an email.
So how do we find out what baby step we could take? The best thing to do is to simply ask ourselves the question “What is one small step I can take now?”
And to then take that step.
Many people are not passionate about their work. For instance, I recently communicated with a person who had a career as an accountant. She was successful.
However, her heart was not in her work. She would much rather work with animals. She asked herself if she should take “the plunge” by handing in her notice at her current job.
A widespread feeling is that when it comes to earning an income, we have to choose between financial security or following our heart by doing the work we really want to do.
The inner realist’s perspective: “Don’t quit!”
Our inner realist is wary of advising anyone to hand in their notice unless they already have a better alternative at hand.
The inner realist points out that financial security is ever-important: We have to prepare for retirement, pay for health insurance and meet our basic needs. If other people are dependent on us, we also need to be able to provide for them. We have to be realistic about what to do with our lives because we have responsibilities.
To further complicate things, our current and future responsibilities exist alongside past decisions. Many times, the circumstances of our reality have been set in place a long time ago and do not adequately reflect who we are today.
Taking all this into account, our inner realist advises us that the best thing we might do for ourselves and for the ones we love is to do work we are not totally passionate about in order to have financial security. This can, according to the inner realist, lead to rewards further down the road.
The inner optimist’s perspective: “Take the plunge!”
Our inner optimist accurately points out that if we listen to the realist’s perspective, we might end up putting off our dreams indefinitely. Just as the time is often never right to have a child, our inner optimist explains, the time will never be right to make a drastic career change to follow our true passion.
Thus, our inner optimist advises people to make a radical change right away—to simply hand in their notice.
An adage the inner optimist strongly resonates with is: “Do what you love and the money will follow.” To back this up, our inner optimist has compiled an impressive list of people who successfully build their dream lives.
Unlike our inner realist, our inner optimist encourages people to follow their heart. But is there possibly a smarter, more effective way of doing it?
As is often the case in life, there is a middle way. To learn more about it, let us turn our attention to the inner sage.
The inner sage’s recommendation: “Find the middle way by making room for rationality and mystery.”
The inner sage advises us to be both prudent and daring. It asks us to find a way of following our dreams without taking excessive risks. Take, for instance, a business consultant who completes a coach certification program in his free time and starts building his new business on the side.
While the inner sage cares about making rational choices, it also asks us to be aware of an aspect that is rarely mentioned.
That missing aspect is the mystery-of-it-all.
Oftentimes, when we consider making any big change in our lives, we approach it with our rational minds.
However, as our inner sage points out, things are oftentimes less in our control than we think they are. The work we are meant to do is oftentimes referred to as our “calling.” Our inner sage likes this word because it symbolizes the extent to which things are outside our control.
Being “called” has a passive/receptive aspect to it. While parts of our journey require action taking, there is also a humbling aspect to it that asks us to get out of the driver’s seat.
The truth is that it is impossible to foresee what will happen once we start following our own path more.
Our inner sage reminds us that before we make a big change, we can only assume how things will develop. When we actually start doing what we feel called to do, there is oftentimes noticeable support for us.
The acknowledgment that this support exists is different from the inner optimist’s naïve assumption that success will surely come, an assumption based on entitlement.
How then, do we live this in reality? For this, let’s turn to the inner pathfinder
The inner pathfinders’s recommendation: “Walk the path, one step at a time.”
The inner pathfinder asks us to pay attention to the signs we are receiving as they can help point us into the right direction. These signs can come in the form of positive support (great feedback and encouragement from others to move forward into your calling) or negative support (your current situation becomes intolerable, forcing you to move out of it).
For the inner pathfinder, it is obvious that there are no easy answers when someone asks: “Should I hand in my notice to follow my dreams?”
The inner pathfinder knows that this is not a question to be answered, but a path to be walked, one step at a time. By acknowleding that this is a path and not a singular event, the inner pathfinder alerts you that “taking the plunge” is but one potential step on your way.
The important thing, in the eyes of the inner pathfinder, is to start walking that path. A path that will become clearer as you walk it.
Thus, our inner pathfinder proposes to change the question to: “What is one step you can do today to pursue your dreams?”
And to take that one step.
One day at a time.