The “NO” Muscle

According to mother, I was not a very cuddly child. She described me as curious, determined, active, and independent from day one. She said she and my father were lucky to get a few minutes of holding me in their laps and only if my attention was captured by the reading of a book I liked or a game I enjoyed. But, it usually wasn’t long before I was wriggling out of their embrace to get down and explore the next interesting thing. I’m positive my little sister’s more laid-back, affectionate nature was a welcome trait, indeed, by the time she rolled around.

This constant exploration and independence was surely the underlying reason why an entry in my baby book documents my first words were not Mama or Dada but rather…  “No!”

Sometimes I wonder where my frequent and comfortable use of that word has gone as I’ve gotten older. What was an easy word in childhood seems a much harder one to say in my adult life. I honestly believe I would be further along in my personal and professional life if I had a firmer grasp on when and how to say “no” to all the requests, opportunities, or interesting ideas that present themselves but are simply thinly-veiled distractions on my path.

Years ago, as a faculty member and presenter on leadership communication for the Henry Schein Dental Business Institute, I shared dinner with one of the software developers of the business simulation exercise that Henry Schein puts the DBI participants through on their first weekend together. As I asked about his background, I learned that he spent nearly 15 years as 3rd in line under Steve Jobs at Apple—a very interesting dinner companion to be sure!  He might have secretly wished he had chosen a different table that night because I had about a zillion questions for him about his experience, opinions, and most vivid memories of working directly for such a modern business icon during that fascinating time in the company’s history.

When I asked him what the one characteristic was that made Steve Jobs so impactful, he thought for a moment and then replied, “Steve used to say that the most important quality for success was extreme focus, and that focus required one to be highly comfortable with saying ‘no’ often and loudly. And in my opinion, it was that single focus that drove Apple to the top so quickly and powerfully. They did one thing really, really well. Diversification and extended product lines have only recently come into their ‘post Steve Jobs’ culture. The jury is still out on whether that will be a good call or not.” I could tell by the look on his face that he had his doubts.

Knee deep in the process of redefining my own business, it seems the opportunities for me are growing exponentially and coming at me with lightning speed. It feels exhilarating and overwhelming at the same time.  They all sound exciting and doable and potentially profitable, but based on past experience, warning bells are going off in my gut to pick a lane and stay doggedly focused. I can strongly sense the powerful value of exercising my “no” muscle.

Saying “no” is challenging because we can’t foresee the future. We can’t know in advance with certainty which opportunities will be the most advantageous and lucrative. If you’re like me, you may have diverse interests and a broad spectrum of talents so many things feel doable and possible. But in this day and age, when clients go looking for products or services, they want to find the ones that will be the most valuable and the best fit really quickly.  When you don’t stand out as the best at the thing they are looking for, you compete with the masses and are very, very hard to spot.

For speakers, consultants, dental practices, healthcare providers, supply companies, and corporate executives, strengthening your “no” muscle is as essential a skill as any other that you could have. Learning to stay true to your course, focused on your goal, and connected to your vision allows you to become a true and recognizable expert and to find balance in both your professional and personal life.

This week, bring your vision and your goals to the forefront of your thinking and conversations. When opportunities which are interesting and compelling, but off the path, present themselves, exercise your “no” muscle often—and loudly!

It’s amazing how good it actually feels after you say it. It surely wasn’t music to my mother’s ears, but these days, it is to mine!

“You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage – pleasantly, smilingly, unapologetically – to say “no” to other things.  And the way to do that is by having a bigger “yes” inside.”

~ Steven Covey


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