Matthew T Grant


Tall Guy. Glasses.

Focus Means Saying “No”

Back in August I became conscious of this fellow, Derek Sivers, who created CD Baby (later selling it for $22 million and giving the proceeds to a charitable trust for music education). If you poke around his blog, you’ll quickly find this post on saying “No.”

Well, technically, it’s about simplifying your life by deciding what you should do—go out with friends, take a job, live someplace, etc.— based on whether or not you say “Hell yeah!” to the opportunity or idea. If you don’t, Sivers suggests, you should say, “No.”

While I’ve never been able to apply ideas like this to my own life with any rigor, I have always admired the urge to do so because that urge is based on following one’s heart, passionately engaging with life, and not settling for anything but the best.

(Perhaps my lack of rigor has something to do with my ambivalence about the “seize the day” approach in general. I mean, do we really need the best? Always? Ever? Does the world really just consist of “The Best,” and “The Rest”? If something isn’t the best, does that make it worthless? What drives us to find the world perpetually wanting? Etc.)

I was reminded of Sivers’ ethos when I recently came across this video of Steve Jobs from 1997, in which he defends decisions to kill certain projects when he returned to Apple:

He defends his decision by saying, “When you think about ‘focusing’ … you think focusing is saying, ‘Yes.’ No. Focusing is about saying, ‘No.'”

You could call this the power of negative thinking.

What makes any individual, exquisite, unique thing precisely that, is that it is not everything else. In fact, from one perspective anyway, great things are created by stripping away all that is not great about them, until only the great remains. (One commentator on Steve Jobs’ passing called him a “great editor,” because he could take ideas and “edit away the crap.”)

What stands in our way, then, of saying “No”? Why do we avoid it? Don’t we want the best? Don’t we crave focus?

Well, sometimes we avoid it to spare people’s feelings (or avoid coming across as a dick). Sometimes we avoid it because we fear the reaction we’ll provoke. And sometimes, we simply say “Yes” out of habit. (Wait, doesn’t Guy Kawasaki advocate “defaulting to yes“? Hmm.).

I also think that we avoid the “No” because we fear it’s finitude; we fear the way it reflects our own. The door we close on this or that opportunity echoes with the sound of the coffin lid closing above us. We hope, in vain, to hold the door open, to live for ever, in other words, with our “Yes.”

By sticking with the “No,” on the other hand, we are acknowledging, “I will not live forever, and for that very reason, I need to carefully choose how and where I spend my precious, because limited, time.”

Not surprisingly, Jobs also saw in death this focusing power of the negative. He said, “[F]or the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

What I like especially about this anecdote is the maturity of the “too many days in a row.” Of course there are going to be days when you are faced with tasks that you would rather avoid, but living a meaningful life doesn’t mean not dealing with things that are tedious, unpleasant, or even painful (at least for the short term).

Similarly, there are plenty of things I don’t say “Hell yeah!” to, like cleaning the kitty litter, but I don’t say “No” either because, you have to deal with your (or your cat’s) shit. (My brother once said that, “Deal with your shit” was the basic message of Buddhism.)

Saying “No” not only provides focus, it requires focus, self-awareness, and courage. It also means knowing when to say “No” to “No.”

So, what should you be saying “no” to?

Category: Thinking Out Loud

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