If you’ve reached the point in your career where new opportunities are coming your way with regularity, you’ve probably considered this quote from Warren Buffett:
“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”
I hear this a lot, from executives to entrepreneurs to personal trainers and nutrition coaches. And that concerns me.
You see, I believe it’s actually bad advice for those early in their careers. That’s because, when you’re starting out, you need to do the opposite and actually say yes to almost everything.
Later in your career, when you’re at a stage when you need to say no, how you turn someone down matters. You can’t take the infantile and myopic approach too many people use.
I think it’s long past time to add a little perspective and nuance to the “just say no” conversation. Because, ultimately, this conversation is about your time:
- How to use it on activities that bring great value.
- How to view your career as a series of stages, each of which requires different ways of using your time.
- How to gratefully and gracefully say no to opportunities that might not be a great fit for you at the current stage of your personal or professional growth.
From Hearing No to Saying No
I’ve personally experienced five different stages in my career, each of which required a different approach to accepting or declining opportunities.
Stage One: You have no opportunities at all
This is where I started 20 years ago, and where you may be right now.
You don’t have the luxury of saying yes or no because no one’s offering you anything. You’re out there begging for someone else to say yes.
And, honestly, that’s the way it should be. Early in our careers, no matter what innate talent or skill we have, we haven’t yet done enough reps to warrant opportunities.
Of course you want (and need) the opportunities. But why should anyone give you a shot when there are better, more practiced, and more experienced people out there?
That’s why, when someone does give you a chance, there’s only one answer: “Yes!”
At this stage, everything’s a yes. Because you need the reps, you need the money (if they’re paying), you need to figure out what you enjoy doing (in practice, not in theory), and you need to discover what you find rewarding vs. what you think you’ll find rewarding.
Then, if you’re lucky, you get to Stage Two.
Stage Two: You get your first opportunities
Hurray! People are now coming to you, asking you to do things without you having to go out and solicit them.
Nevertheless, like the previous stage, almost everything’s still going to be a yes.
- You still need money, and when you say yes to something, there’s usually a paycheck at the other end.
- Whether there is or isn’t, you still need reps. Some of the best opportunities—working at a charity bootcamp, writing a guest post, speaking to the trainers at a friend’s gym—won’t pay you a dollar, but they’ll help you develop your skills in those areas.
- You also need to figure out who you are, what you do best, and what you enjoy doing. The best way to learn is to jump on almost every opportunity and see what works for you and what doesn’t.
Now, I say “almost every opportunity” here because some offers at this stage are a “hell no.”
At this point you know enough to see when an opportunity is total crap for you. It might be reputation damaging, zero fun, inconsistent with what you believe your goals to be, or inconsistent with who you think you are as a person. And you now have the luxury to steer clear.
But still, 90 percent of the time, your answer to any offer should be “yes.”
Stage Three: You can start to pick and choose
Here, in the middle of the continuum, you’re starting to learn which things fill your cup and feel good for your soul. You’re starting to figure out which things lead to a short-term return and which lead to a longer-term return.
At this stage you’ll have an innate “gut feeling” about your value and your values, and you can say yes or no based on what gives you a financial or emotional return on your investment, whichever is most important at the time.
Stage Four: Almost everything is a no
“You want to contribute to this chapter?”
“You want to write a book?”
“You want to speak at my event?”
You’re getting loads of opportunities, and you’re also getting a lot of time-sucking requests.
Stop for a moment and consider how amazingly blessed you are, especially considering how bereft of opportunities you were at Stage One.
No, really. Let that sink in.
Because, at this stage, it’s so easy to forget that once upon a time no one cared about your opinion or wanted your services. So don’t turn into one of those ungrateful bastards who forget where they came from and seem angered by new opportunity.
Yes, when somebody asks you to read her book, of course it’s a big ask, and of course you’ll have to pass. But still, somebody wants you to read their book!
You should feel honored, but you still might need to turn it down because the time investment may not help build toward your own big, ambitious goals, or square with your value system and idea of meaningful work.
It’s now imperative to develop a set of criteria to decide which opportunities align with your personal and professional goals, and which don’t. You can run each new offer through this very explicit filter to make sure you’re taking advantage of the right ones for you.
Stage Five: You’re beyond saying no
Nowadays I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I get so many opportunities, it’s like people are firing them at me with a semi-automatic rifle. If I didn’t have a system in place I could spend every minute of every day reading and responding to them.
I’m not exaggerating. I could spend a 60-hour week just evaluating opportunities and following up with the good folks who sent them over. Which means I’d have no time to actually make good on them.
So, how do I get beyond just saying no?
The simple answer: I have other people evaluate all these opportunities, and say no when it’s appropriate. They can do that because of the criteria I created in Stage Four. That’s how they know which ones to pass along to me, and which ones to gracefully decline.
One more thought:
There may be even more levels beyond this one. If you talk to someone who’s been successful into his 60s or 70s, you may learn there’s a Stage Six, Seven, or Eight. But this is all I’ve experienced, and I never forget how incredibly lucky I am to get to Stage Five.
Establishing Your Criteria
A generation ago, the biggest names in fitness, nutrition, and strength and conditioning built their reputations by getting out there and speaking at events 50 weeks a year.
Some of these folks were my heroes, and some were my mentors. At the same time, many of them were divorced, estranged from their children, and massively unhappy.
Now, I’m not here to judge any of that. I just realized, early on, that I didn’t want that for my life. Which is why I established a clear set of priorities, and these criteria have persisted for more than a decade now:
Be an active, present partner to my wife and parent to our four children.
Devote adequate time to self-care (exercise, nutrition, sleep, stress management).
Within my work hours, do everything I can to serve and build the Precision Nutrition brand and community.
Your criteria will certainly be different from mine. You should get a pretty good idea of what they are during Stage Three, and codify them in Stage Four.
Once you’ve chosen them, you simply need to run every opportunity through your priority filter by asking a few questions. These are the ones I ask:
- “Does this help me become a more present parent or partner?”
- “Does this help me with my health, fitness, sleep, and stress management?”
- “Will this make a big impact on the growth of Precision Nutrition?”
If it’s “no” to all those things, it’s something I can’t do, even if it scratches my “I get to take a cool trip” itch, or my “I get to connect with someone I really respect” itch, or my “I get to try something new” itch.
Without this filtering system, I would be tempted to say yes to all those things in the moment. Here’s a specific example:
A friend and colleague recently asked me to speak at a world-renowned symposium in Olympia, Greece. No, not the Mr. Olympia. This is the real Olympia, the site of the original Olympic games, where they preserve the ancient ruins and house an international learning academy.
Awesome, right? I nearly rushed into saying yes.
But what about my criteria? Will this help me spend family time? Will it help Precision Nutrition? Will it help with my own health and fitness? No, no, and no.
But I really wanted to go! So I looked for loopholes. What if I bring my whole family? What if we rent a villa and stay nearby? Is it still a no?
Because our youngest is one year old, I realized bringing the whole family halfway around the world wasn’t right for us. It crushed me to turn it down, but I had no other choice.
To be sure, most of the requests that come to the staff at Precision Nutrition aren’t nearly so epic. We get loads of offers to do podcasts, articles, and seminars. I’ll never hear about any of them until they’ve been screened.
Let’s say we get a request for me to go on a podcast. Our team will do a little research. What’s it about? How many listeners does it have? How many people have rated it on iTunes? Who else has been interviewed?
It takes a lot for a proposal to reach me. Is it the biggest possible thing with the biggest possible impact? If not, someone else on the team can handle it.
Your criteria are certainly different from mine. For example, if a reporter from the New York Times or Washington Post calls you, and you’ve never done an interview with them before, you should do it. Same with a chance to go on CNN or the Today Show or a popular podcast, or to contribute to a major magazine or website.
But if the request is for something that doesn’t fit your criteria, you need to say no. And that brings us to the most important part of this story.
How to Say No
Nobody says this explicitly, but running beneath a lot of the “always say no” sentiment I see—especially on social media—is something like this:
“Once upon a time I realized I was saying yes to too many things. That’s when I put a stake in the ground. People have to know how valuable my time is. So, now, when people offer me opportunities and invite me to events, I’m relentless. I let them know what a big deal I am and how they’re standing in the way of my goals.”
Right. How dare they offer you money and a chance to be involved in something?
While I totally understand the need to have clear boundaries (see above), viewing opportunity as an invasion of your carefully curated life is myopic and infantile.
Worse yet, the result is usually an off-putting dismissal of the opportunity, no matter how nice you think you are when turning someone down.
“Thanks for the offer but I have to very carefully guard my precious time.”
Here’s a much better way to say no.
Step 1: Express gratitude
Even if it’s not the most exciting opportunity I’ve gotten, I still make a point to remember when no one gave a damn about me. So this is the first thing I say:
“Thank you so much for thinking about me. It means a lot that you shared this opportunity.”
Step 2: Show respect for their project
Just because you can’t say yes to the project right now doesn’t mean it’s not a worthwhile endeavor. That’s why I say something like this:
“Your project sounds really cool, and I’d love to help. However, I’m working on this other thing right now, and I have to stay 100 percent focused on it.
“The truth is, I’m intrigued by what you’re doing, and I’d love to get involved, but I don’t think I have the capacity to give it the attention it deserves.”
Notice that it isn’t all about me. I’m not saying, “Don’t you know I’m a busy guy? Don’t you know I have my own priorities?”
What I’m saying is, “Your thing is cool! Keep doing it! I just can’t be involved right now. And if I were to be involved, I’d do a bad job because I can’t devote enough time to it.”
I’m not lying when I say it. If I could only give it five minutes, it’s completely honest to tell him his project deserves more than five minutes.
Step 3: Come through for them
Step back for a moment and ask yourself why the person came to you in the first place. Do they need you specifically, or do they need someone like you? As much as I like to think I’m special, and no one else can fill my shoes, it’s not true.
If someone asks you to speak at an event, and there are 20 other speakers, they don’t need you. They just need a speaker. Or they need an expert to quote in an article. Whatever it is, you’re now going to give them what they need:
“I’d love to recommend my friend Brett. I’m not sure if he’s available, but if he is, he’d be awesome for this project.
“And if he doesn’t work out, you might also try my friend Geoff. He’d be great too. Or my friend Krista. She’s amazing.”
Now, instead of burning a bridge by just saying no, I’ve built three or four. I’ve built a bridge to them by helping to solve their problem. And I’ve built bridges to Brett, Geoff, and Krista, because they’re going to find out I recommended them for an event or an interview they wouldn’t otherwise have had a chance to do.
Step 4: Keep the door open
In closing, I say something like this:
“In the end, I’m really, truly grateful you thought about me for this.
“I want you to know I never take opportunities like this lightly.
“If something like this comes up again, don’t hesitate to reach out. I can’t promise I’ll be able to do it, but I’m a pretty connected guy, and I can help you find the help you need.”
I’ve used this script for 10 years, and it’s worked well for a simple and important reason:
Even though you’re turning someone down, your goal isn’t to say no. It’s to accept an opportunity gratefully and gracefully, and to help that person get what she needs.
You’re not always helping her in the way she expected, but that doesn’t make your contribution any less valuable.
In fact, it’s more valuable, because instead of stopping with the one person who reached out to you, you’ve helped several others.
Final Thought: The Knight Who Says “No”
For a lot of you reading this, the idea of saying no to any of the things I’ve described must seem nuts. I used to feel that way too, until about 10 years ago, when I hit the wall.
I’d just spent an entire 40-hour work week answering inbound messages from readers and customers, and I realized I was at the limit of my human capability.
I can’t give a seminar if I’m doing that. I can’t write an article. I can’t coach a client. I can’t grow a business. I can’t do anything except that.
So I stopped.
It wasn’t easy for me, and it won’t be easy for you. Especially if your story is, “I’m the kind of person who stays connected to my fans!” Are you now the person who doesn’t care about your fans? If so, will they abandon you?
Or you may think, “What if I don’t do a favor for this person, and I need a favor later? Will they say no?”
There’s also the fear of scarcity. “What if they never offer me a thing again?”
Put those fears aside. They’re unwarranted.
If you take the time you would’ve spent saying yes to everything and use it to do great work, you’re only going to get more opportunities in the future, not fewer.
Plus, if you decline the opportunities you can’t accept with gratitude and grace, without burning the bridge between you and the person who’s asking, you don’t just enhance your own reputation. You also give deserving colleagues a chance to move forward, while helping to make the health and fitness industry a more collaborative place.
In the end, maybe Warren Buffet’s quote isn’t totally off base. But it doesn’t give us the subtlety and nuance we need to live up to our highest values, personally and professionally.
Say no when you need to say no. Just make sure you do it at the right times, and in the right way.
This article was inspired by a video chat that included all-star coaches Brett Bartholomew, Geoff Girvitz, Jon Goodman, Mark Fisher, Adam Lloyd, and Krista Scott-Dixon. For a deeper dive into this subject, with insights from all of these amazing folks, check out the full video here: