The Dangers of "Say yes until you have to say no" Advice
Mark Manson shared a lifehack the other day: Say “yes” until you have to say “no”. His idea is that you need to jump into every possible opportunity until you have built the necessary competence and reputation to be selective and able to turn down less lucrative options.
Nice thought. But life is rarely simple or straightforward. So, life hacks shouldn't be either.
There are so many ways this advice can go wrong, like saying “yes” to a side gig in prostitution, as a way of developing new skills. Or saying yes to a career in forging passports, because it enabled you to leverage your strength in calligraphy. (And don’t get us started on saying “yes” to crystal meth!)
Being open to opportunities is a career asset. It unlocks options. But being purposeful about which options you’ll pursue will give you a career edge.
In fact, be very wary of shortcuts. Because in trying to hack your life, your brain may be hacking you!
There’s a psychological cost to saying “no”. Our brains don’t like it. We hate the idea of losing something. So we are impulsive, not thoughtful. Saying "yes" feels better and provides instant gratification.
But there's an opportunity cost to decisions. Contrary to what some believe, there are only 24 hours in a day, 7 days in a week, and 52 weeks in one year. Time is finite. Doing something means you’re not doing something else. Your decisions have different rates of return on your time.
So, for your career decisions...
...ask these questions before saying "yes"?
1. Does your resume look like a “who’s who” of corporate America?
Job hopping is usually considered to be spending less than a couple of years in a company. It can have the superficial appeal of shortcutting the system, for faster progress and higher salary. But you may shortcut your experience, your relationships with others and your professional reputation. But if you are thinking this is a good strategy, go to Amazon Prime. For $3.99 you can rent “How to Succeed in business without really trying?” And while, if memory serves, the story ends well for our protagonist, remember, that’s Hollywood.
Seriously, look at opportunities holistically, in the context of your career.
2. Is the opportunity too good to be true?
Then it probably is. It may be a case of “promises… promises…”
In the competitive world, recruiters will entice you with the opportunity. They'll flatter you. They'll tell you how great the role is and how perfect you are for it. It will feel as if your fairy godmother really existed and has just taken care of you. Now, in what type of world would that be true?
Promises made ain't the same as promises kept. That once in a lifetime startup? What are their financials? Who are their private equity backers? That role with the amazing title? What budget does it come with? What, no staff? And be especially wary of “this role is a successor to..." or "after one year you will be...". Who says?
Seriously, whatever the opportunity, and its source, evaluate it in the context of your current job, or possible jobs, and actively compare the alternatives. This isn’t a call for conservative career choices, but for due diligence.
3. Are you on the rebound?
Mad at your current employer? Ok. So you didn’t get the promotion. The most recent feedback you got wasn’t what you expected. Your bonus wasn’t as high as you thought. All these are great reasons to ask yourself good, hard career questions. They aren’t a great reason to say “yes” to just anything that comes along.
Saying “yes” to an opportunity because you’re frustrated with your current role is the professional equivalent of dating on the rebound. But here’s the thing. Your boss probably isn’t losing sleep about the fact that you’re going to work for someone else. Even if he wishes you weren't leaving. On the other hand, you’ll lose sleep if you end up in a crappy “I'll show you” role. With rebound relationships, you aren’t really over your ex. And while you may be using your new love to get back at your old, trust us. In work - as in life - this doesn’t usually end well.
Seriously, if you have an issue, we’d encourage you to try and deal with it. Talk to your boss about the feedback. Explore what you need to do differently to get that promotion. And concurrently, look for alternatives, by all means. But equip yourself with options, including the option to make things better where you are, if you can.
4. And is your life getting too much?
Finally, your career choices have implications for your personal life.
There will be times when you shouldn’t take on something new. Embarking on your next career adventure at the expense of (fill in the blank … wife, husband, children, mother, spiritual leader, completing your MBA …. ). Saying yes to opportunities, without considering the effect, can have serious consequences. (Just look at what happened in Die Hard. Holly pursues her career and John ends up having to save the Nakatomi building from terrorists. But we digress!)
Seriously, mindlessly saying “yes” without considering the context of your life, and the other people in it, isn’t smart. It’s selfish. And you’d be taking on a new learning curve when maybe that's the last thing you need. So add the guilt that goes along with that. Instead, don't look at the opportunity just in the context of your career but in the context of your life.
The Point Is...
We want to temper Mark's advice on always saying "yes".
He's a New York Times best selling author. But we know something about careers. And we aren't by nature conservative. We've worked and lived in nine countries between us because we're the sort of people that do say"yes". But we can offer a few additions to his advice to make it more practical.
Mark is a successful entrepreneur. He proudly states that he didn’t do well in a corporate setting. But that setting is the reality for most of us. And we want you to be successful. We offer advice that reflects what drives career success for most of us. Having a good sense of who we are and what we offer, working hard and doing well, having relationships that build our reputation, and being open to opportunities that take us where we want to go - and not just "take us".
Another Mark, Mark Twain said: “We regret the things we don't do more than the things we do.” We don’t think he'd suggest saying “yes” to everything. Because in fact, you don’t regret the things you thoughtfully refuse. And so, it is about being intentional in the choices that you make.
Angela Lane and Sergey Gorbatov
Angela Lane and Sergey Gorbatov work and write about the complex science of human performance and are co-authors of “Fair Talk: Three Steps to Powerful Feedback.” Leveraging Fortune 500 experience gained across four continents, they equip leaders with practical tools for success. This post represents the authors’ personal opinions and not those of their employers or affiliated organizations.