The Power of No - When to Use It


One of the hallmarks of very successful people is the ability to say “No”. Of course, there are those people who say no because they don’t want to do the work or they are obstinate and sometimes don’t like being told what to do. I’m not talking about those types of individuals. I’m referring to people who have such clarity about what is within their circle of competence and/or know how they want to direct their lives and to what ends. Whether this clarity helped build a strong sense of self or a strong sense of self-allowed for the clarity to manifest itself, I don’t really know the answer.

Those Who Successfully Use the Power of No

What I do know is that these individuals who can say no rather easily:

  • They have a strong sense of self,
  • Know who they are,
  • Know what they stand for
  • Know where they are going

This allows them to separate the signal from the noise such that they can instinctively say no to those requests that fall outside of their circle or takes them off their path.

Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett have ruthless filters for what they invest in with most ideas tossed aside into the “Too Hard Pile.” They know what they are good at and know what they do not understand and avoid the latter. When something meets their criteria and falls within their circle of competence, however, they say “Yes” in a big way.

Last week I talked about the power of looking at life as an infinite game versus a finite game and how this can lead to a more interesting and meaningful way of directing and living one’s life.

This week I want to go a little more out there and tap into Jungian psychology to discuss certain beliefs he had and amplified by others as to how human beings can evolve into healthy and productive people with a strong sense of self. I believe it is this strong sense of self that allows them to say no much more easily than most of us. I do believe that analyzing the psychology behind the creation of a healthy ego and sense of self-has great applicability for becoming a more effective parent, businessman, and investor.

It is highly beneficial to have cultivated the fortitude to be able to build barriers in healthy psychological ways to let into the fort those things that will help us grow and evolve and are freedom-enhancing and keep out those choices and compulsions that lead to unhealthy attachment. The former results in the construction of a strong foundation while the latter leads to a flimsy base of quicksand. As John Mellencamp says, “You gotta stand for something or you’re gonna fall for anything.”

Much of what I will be discussing in the rest of the blog comes from Carol Pearson’s book Awakening the Heroes Within: Twelve Archetypes to Help Find Ourselves and Transform the World.

To begin developing healthy boundaries requires the building of a healthy Ego. This means there is a separate “I” that is distinct from mother, father, and the rest of the world. A recognition develops that this “I” can actually have an impact on the world. The healthy Ego’s first job is to ensure survival and then seek more material success. To be able to do this, however, first requires a recognition that one is safe and loved.

The initial years of early childhood should be ones akin to being in the Garden of Eden. There is great innocence, curiosity, full presence, and innate joy. It allows one to come to learn he or she is safe in the world and that it is ok to build relationships. Of course, there is no conscious recognition of this by the infant and toddler. The love and safety and support are experienced unconsciously and this then goes deep into the subconscious. The job of the parents is to build a nest to cultivate and amplify safety, love, curiosity, and joy. If all goes according to plan, then this nurturing environment will translate into the individual developing a psyche that helps her move through life in ways that allow for the ability and desire to form deep attachments.

According to Pearson,

“[p]aradoxically, the Ego’s accomplishment of boundaries allows us to risk connection – because we no longer fear we will be swallowed up and lose ourselves.”

If we have a strong sense of who we are then we can form connections much more confidently. I can still be me even though I have a relationship with you. If I do not have a strong sense of self, then there may be a fear of attaching with others because I may be consumed by the other person because I do not have a strong enough sense of self. It is these boundaries in which we can have a relationship and yet still have distinct identities that give one the strength to say no when the request is inconsistent with his or her values, capabilities, goals, etc. It oftentimes comes down to the lesser pain approach. Most people do not like being told no and most people prefer to please other people so they are not thrilled when they have to disappoint them by saying no. On the other hand, those with a strong sense of self, a deep understanding of their abilities, what they value, what they want to avoid, and the direction they want to head will look past the initial uncomfortable encounter and ask the question, “If I say yes and it doesn’t work out, then what could happen?” Often times the pain of working through that will be far in excess of the immediate pain of saying no to someone.

Everyone is on a journey whether they know it or not. Pearson believes that

“[t]he Soul knows the way but the Soul needs the Ego to come along because it is the practical, down-to-earth Ego that will see to it that our Soul journeys do not unduly ravage our lives.”

We all know the powerful visionary and dreamer. We also know he has a hard time getting things done without a practical, detail-oriented partner.

As Bill Gates said, “It’s easy to be a visionary. It’s hard to be a CEO.”

And yet we need both. We need the calling of the Soul and the practical Ego to head down and stay down the path of our true calling and fight through the inevitable obstacles and challenges that will be in our way. We have to experience hardships and setbacks because this training and set of experiences makes us realize we cannot only live from the Innocent archetype (“Visionary”) but we need to experience the Orphan archetype as well in which we come to realize that life is not always fair, there is pain, we may be abandoned, and sometimes we can only rely on ourselves (“CEO”). Of course, a healthy balance needs to be cultivated and the Innocent and Orphan need to work together. We need to graduate from the School of Hard Knocks and yet retain our childlike curiosity, optimism, deep immersion and presence, and joy, despite knowing there will be heartbreak and great pain along the road.

At the end of the day, according to Pearson,

“The archetypes associated with Ego development help us learn to take responsibility for our lives, even when we do not yet know how to do so. Together they teach us the components of character: the trust required to learn the basic skills of living; a sense of the interdependence of human life and the ability to do our parts; the courage to fight for ourselves and others; and an identification with the greater good, which allows us to give to, and even sacrifice for, others.”

The next time someone asks you to do something (a big thing that requires a meaningful consumption of resources), do not be afraid to say no if you think that it was not working out will cause more hardship than the immediate pain of disappointing the person making the request. On the other hand, when one has a strong sense of self in partnership with a Soul that is pulling them in a powerful direction, then saying “Yes” will come out instinctively and excitedly! Find those aspects of life in which you want to say yes.

Over to You:

What in life is pulling you in such a powerful way that has you say “Yes” with great excitement?

One comment on “The Power of No - When to Use It
  1. David Helman says:

    Excellent advice. Knowing when to say no is very important. Thanks

    to say

Leave a Reply



Free Insights