The art of saying no

23 Jul

When I got elected as the President of AIESEC UK, my predecessor told me that one of the key things to learn for the role is the art of saying no. My mentor from my Board of Directors was telling me the same thing throughout the year as well. I can still hear him saying something along the lines of ‘Deciding what you are going to do is the easy part, the hard bit is saying what you are not going to do and sticking to it.’ And he was right! I have just finished reading Steve Jobs’ biography and one of the main reasons for his success was… you guessed it – saying no.

Jobs often hurt people when saying no. He would call up a team meeting and then publicly say that what they did is shit and fire half of the people. May be it hurt somebody’s feelings but it also created a culture of excellence whereby only the best people stayed in the company and were not dragged down by the mediocre ones. Those people then worked beyond their perceived limits to create revolutionary products. The ones that survived remember those times as the most fulfilling ones in their lifes. Those that were fired or resigned went on to work for average companies where they may be succeeded and lead happy lifes. While saying no was painful in the short term, it was to everyone’s advantage in the long term.

Apple started making lots of average products after Jobs left. One of the first things he did upon his return, besides firing mediocre people, was to cancel most projects and focus only on a few key ones. This way, we have only few types of Macs, iPod, iPhone and iPad. Other companies have much wider ranges of products but they are nowhere close to the simplicity and functionality of Apple’s gadgets. He was able to zoom out to see the big picture, say no to 90% of ideas and then zoom in again to focus all his energy on the most promising 10%, making sure they are executed flawlessly.

Saying no is not easy, but it is necessary to learn it. Jobs did not care about the feelings of others and was always very direct. The Chinese or Japanese are on the other hand very subtle and express disagreement in very convoluted ways which however do work as well because the whole society works that way and people know how to decode the message. So make sure you find your way and start saying no to mediocre things that suck your energy and do not contribute to much.

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