“Saying yes opens a world of doors and potential that saying no shuts down.”
— Peter Shankman
Many feel this way, I believe, because Warren Buffett said so:
“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.” — Warren Buffett
Warren Buffett’s worth $84 billion — good for third richest in the world — so any advice must be adhered to if we want to earn even a fraction of that amount.
The benefit of saying no is intuitive — it allows for greater, singular focus on the task at hand. We all complain about limited time, yet so often give time away to coffee chats, work lunches, new ideas, or anything else that may distract us from doing the work. When we draw our attention away from the matter at hand and fail to do the work, or say yes to other opportunities, we fail in our efforts to succeed in what we’ve previously committed to.
The fact of the matter is that success takes time. Buffett is known for his patience — for failing to make emotional investment decisions and letting compound interest do its thing. It’s unsexy, but it works. And that’s why he can afford to say no. But for everyone else, his advise may be doing a disservice.
Warren Buffett has been on a singular path to business and investment stardom from early on. He was first inspired by the book One Thousand Ways to Make $1000, at age 7. At age 10, he visited the New York Stock Exchange on a trip to New York City. He bought shares in his first company at age 11. Buffett can afford to say no, relentlessly.
For the rest of us, our lives are necessarily filled with more exploration, more trial and error. And the best way to learn, to create opportunity and serendipity is to say yes.
Randomness and Luck
Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness argues that randomness plays a significant — if not overwhelming — role in one’s success.
No matter how sophisticated our choices, how good we are at dominating the odds, randomness will have the last word.
Similarly, many renowned businessmen and entrepreneurs acknowledge the amount that luck played in their and their business’ success.
Buffett is lucky, first and foremost, to be the son of a stockbroker; to come of age during the tremendous postwar prosperity in the United States from the 1950s to 1970s; to have had a mutual connection in Ohama with Charlie Munger that brought the two together.
Instagram’s Kevin Systrom believes that “the world runs on luck”, and certainly Instagram’s explosive growth was as much a result of timing — just as smartphone cameras became ubiquitous and greatly improved in quality — as it was a result of the founder’s skills and decisionmaking.
If randomness and luck play a large part, it begs the question — can we make randomness work for us? How do we create our own luck?
Allowing for Serendipity
As the story goes, Buffett and Munger were invited to dinner by a prominent doctor in Omaha, Dr. Edwin Davis, and his wife Dorothy. The Davises invested $100,000 with Buffett — because of how much he reminded them of Munger — and soon thereafter invited the two to meet at dinner at the Omaha Club. The rest, as they say, is history.
What if one of the parties said no to the invitation?
Buffett was already doing quite well — managing a $100,000 portfolio in 1957 was no small feat — and if he had said no to everything, and felt that additional introductions wouldn’t serve him well or be worth his time,he would have never met Munger.
However, saying yes allows for serendipity. The connection between the two parties may have amounted to nothing; saying no to the introduction would have definitely amounted to nothing.
Acclaimed non-fiction writer William Zinsser, in his book On Writing Well, writes that one of his personal mantras is to “get on the plane” —
As a non-fiction writer you must get on the plane. If a subject interests you, go after it, even it’s in the next county or the next state or the next country. It’s not going to come looking for you. Decide what you want to do. Then decide to do it. Then do it.
You can’t create serendipity from the inside of your bedroom. Creating your own luck, trying to get on the good side of randomness, and allowing for serendipity means saying yes and showing up.
Are you a Maker or a Manager?
YCombinator’s Paul Graham distinguished between maker and manager — and the way in which each working type schedules their day — in a 2009 essay. He writes,
There are two types of schedule, which I’ll call the manager’s schedule and the maker’s schedule. The manager’s schedule is for bosses… You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you’re doing every hour…
When you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster… having a meeting is like throwing an exception. It doesn’t merely cause you to switch from one task to another; it changes the mode in which you work.
Managers are saying yes more often — their schedules are filled with meetings, and by default, they require less uninterrupted work, allowing them to say yes more often.
The nature of a manager’s work may also compel them to seek out serendipity — they may be seeking new investors, strategic business partners, or co-founders, and the only way to find them is to say yes, and show up.
As for makers, it’s not about saying no, but about scheduling accordingly. Makers should say no to things that may negatively impact the uninterrupted work time that they require, but that shouldn’t mean they say no to everything, either.
In fact for makers, who are reliant on their creativity and innovation, saying yes (and scheduling appropriately) is invaluable.
The Adjacent Possible
The adjacent possible is a concept developed by theoretical biologist Steven Kauffman and codified by Steven Johnson in his book Where Good Ideas Come From.
The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself…[the adjacent possible] captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation.
The adjacent possible argues that innovation occurs at the edge of the possibilities that are available at present.
Kevin Synstrom could not have created Instagram in 2000. Cell phones lacked the technology, from both a data and camera perspective. Instagram, and similar innovations, were not in the adjacent possible until years later, with increased technology and penetration of smartphones.
Similarly, Cal Newport, in his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, writes of needing to reach the adjacent possible in order to achieve cutting edge innovation in your career mission.
A good career mission is similar to a scientific breakthrough — it’s an innovation waiting to be discovered in the adjacent possible of your field. If you want to identify a mission for your working life, therefore, you must first get to the cutting edge — the only place where these missions become visible.
The more you try to force it, I learned, the less likely you are to succeed. True missions, it turns out, require two things. First you need career capital, which requires patience. Second, you need to be ceaselessly scanning your always-changing view of the adjacent possible in your field, looking for the next big idea. This requires a dedication to brainstorming and exposure to new ideas.
As Newport argues, reaching the adjacent possible requires exposure to new ideas. Ask yourself — does saying no facilitate that process, or does opening the doors for serendipity tip the scales in your favor?
Many are saying no to everything before ever reaching the adjacent possible.
It’s important to acknowledge that there is a difference between focus and saying no. Focus is vital, as is controlling your own schedule and allowing for deep work. However, when our first instinct is no, or we say no as default, it closes us off to a world of doors and potential that saying yes opens up to us.
Saying yes allows for serendipity, for connection or for inspiration that may set us on the same path that Buffett and Munger set on — in which they both said yes — to that fateful introduction in 1957.
So the next time someone asks you to do something, consider saying yes. The outcome may surprise you.