Saying no to almost everything is the most important skill I was never taught

8 April 2018
8 Apr 2018
West Lafayette, IN
4 mins

There are a few things that I feel as if I was taught completely backwards. One of them is how to respond to new and interesting opportunities that come my way.

Especially in school, it seems like quantity begets success. The more things you do — more courses, more homework, more extracurriculars, more clubs — the more successful you feel like you’ll be in the future. So, it follows, capturing every single opportunity that comes your way seems like the correct strategy to success, however we define it. And you’ll see this evident in the sizable fraction of every school’s “top students” that are able to rattle off the long list of activities in which they participate.

I was one of those people. I played five different instruments, four of them to competitive levels; I was in a whole host of clubs; and chased after the top courses and all the “optional” assignments; and I held multiple jobs at a few points during school… for a while, at least. Until I learned better.

It turns out, saying yes to opportunities all the time is a terrible optimization strategy for life unless your only metric for success is the length of your typed-up resume. And when you’re in school, nobody really tells you that, outside of the walls of the school, quantity loses to quality every single time. You’re just supposed to know it, and somehow switch gears when you get out of school.

Most people don’t have three or four jobs — they just have one or two. And the people who are best at what they do all do exactly one, very narrow thing, and they do it exceptionally well. The best people don’t work on twelve different projects simultaneously . They work on just a few, but make them great. There are very, very few people who do world-class work, who also do a half dozen other things on the side. I can count them on one hand.

And yet, in school, it seemed like everyone wants to be in every club and ace every advanced-level course.

This just seems strange to me, that the heuristics we’re supposed to use to determine where to invest our time in school is miles apart from the way we’re supposed to choose our work where it really matters — out and about in the world at large. I think it comes from the fact that we’re trained in the beginning to optimize for the wrong thing entirely. We’re led to optimize for the resume and the experience, and typically, for a beginner, an impressive resume appears full, above all else.

I don’t know where exactly this mindset of optimizing for quantity in academics comes from, but I’m not a fan, not just because I disagree, but because I hurt myself and a lot of other people trying to optimize for quantity when I first got out of school. and I had to teach myself to turn down almost every opportunity, the hard way, by breaking lots of relationships and dropping lots of responsibilities. I dropped a few important paid projects, I had to give up on a side job, and missed deadlines.

I tried to maximize for quantity, because it looked impressive, and that sucked pretty much the whole way through, because I’m trying to optimize the completely wrong metric.

Refinement and focus

To do great work, we need to say no to almost everything that comes our way, and only say yes to a very small number of things, only if it moves us in the right direction.

My default strategy for a long time was to default-yes, and only say no when it seemed like a step backwards. That turned out terrible, so I’ve switched gears. Now, my strategy is to default to no, until there’s a convincing argument that I wouldn’t be able to get where I want to be without whatever’s in front of me.

This is the best (and I think only) way to make the most of our time and work on things that matter to us. This narrow focus means I’m able to spend my time and effort only on the best ideas and chances I get, and it allows me to focus on a few, battle-tested ideas instead of thinning myself out and only giving 50% of myself to each one.

As I step into the last leg of my gap year with five freer months of spring/summer, this is how I want to choose to spend my time — saying no to as many things as possible, so I can work on the few things that genuinely make me excited to get up in the morning spend late nights working on them.


If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy my next post, The alphabet of pixels.

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