Say No to Say Yes, Part 1

by Shana Montesol Johnson

“Everyone expects me to be promoted when my boss moves on, but I find myself hesitating about applying for his job,” remarked Georgia (not her real name) in one of our coaching sessions. “It’s flattering to be asked, and it would be a more prestigious position, of course. I know I could handle the responsibility. I’m just not sure it’s what I want. But how could I say No?”

To get what you want at work (and in life) it helps to be clear on exactly what is it that you want.

As we talked, Georgia became increasingly convinced that she didn’t want the promotion that everyone in her organization expected her to apply for and get. She realized that she wanted her next career move to be to a different kind of job, in a different kind of organization.

Paradoxically, in order to say Yes to the things you want, you sometimes have to say No to other things first.

Some things are no-brainers to say No to – things that we clearly dislike or that are obviously out of sync with our values and priorities. It’s easy to “Just Say No” to: jobs that are excruciatingly dull, bosses who are jerks, boring meetings that add no value, taking your kids to a Justin Bieber concert.

It’s trickier to say No to “Good Work,” which author and coach Michael Bungay Stainer defines as “the familiar, useful, productive work you do.” But sometimes you must turn down “Good Work” in order to make room for you to say Yes to “Great Work” – the work that “matters, inspires, stretches and provokes.”

The thing is, “Good Work” is usually hanging around, knocking on our door, calling on the phone asking us to the prom…while “Great Work” often plays hard-to-get.

In thinking about some of the people I have coached, several come to mind who have said No to some good things in order to say Yes to what they have determined they want even more. For example, my clients have:

  • Said No to a full-time, career-boosting, exciting yet demanding job…so that she could say YES to a part-time gig that allows her to pick up her daughter from school every day, attend school field trips, and be in town rather than away on business travel when her daughter has evening piano recitals.
  • Said No to a part-time, flexible job where she could work from home, set her own hours, and spend ample time with her kids… so that she could say YES to a full-time managerial position that is more intellectually, professionally, and socially rewarding.
  • Said No to project management work that she is good at but finds uninspiring….so that she could say YES to opportunities to develop her technical expertise.
  • Said No to a leadership and managerial role within her organization that although prestigious, was sapping her energy…in order to say YES to business development ventures that she finds exciting, fulfilling, and fun.

It strikes me that some of these cases are polar opposites of each other – one person turns down a full-time job for a flexible position, the other person says No to a part-time, telecommuting job for a demanding full-time gig. (These are all real-life cases, by the way.) What this tells me is that the choice to say Yes and say No is highly personal. What works for one will not appeal to another. It is YOUR No and YOUR Yes, and no one else’s. So own it. Use it. Say No to say Yes.


How about you? What do you want more of in your life and career? What do you need to say No to in order to say Yes to that? Please share in the Comments section below.

And stay tuned for next week’s post about what stops us from getting to No.

Photo courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti /


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