This One Word Can Change Your Career (In A Good Way)

Jiro Ono owns a sushi restaurant.

In Tokyo, Sukiyabashi Jiro is a small restaurant inside a subway station. Jiro’s sushi restaurant is extremely popular. His prices are high, his restaurant and menu are small, and he has ample opportunity to earn more money with his business.

Jiro could expand his restaurant. With only ten seats, Jiro could easily earn more by squeezing in another seat or two.

He could move from his post inside a subway station to a larger location with double the amount of seats. After all, double the seats, double the money, right?

Jiro could expand his menu. He could offer more than just the sushi that he offers. After all, if he could upsell menu items, he’d make more revenue, right?

But Jiro doesn’t do any of these things.

Because for Jiro, these aren’t opportunities. They’re responsibilities.

Opportunities that you’re not excited by aren’t opportunities. They’re responsibilities.

Jiro is focused on one thing: mastering the art of sushi. He’s given his life to the craft of sushi. He’s specialized in sushi and focused on sushi and has said “no” to all of the “opportunities” that don’t lend themselves to his one goal of mastering sushi.

So, sure. He could do all of these things and potentially make more money. But if he’s not excited by them? If it doesn’t help him reach his goal?

“No” is the best answer.

The Power of ‘No’ and Why it Works

We tend to think of the word “no” as a bad thing.

We’re taught to say “yes.” To keep our minds open to new opportunities. To chase the next shiny thing that is dangled in front of us. Yet success in history shows us that no is the more powerful word.

No works because it enables you to maintain your focus on the one or two things that are truly important to you. It works because it allows you to see things through until completion. It works because when you say yes to one thing, you’re saying no to absolutely everything else.

Let’s say you’re working to get your business off the ground, and have the opportunity for a more demanding role at work which would require an additional 10 hours each week.

By saying yes to that opportunity, you’re saying no to spending those 10 hours building your business. You’re saying no to the potential business that would come from focusing on that. You’re saying no to opportunities for business growth that you could use those 10 hours to foster.

You’re also saying no to spending those 10 hours with your friends and family, and no to spending those 10 hours working out or improving your health.

But, even if those other things are more important to you, saying no to the opportunity can be painful.

Why It’s So Difficult to Say ‘No’

Maybe you are — or know — a yes (wo)man. It’s difficult to say no to an opportunity because our minds run away on us. We think:

  • What if an opportunity like this never comes up again?
  • What if I say no to this potential client or contract and end up not making any money?
  • What if I say no to an opportunity that would change my entire life, make me millions of dollars and end up leading to huge, exciting things?

Research shows that we feel a loss more painful than the lack of a gain. So, if you were given $20 and then it was taken away, you’d feel it far more painfully than if you were never given the $20 in the first place, even though you’d be in the same financial position.

In an experiment done by Dan Ariely at Duke University (described in more detail in his book Predictably Irrational), researchers asked a group of students what price they’d pay for NCAA Final Four tournament tickets. The NCAA games were very popular at Duke at the time, making the tickets desirable to most students. On average, the students in this group said they’d pay $150 for the tickets.

The researchers asked the next group to imagine they already had tickets for the game. How much would they sell them for? On average, the students who already owned the tickets reported they’d sell them for $1500.

That’s 10x more than what non-ticket holders would pay.

This is called the Endowment Effect, and has been proven in study after study: humans value things they already have far more than things they don’t yet have.

You might wonder what this has to do with opportunities…

The last opportunity you were presented with was likely one you didn’t even know existed before it became an opportunity for you. If you did, it may not have been something you were actively pursuing.

However, when you are offered the opportunity — meaning, you already have it in the bag — you value it up to ten times more. 

An opportunity offered is 10x more difficult to say no to than an opportunity never offered at all — even if the opportunity doesn’t light you up.

It can be much easier to say no with some guidelines of what is a true opportunity, rather than something you should have said no to.

How to Spot a True Opportunity (And What to Say No To)

As hard as saying no is, it’s one of the most important things you can do for success.

As Warren Buffet says:

 “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”

To get into that ‘really successful people’ category, you need to set your priority.

Notice I said “priority” rather than “priorities“.

If you have more than one priority, you aren’t prioritizing anything. Everyone has one thing that works overtime for them — that 20% of actions they take that yields 80% of the results. That one thing needs to be your priority.

  • If you’re a new blogger, your priority could be writing for blogs larger than yours.
  • If you’re trying to get your photography business off the ground, your priority could be creating a beautiful portfolio.
  • If you’re an aspiring freelance writer, your priority may be to increase your writing speed and quality by practicing.

After you’ve set your priority, write it somewhere visible.

Then, say no to everything that doesn’t lend itself to your priority.

  • If your priority is guest blogging, say no to hopping on the newest social media bandwagon.
  • If your priority is writing, say no to starting a podcast.
  • If your priority is pitching freelance web design clients, say no to freelance writing work.

As you say no to opportunities that don’t fit with your priority, you’ll find that something interesting happens:

Your productivity skyrockets. You begin to get more opportunities that do fit with your priority. And your priority begins to pay off.

After you’ve mastered the art of extreme focus by saying no to opportunities, you’ll realize…

An opportunity you’re not excited about isn’t an opportunity. It’s a responsibility.

If you’re a blogger and you say no to spending even half an hour each day on yet another social media platform, you’ll have gained three and a half hours each week to spend on your priority. In terms of building an audience, you could write 1-2 guest posts in that amount of time, bringing in hundreds of subscribers.

If you’re a web designer and you say no to work that doesn’t fit within your realm of expertise, you’ll have gained hours each week to work on finding your dream clients — those clients who pay on time, make it easy to work with them, and for whom the work you do lights you up.

If you’re an aspiring writer and you say no to a project your friend wants to work with you on that would take up two hours each week, you can use those hours to practice. And over the course of a month, you’ll have gained 8 hours of practice time, and thousands of words.

With extreme focus on one priority, you’ll conquer your projects. You’ll become more effective and efficient and, yes, successful.