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Mark Mzyk | July 19, 2009

The idea for this post was originally going to be about business strategy.  It was going to revolve around this quote, that I found on the Contrast blog:

The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.

Michael E. Porter

It’s a good quote, but there’s a better one that cuts more to the heart of the matter:


Attempting to say no and actually saying no are what many of us spend our lives doing.  When you often get in trouble, it’s because you said yes.

You said yes to a feature that turned out more complicated than you thought.  Now you’re working overtime to complete it.  What if you had said no?  How much would users care?

You said yes that you’d attend the meeting because someone asked you, but you learned nothing.  What work could you have done if you had said no?

The scenarios are endless.

No is the best response in many places, although sometimes the word no isn’t said at all.

I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one instead.

Attributed to Mark Twain, but there is debate about that.

What if you had said no to something else, so you had time to write that short letter?

Omit needless words.

Strunk and White

Omit needless code.

Kevlin Henney

Omit needless features

– Paraphrase of Steve Jobs.

The actually quote from Steve Jobs:

I know you have a thousand ideas for all the cool features iTunes could have.  So do we.  But we don’t want a thousand features. That would be ugly.  Innovation is not about saying yes to everything.  It’s about saying NO to all but the most crucial features.

Steve Jobs

You hear this advice all the time.  If saying no is the way to go, then why  are we all so bad at it?

We’re like cats: the shiny new object always holds allure over the old and dull.  I can interest my cat with balls and bells, until the moment the laser pointer comes out.  The balls and bells are forgotten because the shiny non-catchable dot has appeared.

We’re all chasing laser pointers instead of balls and bells.  The ephemeral laser pointer promises a better future, whereas the balls and bells represent the solid here and now.

I recently tweeted this:

Let’s get something straight: no feature is ever “must have”.

Here are some of the replies:

Disagree.  Just need to understand context.

There are some features that are must-have, though not nearly as many as we think. I’m certainly guilty of this.

Both are a failure to say no.  We all fail to say no at times.  Think about this: what if we didn’t have that feature?  What’s the worst that happens?  Things stay as they are.  The world doesn’t end.

If you can’t say no, you end up thinking business software is messy and ugly.  Features accumulate and code spaghetties.  Technical debt piles on.  It’s a world of trouble, all of which results from not saying no.

Switching from business software to the personal, there’s a piece of advice oft repeated: follow your passion.

It’s clear by now where I’m going with this.  Follow your passion is another way of telling us to say no.  How do you follow your passion without saying no to everything else that might interfere?  If you don’t say no, you’ll find there’s little time left to say yes to what you want to do.

No is one of the simplest words in the English language.  It’s one of the first words that native English speakers learn to say.  Yet no is the hardest word in the English language to say to someone.

Knowing this, I challenge you: say no to someone and see what results.  Maybe saying no will become a habit for you.  As a result, the world will become a better place.