So, I had this post tee’d up for today, then I saw Seth Godin publish a post this morning entitled What “no” means.
Seth has this bizarre habit of publishing posts on the exact same topic as me on the same day I’m looking to post. I’ll just chalk it up to a Samovar jasmine green tea Vulcan mind-meld thing.
Anyway, I thought, why bother with mine?
Then I remembered what I tell everyone who comes to me asking “who am I to [fill in the blank] when there are already so many others out there writing, filming, painting, making, creating about the same thing?”
Answer is, they’re not you. Your voice, your lens, your stories, your unique connection are why.
So, taking my own medicine, here’s my post. And my unique lens on what no means.
A friend who’s building a new online education portal recently asked what it would take to get great teachers to create courses to be offered as part of their venture.
I thought about this, because over the last few years, I’ve been on the invitation end of that conversation. I get asked to contribute in various ways to other peoples’ project, programs, companies, schools, ventures, events, summits.
I’m honored. Humbled. Grateful to be considered worthy of such an invitation, especially since I consider myself very much still just on the path.
I hate saying no.
Especially to friends, colleagues and people whose ideas and quests strongly resonate with me. But, at least for now, with rare exception, I do.
Why do I say no?
The first level of “no” is misalignment. I rule out most invitations quickly because they’re just not well aligned with who I am, what I believe and how I want to serve or see others served. That’s the huge cut, but it’s also a relatively fast and easy one.
The second more involved reason is bandwidth.
I have limited creative “bandwidth.” I once used that term when I turned down an invitation and, though I intended only to use it as shorthand for the organic cap on my ability to create and act and connect and make, the person took great offense. Bandwidth, how impersonal.
The term actually comes from a world where you’ve got a conduit of a particular size. Maybe it’s a pipe or cable or fiber optic. It can only hold so much hot water, electricity, heat, data. Once you hit the limit of the medium, you’re done. Cooked. Sometimes, literally.
From Dictionary.com -
band·width [band-width, -with]
2. Digital Technology. the transmission capacity of an electronic communications device or system; the speed of data transfer: a high-bandwidth Internet connection.
3. mental capacity; intelligence: Don’t listen to him—he has really low bandwidth.
4. a person’s capacity to handle or think about more than one thing at the same time: He doesn’t have the bandwidth to make those kinds of decisions.
That fourth definition is what it’s all about. We can do things to expand our bandwidth. Like sleep, meditate, exercise, eat right. And I do. But in the end, there will always be a cap on how much we can do, I can do, at any given time.
I like the way my energy-management guru, Charlie Gilkey, put it to me. I have X units of energy/effort on any given day. Not X + 1. Or X + 2. Just X. Some of that goes to building vitality, some goes to building connection and some goes to contribution (that’s my add).
When it comes to allocating my contribution units, I wake up most days with more ideas in my head than I will ever have units of effort to think about or execute on.
So how can I justify allocating some of my bandwidth units to other peoples’ projects, when I don’t have enough for my own? Every time I say yes to someone else, I say no to me. Or, at least “not now.”
What would make it worth it to say no or not now to me?
And, the short answer is, I say yes to other people when:
- Their project is well-aligned with my values,
- Their project serves a community I care deeply about,
- It does so in a way that’s substantially better than or different (in a complimentary way) than I could or am serving that community,
- I am fairly compensated both for my contribution AND the opportunity cost to the project it’s taking me away from.
Compensation, by the way, comes in many different forms, from money to relationships to experiences to what my grandma used to call “nachas,” or the joy you feel when someone you care so deeply about flourishes that you feel it as your own success.
Why do I say no to almost everyone these days, including friends, even though I hate to?
Because their projects don’t meet the above threshold.
So, I say no. Most always. With love. But no.
Which leaves one question…
And that’s the question my friend asked at the beginning of this conversation:
What would it take to say yes?
The answer lies in the above “test.”
I speak at World Domination Summit because I know my buddy Chris Guillebeau will create a stunningly transformative experience. End-to-end moments of awe for a community I love to see served. And, for me.
The ethic Chris cultivates, the generosity he manifests, the curation of values and conversation is like nothing I’ve experienced. So I’ll gladly get on a plane to contribute to the level of magic he brings forth, because he serves my community in a very different, stunningly high-value way. He compensates me in ways and on a level that allow me to feel good saying yes to him and “a little while longer” to me.
My middle-school daughter came home from WDS last year having broken a Guinness Book world record, Bollywood danced with thousands and fallen in love with Portland, a great city filled with great friends. Talk about doing something cool for my kid (and talk about her bragging rights!). Not a lot of money that could’ve matched the value to me of the story she now gets to tell for life.
Which brings in another factor. I love working with people I love. Or people who’ve invested in my communities and shown they support and care about not only the things I create, but the people and things I, too, care about.
The chance of me saying yes to someone I’ve already got a relationship with, someone I know, respect, like and trust, is way higher than the likelihood I’ll sign on from a random call, email, DM, contact-form message, PR-pitch or Facebook update. And I don’t even have much capacity to do that these days, beyond what’s already in my creative pipeline.
Here’s the one interesting gray area with all of this—opportunities for genuine collaboration.
If you and I can enter into a genuine collaboration where we both bring value and build something together that’s better than anything I could’ve built alone or just with my team, that’s a conversation I’m interested in having.
But other than that, for the foreseeable future, I serve the God of Bandwidth.
I’m on the no train. Which allows me a lot more time to say yes to the smaller universe of stuff that matters most.
How about you?