Navigating the Yes/No Paradox


Last Updated on September 18, 2023

One of the most important skills to develop as we age is the ability to say, “Yes!” One of the most important skills to develop as we age is the ability to say, “No!”

That’s the yes/no paradox. Learning to say yes invites people, possibility, and opportunity into our lives. Learning to say no ensures that we’re focusing on the people, possibilities, and opportunities that align with our values.

Saying yes helps build and maintain relationships, leads to lifelong learning, and overall well-being. It’s the surest way to discovering our passions and purpose. But saying yes too often or to the wrong things quickly results in becoming over-committed, over-extended and overwhelmed. Saying no enables us, and not others, to manage our time and energy.

Saying yes keeps us socially engaged while saying no will help ensure that those we engage with bring value to our lives. In other words, it’s important that we pick our friends wisely. Entrepreneur and author Jim Rohn famously said that we’re the average of the five people with whom we spend the most time. Passion, enthusiasm, and optimism are the contagious cornerstones of health and well- being making it important that we say yes to those who share our enthusiasm for life and learn to say no to those who are pessimistic, inactive, and unhealthy.

Saying yes is a by-product of curiosity, which may be the single most important trait that’s shared by successful people. Colleagues of Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson refer to him as “Dr. Yes.” Branson believes in the power of yes because “opportunity favors the bold — a lesson that I learned early on and have used to guide the Virgin story.”

Saying yes means risking failure and embarrassment but to be afraid to fail is to be afraid to live. A key to embracing the power of yes is developing a beginner’s mindset which is open to new ideas and understands that failure is nothing more than feedback. We learn and grow by trying, failing, and persisting. Those who eventually become good at something are simply those who were OK with being bad at it for a while. If we can’t deal with failure, we’ll never know success.

Yes or no is a never-ending choice that we all make throughout our lives. Understanding the potential impact of that choice is an important life skill. Steve Jobs once said, “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.” Our time here is limited. Yes and no are the gatekeepers that guard our time, energy, and focus.

It’s important to not just say yes to new experiences but also to accepting help and support from others. That means saying no to ourselves when our abilities don’t match our desires. Amy O’Rourke, the host of Growing Bolder’s Art of Caregiving series, says the number one reason people get institutionalized is pride. “Not accepting help when you need it will cause you to become institutionalized because you drive too long, climb ladders for too long, or live alone for too long. We need to admit when we need help because pride can result in a major injury or setback that leads to institutionalization.”

Saying yes creates space for self-expression. Saying no creates space for self-care. The challenge is to find a balance between the two that opens doors without creating chaos, and that allows for the magic of serendipity while minimizing the prospect of misfortune.

Instead of imagining the worst that might happen, imagine the best. Instead of asking, why? Ask yourself why not?

This article is featured in the January 2023 issue of The Growing Bolder Digital Digest.

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