Have you ever noticed how often you say “No?” Not just to things that merit refusal, but to fresh ideas, new possibilities and the chance to make unexpected discoveries? Whenever you say “No” to life, you miss an opportunity: to discover something new, to try something you haven’t tried before, to learn and grow, to find some aspect of yourself or others that you missed before. To start afresh with an interest, a project or maybe your life’s true calling.

Okay, it’s impossible to say “Yes” to everything, but you could almost certainly say “Yes” to more than you do. Listen to yourself. When someone invites you to join them in something they love—and that you haven’t ever tried—what do you say? Do you take the chance to try it? Or do you politely turn them down because your time is too precious to waste on anything that you are not sure you’ll like in advance?

Learning and living are the same. When you stop learning, you start to die a little every day. There’s scientific evidence links between brain cells can re-grow at any age if you give them some exercise. Your brain is a case of “use it or lose it.”

When I wrote my book on potential, one of the most important ideas I wanted to share was the real nature of potential. It isn’t intelligence, or wealth, or power. Potential is possibility. The more choices and possibilities you have before you, the more potential you have. That’s why everyone has potential—and so little of it gets used.

Consider two people. Martin is intelligent, but likes to stick with what he knows. Manuela is full of curiosity and likes to try new things and learn about them for herself.

Run forward a few years. Martin is doing what he always does. He has a sound position but he hasn’t advanced. Manuela has tried scores of new ideas and is still eager to learn. The world never stands still, so Martin is in danger of being left behind. His carefully built security can be overturned any day by some unexpected event. If it is, he’ll find he’s lost most of his confidence and ease in learning. Change will be forced on him and he probably won’t cope well. For Manuela, change is normal. She could still face upsets and setbacks, but she’s learned how to learn and cope positively with change. Whenever she needs it, learning will come easily from so much practice.

Potential is possibility. Few possibilities in your life? You have little potential. To increase it, add new choices. Learning is the only way. It’s a basic law of nature. The species most tightly tied to a single niche environment are the ones most likely to become extinct. The most adaptable species—not the fastest, biggest or cleverest—survive and prosper whatever happens. Want proof? Look around you at all the pigeons and sparrows. Not much danger they’ll die out any time soon, is there? But they aren’t powerful birds like eagles, or even clever ones like parrots. What they are is supremely adaptable.

So try it. Say “Yes” to something you would normally turn down. Try different food, different music, going to a movie you’d normally avoid. Try behaving differently. If you’re usually shy, try making the first move to speak to someone interesting. If you’re noisy and extroverted, try standing back quietly and watching while others take the limelight. Whatever happens, you’ll learn something. You may even discover something unexpectedly good. It doesn’t need to be anything dramatic. What matters is that you open yourself to more of what life has to offer, instead of hanging back and staying with what you already know.

So many people go through life and work convinced that there is only one path open to them. That makes it true, because they never try anything else. But the world is a huge, glorious experiment, not a set of rules to be followed and boxes to the checked. How much you are willing to join in that experiment is up to you. The closer that you stick to the same script, the less you will discover about what might be even better. What holds most people back is fear of losing what they already have, however imperfect it might be. Just remember that you are in control of the experiment. You can try a little change as easily as a huge one. And if it doesn’t work, you can always go back and try again. Saying “No” is the real risk, because it closes the door forever on anything different.

Related Posts:

Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life. His latest book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization, is now available at all good bookstores.

Love this article?