Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect. – Mark Twain
When engaged in an argument with someone, there are a number of lines of reasoning which I tend to reject out of hand. For example, if someone argues that such and such a policy is virtuous based on the fact that Wall Street has responded positively and stocks have risen, I will call foul. Or, if someone were to give me business advice based on the fact that they have an MBA and therefore know better, I would tell them I could give a hoot about their Master of Business Administration.Advertising
Similarly, the moment someone tells me that such and such a behavior or belief must be correct because it is what the majority of people do or believe, I tune out. It’s usually just not worth continuing the discussion.
Truth be told, Mark Twain’s wise words have gotten me through more than a few dark times in my life. There was that time when the majority of voters in America re-elected a certain president to a second term (I’ll let your imagination run with which one I’m talking about). I consoled myself with the idea that the majority of voters who had re-elected this fellow were likely to be wrong in their judgement, even if they were the majority.Advertising
There was also the time when I decided not to go to a well-regarded Washington D.C. university — where I was set to study international relations and business — and instead to attend an out-of-the-way graduate program in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to study philosophy and the Classics. I bet the majority people would have said I was crazy to give up the chance at such a marketable degree to spend my graduate degree years reading Aristotle and Kant. But I did it anyway.
By now you probably get the picture: I have a certain disdain for the majority opinion.Advertising
There is a fantastic scene in Mad Men where Don Draper voices a similar disdain. His public opinion guru, Dr. Faye Miller, has concluded after focus testing a group of young women that the best way to market a beauty product is to link it to the promise of matrimony. Don had wanted to run a campaign based on the women’s desire to pamper themselves and appear beautiful, but according to the focus group, women just want to get married. “I’m not going to do that,” replies Don, when confronted with the majority opinion.
“I can’t change the truth,” says Dr. Miller.Advertising
“How do you know that’s the truth? A new idea is something they don’t know yet, so of course it’s not going to come up as an option. Put my campaign on TV for a year, then hold your group again, maybe it’ll show up.”
The fact is, there a whole lot of people out there who don’t know what they want until someone tells them. Most people look to their peers to decide what to think and do. It’s a natural way to think, and social norms are an immensely powerful influencing force in our lives — more probably than we care to acknowledge. We look to our peers for guidance on any number of mundane and significant life matters, from what to wear, to what career to pick, to what sort of woman or man to marry.
What Mark Twain knew in his time, as he wrote American classics like Huckleberry Finn (or my personal Twain favorite, The Mysterious Stranger), was that any time you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect. Think on this the next time you are tempted to enter a market that is already crowded with dozens of startups. Or the next time investors dump a particular stock en masse. Or the next time the NY Times travel page recommends an “off the beaten track” vacation destination. Because trust me, if the NY Times is publishing it in its travel section, it is no longer off the beaten track.
At this point I must note the customary disclaimer that yes, in some instances the majority will indeed be in the right. But that doesn’t mean it’s still not time to pause and reflect.
The Gentle Art of Saying No
It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.
But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.
What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.
But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:
- Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
- Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
- Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
- Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
- Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
- Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
- Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
- Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
- Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
- It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.
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