March 7, 2021

The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say no to almost everything. You’ve gotta keep control of your time, and you can’t unless you say no. You can’t let people set your agenda in life.

– Warren Buffett

Sometimes I wish I could abide by Warren Buffet’s advice above, saying “no to almost everything.”

But most of the time, I don’t.

There are many more times when I would rather violate this “entrepreneur’s credo for productivity.”

I guess I’m just a little more agreeable at the expense of increased productivity.

My conclusion: Saying no to almost everything (in a business context) is good for business…but not ideal for every business…or every businessperson.

That’s a credo I just made up, only submitted for your approval (or disapproval).

I’m sure I could be a ruthless “No Monster” with the right discipline…but when “no” enters my brain as the first response to a request, another competing voice enters my brain saying, “Who needs discipline?”

And…when “no” enters my brain I also think, “what opportunity might I be giving up (e.g. a meaningful relationship, a potential partnership etc.).”

Not as a shiny object either…with the key word being “meaningful.”

I know this runs counter to good business judgment.

I guess that’s the yin and yang of saying no?

In respect to my business life, I love everyone (well, most people)… and I also want to help everyone I can too…because I am able to given my four decades of marketing experience.

I know this also runs counter to protecting my privacy and the access people have to me.

This has been an ongoing “problem” throughout my career; and since I’ve heard it echoed by many of you in my online family (and from members of Titans Mastermind and Titans Xcelerator masterminds),I know I am not alone.

Don’t get me wrong–I admire executives who have gatekeepers and systems to keep the “riffraff” out, only allowing the most critical people in; but I also know that it is not a black and white issue (despite all of the literature to the contrary).

Those of you in my camp (i.e. the “no resisters”) are generally considered weaker (i.e. less efficient) than our counterparts, like Warren Buffet above and Greg McKeown below.

McKeown’s book Essentialism, The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, breaks life down to the essentials…with chapters on “The Invincible Power of Choice,” “The Power of Extreme Criteria,” and “The Power of a Graceful ‘No’”…which all lead to the same conclusion:

You must always protect the million dollar racehorse (you)…by saying yes to only the essential… and no to everything else.

(Essentialism also has a chapter on “SLEEP: Protect the Asset” which is super powerful…and it’s the one element of Essentialism I’ve followed 100%…I get 7 to 9 hours slumber time every night. But in regard to the rest of the book, for me, somewhat sadly, it was more interesting and fascinating rather than a way of life. Simply put, I have failed the essentialism test many times over.)

I’m too stubborn to follow the rest of McKeown’s philosophy (i.e as a religion)—which may lead to my ultimate downfall—but I will continue to live on the edge.

That is, I‘ve made it this far with only a few scars related to my stubbornness in accepting essentialism (and theories like it).

The religion around essentialism centers on saying no before yes—to an idea, a meeting, a Zoom call, a negotiation, whatever—is based on the fact that everything needs to be a “Hell Yes” (a “10” on a scale of 1-10) or a “No” (a “1” on the same scale).

No room for 7’s and 8’s…and when I read that, it made me sad.

Perhaps, in rebellion, I embrace too many 7’s and 8’s…which I admit may have stunted  my growth as a businessman…with the negatives  calculated in wasted hours, days and months… but hopefully,  not a wasted career.

I don’t much care anymore…and it’s why I am more a reader and interested bystander of these theories…but not a faithful student of them (e.g. Buffet or McKeown)…or Bruce Lee for that matter, who said:

“It’s not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.”

Bruce’s “hack” was definitely more lethal than Buffet’s or McKeown’s I imagine…but still not scary enough to make it a way of life.  ☺

I am by no means recommending wasting your time saying yes over no all the time, which seems to be a prescription for disaster according to many business gurus.

But maybe…consider a “7” or “8” now and then?

In chapter one of Overdeliver, there’s a short section devoted to a discussion of the book Give and Take by Adam Grant, a book that gave me a new filter to run my obsession to say “yes before no” through…not an excuse or a rationalization…just a filter.

Givers, Takers & Matchers

Adam Grant developed the concept of givers, takers, and matchers after studying more than 30,000 people in multiple industries all around the world.

He found that we all fall into one of these three behavioral categories regarding our interactions with other people:

  • 25 percent of us are givers
  • 19 percent are takers
  • 56 percent are matchers

Givers are the people who are constantly helping the folks around them. They’re always sharing their time, effort, money, and attention with others—even when it drains them or takes up more time and resources than they can afford.

Takers are self-serving in their interactions with other people. They’re always on the lookout for what you can do for them, and they don’t care what they could do for you.

Matchers strike a balance right in the middle. They’ll do something for you if you do something for them. It’s the “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” approach.

Early in his book, Grant asks which group you think will be the least successful in their business and personal endeavors—givers, takers, or matchers—and reveals that it’s the givers.

But as you read on, he also asks which group you think will be the most successful . . . turns out it’s also the givers.

The lesson he goes on to teach is that how you give is most important, not how much you give.

“Givers” are at the top of the success ladder and at the bottom…and in Grant’s words, you are either a champ or a chump as a giver.

“Takers” and “Matchers” are all in the murky middle.

One more thing I want to share from this magnificent little book, what Grant refers to as the five-minute favor (i.e. “You should be willing to give five minutes to anyone…anytime…”) as a way to have a big impact in a short period of time.

That’s seems like a soothing alternative to “saying no to almost everything,” doesn’t it?

Five minute favors can be in the form of making a business introduction, throwing a surprise bonus into the delivery for a loyal customer, or spending a few minutes sharing some feedback or experience with someone in your business that is going to accelerate their ability to perform.

It only takes a few moments…and it has a big effect.

The catch is that you need a watch (which I have) but you also need to check said watch (which I don’t).

Five minute favors in my world seem to turn into 55 minute favors more often than not.

Such is the world of overdelivery…an affliction I suffer from…and dare I say that many of you suffer from it as well.

While I wear this affliction like a badge of honor, I am also always on the lookout to curb the urge wherever applicable.

Some possible remedies for this are below.

Marty Edelston, the founder of Boardroom Inc. (where I cut my teeth in marketing), was definitely a giver. And while he didn’t have Grant’s system in place, he knew how to give effectively, and he led the company with a spirit of generosity.

Together, we built a culture of overdelivery–for our customers and employees–and it was this obsession with giving people more than they ever would have expected that took us from humble beginnings to becoming a direct marketing giant.

However, Marty would often say to me during our daily check-ins, “So Brian…who did you give your right arm to today?”

He didn’t ask me this to be mean or to shame me for my overenthusiastic giving.

He was asking out of care and concern.

He didn’t want me to get taken advantage of, which is the risk of being a giver (and “overdeliverer”).

But it seems to me that it’s a risk that’s worth taking because overdelivery sets you apart and keeps people coming back to you.

Of course you need to trade time for that…a precious resource…and that’s where we need to make the calculation when saying yes over no makes sense. It’s a necessary calculation but one that can change over time (despite the rigidity recommended by many business leaders). At least that’s how I see it.

This overall philosophy of overdelivery gave us—and it will give you—incredible momentum, because customers, clients and friends always know you are in their corner.

In my career, I didn’t always get it right (understatement).

But the customers I dealt with in the past and the ones I deal with today always know one thing:

They can count on me (and whoever is on my team) to be proactive and reliable.

Of course you must always have something incredible to offer too. And while occasionally people might take advantage of you and be disappointed nonetheless (there are dangers in setting expectations so high when you overdeliver as I discussed last week in Realizing unrealized expectations), net-net, the pros outweigh the cons, and it is the most powerful thing you can do to set yourself apart from your competition.

I’m not as dumb as I sound here either…I know that there is a limit to what we can say or do for others and still remain productive ourselves.

But I would rather stretch those limits rather than constrict them…which is a theory not supported by many of the most successful people I have met in business over the years, including many that I follow…and have even quoted in this post.

Oh well.

At least I know what I’m doing when I’m doing it…kind of like an addict who needs to admit they are addicted to something before they can do anything to change it.

“How do we continue our love affair with humanity, and all of the wonderful people (new friends and old) who are part of our communities, while somehow making ourselves less accessible?”

Just writing that was hard.

A better way to put it:

“How can we say ‘no’ with love…and therefore protect all of our appendages?”

(Or am I the only one giving away my right arm on a regular basis?)

Watching Dan Kennedy up close and personal through the years—or as up close and personal as anyone can get to Dan Kennedy—taught me a lot.

Dan doesn’t own a cell phone or have a cell phone number (or certainly one he gives out to anyone I know); he doesn’t use e-mail; his phone appointments are carefully controlled by a gatekeeper/assistant who can only be contacted via fax; and if Dan reaches out to you, it will either be via Federal Express or fax.

And whether you approve of how Dan protects his privacy (and especially how folks get access to him), there is no one I know who is more productive and focused on what he needs to do (and wants to do) on a daily basis than Dan Kennedy.

So there are some lessons here…adapt what you will…but what Dan does is way too extreme for me.

However, most entrepreneurs think a lot about “protecting their confidence”; and I think if you protect your privacy and figure out the best ways to limit access to yourself in ways that work for you, productivity (and therefore confidence) goes up exponentially.

My slight twist on this: I gain confidence through the extensive interactions I have with all the geniuses in my life…some invited and some who crash the party…and if there was a moat around me preventing anyone getting in, that wouldn’t work for me.

But knowing the difference between “no longer” and “not yet” is my latest distinction to decide who crosses the moat.

Having said all of this, I am still always looking for new and better ways to say “no with love.”

These are the ones I have put into play already, some more successful than others:

  • “I can’t do that right now but if anything changes I will let you know.”
  • “I will if I can”
  • “I charge $2,000 per hour for my time” (that’s my number…but you should have a number that will create a “hell yes” for you).
  • “While I charge $2,000 an hour, I don’t want to charge you; however for my time, I would like you to donate the equivalent to a charity of my choice” (obviously shows their commitment to the conversation…and respect for your time)
  • “While I don’t like charging you for my time I must…but overload doesn’t serve anyone and I will do a disservice to you if I simply say yes given how crazy my schedule is” (for those that no money in the world will make you say “yes”).
  • “I’m willing to set up that call but please send me your three most pressing questions in advance of the call so we can use the time most productively” (dare them to prepare).
  • “I can give you ______ minutes but I have a hard stop at _____.”
  • “I can give you a half hour from 1:10 to 1:40 on Thursday” (using a specific time and day, not on the hour or half hour, to create respect for the time).
  • “There are two times, now and not now. And unfortunately this has to be a not now given competing priorities.”

I’m still adding to this list…and refining it…to see what works best going forward.

I’ve also realized that the more requests I make of people (to speak at my masterminds, to give me their time, counsel etc.), sometimes I wish they would give me a straight up “NO” rather than trying to “say no with love.”

If it’s a solid no for now and forever, tell me now so I can move on.

A way to get there is to say, when making a request: “No is a perfectly acceptable answer and you won’t hurt my feelings.”

Hmmm…I’m sure others want that from me too…maybe I don’t have to try so hard after all.

Sometimes, respect can be attained by being straight rather than sugar coating a “no.” This is one where you should do as I say and not as I do.

Maybe I’ll start doing this more now that I wrote it. 🙂

The more I look at the issue of “access” and protecting our most important asset (time), within the confines of what works best for us, the more it’s worth constant personal examination.

I would love your feedback since I know many of you have thought about this too.

More specifically, I’d love to hear some of the ways youprotect your time and how people get access to you.

And if you have had any “productivity breakthroughs” through the methods you use, please share those as well.

I may share them in a follow up post.

Or…maybe you are so good at saying no you can easily ignore this request.

I respect that. ☺



P.S. Please join the copywriting community in celebrating the life and legacy of a giant:

Clayton Makepeace

Clayton was not only one of the most talented (and effective) copywriters who has ever lived, he was also a legendary teacher, mentor and friend to thousands…from all over the world…people he met and people he only touched with his work.

We lost him last year but his work lives on.

Please accept this invitation to a very special event. (It’s free but you must register).

I consider Clayton my teacher, mentor and good friend…I loved him…and I am excited (although it’s bittersweet) to share his genius with as many people who can benefit.

On Thursday March 18th, 2021, from 1:00-4:00 P.M. EST, the copywriting and direct marketing community will be coming together to pay tribute to this one-of-a-kind talent who we lost too soon.

Attending and speaking will be a who’s who of copywriting and marketing, sharing the lessons we all learned from Clayton…and whether you’ve been exposed to Clayton’s teachings (or even if you don’t know who he is), everyone in my online family will benefit from this event.

It’s absolutely free but you must pre-register.

Click here to claim your seat.

I can’t remember the last time A-list copywriters, designers and marketers from all over the world came together solely with the purpose of sharing and giving back to the copywriting community.

That’s just what Clayton would want us to be doing.

It will be like the final Beatles concert…something else Clayton would appreciate due to his love of Paul McCartney and the Fab Four.

You may recall what John Lennon said at the end of that performance:

“I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we’ve passed the audition.”

Clayton passed his “audition” decades ago. ☺

And like that Beatles final concert, this could be your last chance to soak in Clayton’s genius with many of his top gun students whose success he is responsible for.

So don’t miss out. I’ll certainly be there. Register here.

P.P.S. Please help spread the word and invite as many people in your communities as possible.

Share this invitation (and registration link) with your email list, on social media, with personal friends who might have an interest…whoever you think would benefit from this momentous event.

Remember, advance registration required.

Register here and send this link around!

About the author 

Brian Kurtz

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