A year of saying yes vs. a year of saying no
I’m old enough to remember when everyone thought the secret to building a great company was to be like Steve Jobs. Yell, be a jerk, berate people, tell them they’re dumb, you get the idea. Supposedly it was all the worst parts of being Steve Jobs that was the reason he was Steve Jobs.
Since his death this thinking has waned. Tim Cook doesn’t have the same cult-like following Steve Jobs did, but this is probably because Steve Jobs was a more interesting person.
Theodore Roosevelt is another historical figure that garners similar treatment. You read about TR and it doesn’t take long to assume the key to success is being involved in everything possible. It’s also hard not feeling like you’re a lazy putz.
The problem is TR was incredibly wealthy. He got into politics because his family was always in politics. He went to the badlands in his “dark days” and “started over” on a ranch because he was a millionaire who could afford to saunter off on an adventure. To say nothing of the women in his life who could handle all the things he didn’t want to do — like raising his newborn daughter.
TR was a fascinating human and capable of a lot of great deeds. There’s a lot we can learn from him, just like Steve Jobs. But if you come away with the notion you should just do everything, you’re going to have a problem. TR didn’t have an inbox of email that filled up as fast as he could reply, either.
A few years ago I was in this headspace where saying “yes” to as much as I could was something worth doing.
I was in community groups, political parties, ran for office, working early, reading as much as I could, exercising ninety minutes a day, and lived in this “disease of more”. Somehow the focus was on more, not necessarily better. And unlike TR and Steve Jobs who had the money to make more and better, I didn’t. You probably don’t have that kind of money either.
People like you and me need a different strategy. This past year has been a good way to ease into it, but I’m in a headspace to say no more often.
Most people and businesses set goals and targets, but few consider having an upper bound to them.
Instead of saying yes to every opportunity, group, service, chore, task, meeting, and request, we need to have an upper limit to protect those goals. Sometimes saying no to your boss isn’t possible, but there are certainly times you can. Maybe the kids don’t play soccer and softball at the same time. Maybe we don’t throw a birthday party with 40 guests for a four year old. Maybe we don’t join the HOA (which is something else I did).
Pushing yourself to the limits of a dozen different things, as if working more is working better, isn’t better. Better is better.
A couple of years ago I watched a documentary on Queen (the band, not the monarch). A passive mention of the band working in an abandoned shack in the woods cut off from humanity was what led to Bohemian Rhapsody.
Since then I’ve had this frequent moment where I land on another highly successful person doing their life’s work similarly.
David McCullough writes all his books on a typewriter in a shed in his backyard. There is one lamp.
Sebastian Junger writes in a small shack on the end of Cape Cod.
J.K. Rowling has a writing room unto herself to work on Harry Potter. Maya Angelou has done the same with hotel rooms.
Henry David Thoreau wrote his life’s best work at Walden Pond.
It’s not just authors. Anyone who has done so much as carve wood knows how much better a product becomes when you can put your head down.
Bill Gates has consistently done his “think week” retreats where he goes to a shack just to read and think. As his wealth has increased, so has the journey. He now gets to his think week cabin via helicopter on a small island. But still, you get the idea.
Spending long stretches disconnected is another of TR’s legacies worth learning from.
We don’t all have the benefit of a team of smart people like Steve Jobs or servants like Theodore Roosevelt. But we can all shut off our music and phones and wake up early or stay up late and produce prolonged, focus work in pursuit of better.