The Problem with “Yes”


By Jesse McLean

Over the last couple of months, personal values have been at the forefront of my self reflection. I have been wrestling with which of these values I want to intentionally practice and be known for. As I have been sorting this out, it is becoming clearer to me that saying "yes" to opportunities is directly related to the values I choose to live and work by. Each "yes" speaks about what is important to me, or perhaps more accurately, what I am afraid of.

Being young, eager, and lucky enough to be presented with a number of exciting opportunities, turning down any opportunity has always struck me as a privilege that I’ve not yet earned. For years, I’ve practiced saying "yes" to opportunities, then figured out how to execute on the promises I made. It can be a risky play, but it has forced me to learn valuable skills that I would’ve never otherwise acquired, build a company that would have taken many more years to create, meet people who have changed the course of my life, and slowly discover new passions that get me to leap out of bed at 5:30 on a Monday morning. One of the great things about saying "yes" is the measurable outcomes it creates—for example, taking on a new client opens up new networks, increases income, reaffirms that you must be doing something right, and provides a certain level of stability. As a result, "yes" has become an enticing word to say, but that also means that I end up saying it a lot.

At a certain level, "yes" starts to create more problems than it solves. This somewhat obvious realization took me longer to learn than I'd like; however, I’m convinced it has never been more important as I take hold of an opportunity that I’m grateful to have by moving through the stages of growing my business. Latching onto the many opportunities that come my way has marked a personal ambition, but also signals a certain fear of missed opportunity—FOMO is real, especially in business and career.

Every mentor of mine has advised against reactionary responses, and in the case of "yes," responding with “yes” to next to everything is fundamentally reactionary and is more wrapped up in fear of missing out than with intentionally building my life, values, and business in a meaningful way. While taking on many opportunities may open many doors, it’s not necessarily going to open the doors I really care about.

Years ago, I stumbled across a piece of writing by one of my favorite designers and writers, Frank Chimero. These words have stuck with me as one of the most concise means of explaining value and its limits, especially professionally:

The trouble with saying "yes" to countless opportunities is the muddying of these values as care, curiosity, and feeling all suffer the problem of capacity; you can only care, be curious, and have feeling for a certain number of things before they are stretched to the point of irrelevance.

Growing a company that builds digital products for clients across various industries demands a heavy focus on user experience and an intimate attention to detail. It’s critical that I not stretch thin things such as care, curiosity, and feeling, as channeling these things which are in limited supply means comprising aspects of business and personal life. It also demands not being afraid to turn other opportunities down or recognizing when to let certain efforts go for better ones. This is a challenging thing for me to do, as I am still not certain I have earned the right to turn down opportunities that I’m lucky to have; however, I’m beginning to find solace in the fact that by tempering my reactionary use of “yes” I am beginning to be more intentional about where my time is spent.

As long as I am fortunate enough to have opportunities come my way, many people will still hear me say "yes." What I aim to change is my reasons for making a commitment and an assessment of how each commitment will impact my objectives. A "yes" should be uttered when care, curiosity, and feeling can be meaningfully applied to an opportunity without sacrificing previous commitments. I’m only in the beginnings of this and am certain there’s a boatload of learning yet to be done. If overcommitment sounds familiar, let's talk about how we can help each other.