The No-Yes Spectrum

When someone asks you to do something, and I’m talking about the whole gamut of asks, here: from “Wanna grab some dinner after rehearsal?” to  “Mom, can I sleep over at Molly’s house on Friday?” to “Can you perform all 6 Bach Cello Suites in a private concert next Saturday?” What is your usual default reaction? 

Do you always start with “No” and then find reasons to justify it? Or do you say yes to everything and then regret it? 

I think one of the biggest signs that someone has the potential to be successful is where they stand on the “No-Yes Spectrum” (I totally made that up–consider it trademarked)

Say yes to too many things and you can get overwhelmed, spread yourself too thin, and not have the capacity to do really good work on anything. 


Say no to too many things though, and you get stuck, rigid, stop taking risks, and avoid growth. 


I think most people, whether they do it consciously or not, generally default to “No.” Our brains have been sold a thousand reasons why we cannot do certain things. Seth Godin calls it our “Lizard Brain”, Stephen Pressfield writes about it as resistance in his book “The War of Art” and Scientists will start talking to you about your amygdala and why it keeps saying “No, because”  over and over and over. You can also blame your parents, teachers, and general surroundings for your knee-jerk reactions to new ideas. 

  • Can you be a doctor? No, because medical school is expensive and takes forever. 
  • Can you live in France? No, because you don’t have an EU passport. 
  • Can you make millions of dollars? No because we’re not “those” people. 

You get the idea.

More often than not, we are defaulting to “No” as a way to keep ourselves safe. Avoid the risk. As creatives, we are geniuses at coming up with reasons why we should say no–even when our heart is saying yes. 

Whether it’s about taking an artistic risk (I can’t play it that way because people will hate it) or a career risk (I can’t enter that competition because I’m not ready) or a tactical risk (I can’t work with a coach because I don’t have the money). 

We rarely ask ourselves if that No is serving us in the long term, or whether it’s just keeping us safe and comfortable at the moment. Sometimes, the no is stemming from a long-held belief in what is possible and what is impossible for our lives. 



Photo by Yuris Alhumaydy


My friend Jason once worked as the General Manager of a big organization. He was a wonderful guy that everyone got along with outside of work. In his role, he was in charge of the budget and, more importantly, making sure the organization stayed within that budget. He was also in charge of 6 very hard-working staff members, and he took it upon himself to make sure that they were happy, fulfilled, and not overworked. 


Like I said, great guy. Except that he said “No, because…” to everything. 


  • An exciting new project! “No, because we don’t have the time to plan it properly.” 
  • A new opportunity to collaborate with the perfect partner! “No, because everyone is already maxed out.” 
  • Some fun swag for our volunteers? “No! Because there’s no money for it.” 


It’s hard to argue with that. Those are all valid reasons. But it wasn’t long before everyone around him, from his staff members to the CEO, were utterly frustrated with him. He was not to be swayed. According to Jason, It was everyone around him who was the problem. “They want the moon,” he’d cry “and they don’t see how impossible it is!” 

After a few years, the organization, sitting dead in its tracks, had been outperformed by the competition. Other groups were doing more, had more visibility, more collaborations, and better initiatives. 

But Jason’s budget was balanced! Problem was, It was the exact same budget he had been working with for 3 years. There had been zero growth. 

His replacement, Terry, brought a different attitude. Instead of answering “No, because” to everything,  they responded to each request and idea with “Yes! If….” Sometimes it would be determined that the “if” in question either wasn’t feasible, or wasn’t worth the effort at the moment, but often, it opened the door for creative thinking, a more engaged team, and exciting new projects. 

  • A new summer initiative? “Yes, If two of you are willing and able to take on some extra hours over the next 4 weeks. It’s a tight turnaround, and we are already short on available work hours. But if we can find an extra 10 hours a week, we can make this happen.” 
  • A new collaboration? “Yes, If the other partner has the necessary manpower available, we can contribute our space and do the mailings. Our staff has its hands full with current projects, but we can make this work”
  • Some fun new swag for our volunteers? “Yes, If we can find a corporate sponsor to donate it.” 


Terry knew how to turn the Impossible into the Possible. It didn’t mean the team would decide to act on every idea, but thought and input was given. They could look for creative solutions and then decide their next best step from there. 

Suddenly, the whole world opened up. They experienced tremendous growth AND the budget remained balanced. 

Terry was scoring high on the No-Yes Spectrum. 


It takes a lot of courage. 


It’s far easier to reason ourselves OUT of doing something new, risky, or challenging.  We justify the no with perfectly valid reasoning (usually having to do with a lack of time, resources, or money) and then feel a sigh of relief, knowing that we don’t have to figure anything out. We got ourselves out of doing the hard work (preparing for the competition, cutting back on spending, or planning the trip) 


Unfortunately, we’ve also cheated ourselves out of the potential reward. Winning the competition (or even just the knowledge that we could, in fact, get ourselves prepared enough to do well) Having the coach, or the new instrument, or the studio space we needed (and hey–by not going out for meals for 3 months to save the money, your cooking skills got a serious upgrade!) Experiencing a new country in the best possible way


Photo by Brett Garwood


So every time you hear your Lizard brain’s amygdala start to utter the phrase “No, because”,  call up your inner Terry and flip it around. Instead of the “No, because” default, you look for the “Yes, if” possibility.  


  • Can you be a doctor? Yes, if you put a plan in place to cover expenses while you’re in school and look for some great scholarships/financial aid. 
  • Can you live in France? Yes, if you married someone with an EU passport, or if you get the right visa. 
  • Can you make millions of dollars? Yes, if you create an offer or product that people want and serve them well, you can be both an awesome human being AND a millionaire. 


Give it a shot.

Take something that you think you have to say no to, and ask yourself “What parameters need to exist in order for this to be a yes?” 

Are they feasible?  Is the reward worth the risk? Will you experience the kind of growth you are looking for? 




P.S. If you enjoyed this blog post and want more insider info on how to thrive as a creative, be sure you get on the list to receive my Friday “Weekend List.” Each one is loaded up with additional tips, tricks, and things to think about, including a new curated list of articles, books, podcasts, and things that I think you’d enjoy.  Click Here to Get the Weekend List! 

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