The Courage of No

When was the last time you said, no?  I’m not asking about passing up a calorie laden dessert or skipping an indulgence at your favorite retail escape.   I am asking about turning down something meaningful because you knew deep down that it wasn’t right.   A job offer?  A proposal?  A move?   Someone else’s expectations?


Mustering the confidence for no is a requirement of transition.   Just this week I was reminded of this when I was asked to explore a new job.  The role was sure to be interesting.  The organization closely lined up with my interests.   But it didn’t quite synch.

I remember a Focus Group participant who shared a story about realizing overtime the importance of no.  She was out of work for several months after an unexpected job loss.   She cried.  She was angry.  She second guessed herself.  Ever been there?

She needed a job.  She actively searched.  Finally she concluded that she was sick of looking at jobs that didn’t interest her.    “I realized that what I wanted for myself was enough.”   It was a tough pivot.  She struggled to break away from valuing what her former boss or colleagues or her ninety year old mother thought.

Her determination didn’t pay the mortgage.   She didn’t have a slew of offers.    But transition gave her the gumption to pass on opportunities just because they were with ‘a good company’ or represented ‘a great job.’   She had found her way to no – and in the process dignified a big part of what she had to offer as an employee.

Sound easy?  It isn’t.  It is really hard to step out of line.

This whole business of no reminded me of a painful ‘no’ that required all of my courage.

I was sitting in an internal conference room with Neil Aronson, an attorney who represented a fledgling tech start-up that some friends and I started.  We loved Neil – mostly because he took his fees at risk.   That meant that he deferred all payment on his legal fees until we closed our venture capital financing.  In the cash starved world of start-ups, this was close to godliness.

That afternoon Neil and I were meeting with two venture capitalists.  We were negotiating a term sheet.  Term sheets summarize the details of the deal, like  how much ownership founders will give up in return for money.  It was exciting. We were close to having our money.    There were three open issues.   We used five cent words, like deal breaker, to describe our concerns.

We talked.  They listened.  They told us what they could and could not do.

After a while Neil asked that we take a break.  He and I left the room to head into an adjacent conference room.  When we were alone, he voiced what I already knew.  They weren’t budging.   He said, “you need to consider walking away from the deal.”  To say, no.

My stomach is in my throat by just retelling this story.

Why?  The no had enormous weight tied to it.  There were no other vc’s in my pipeline who were anywhere close to giving us a term sheet, let alone money.  If we walked away, it could be months or years or forever before we got any cash to grow the business.

Cash was a real problem.  But there was another layer that felt even weightier.   I was terrified of walking away.  It would mean that I failed at the most important role of a ceo, raising money.    It would be visible.   Everyone trusted me.  With a no, I would let down employees, their families.  I was ashamed that I couldn’t bring these few terms to closure.   I’d somehow blown it.

I was also acutely aware that no was risking the company.   Venture capital money gives credibility to start-ups.  Customers, employees, prospective employees, vendors.  Everyone was influenced by our ability to get money.  With a no, we were at risk of losing that credibility, instantly.

We walked back to the conference room.  I thanked the vc’s for their interest and time.  I let them know that we would pass.   They looked surprised.  I felt crushed.

After they left Neil said that he admired my decision and that he was proud to be our company’s partner. Despite his words I was distraught.

There would be no spinning this message when I returned to the company to update employees that afternoon.   No was a tough blow.  No meant uncertainty. Failure?

Transition will require many things of you.  It will require you to envision your fullest self.   It will walk with you as you grow into the life you imagine.    It will also offer a few gifts along the way.

The gift that I hope you find early is courage.  With it we learn that no with all its uncertainty and doubt is far better than yes for something that lacks meaning.

Your call.  No?


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2 responses to “The Courage of No

  1. Hi Linda, I’ve been reading and loving your blog for almost a year now. As I get ready to embark on my own major professional transition, I have to ask after reading this – did that “no” eventually lead to the right path for your focus group participant, so that she found her definition of success and happiness – and the wherewithal to pay her mortgage? What was the outcome of that “no” for your startup? Thanks so much for your blog, and I’m looking forward to your book!

  2. Hi Lisa,
    Thanks for your kinds words. The woman from the Focus Group eventually found another job. Thanks to transition she started it with a new frame of mind that was entirely different from her prior working self. She was thrilled – although scared that the pressures of work might ultimately cause her to revert back. Her ‘no’ seemed to make all the difference.
    The ‘no’ for our start-up was valuable although it felt awful.
    We got the money and more importantly learned so much about ourselves and our fledgling start-up in the process. It sent us on a great course…
    Stay tuned for the book – yesterday was a tough day on that topic so your words were perfectly timed! Thank you. Linda R. .

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