When No Means Go

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So, I had this post tee’d up for today, then I saw Seth Godin publish a post this morning entitled What “no” means.

Seth has this bizarre habit of publishing posts on the exact same topic as me on the same day I’m looking to post. I’ll just chalk it up to a Samovar jasmine green tea Vulcan mind-meld thing.

Anyway, I thought, why bother with mine?

Then I remembered what I tell everyone who comes to me asking “who am I to [fill in the blank] when there are already so many others out there writing, filming, painting, making, creating about the same thing?”

Answer is, they’re not you. Your voice, your lens, your stories, your unique connection are why.

So, taking my own medicine, here’s my post. And my unique lens on what no means.


A friend who’s building a new online education portal recently asked what it would take to get great teachers to create courses to be offered as part of their venture.

I thought about this, because over the last few years, I’ve been on the invitation end of that conversation. I get asked to contribute in various ways to other peoples’ project, programs, companies, schools, ventures, events, summits.

I’m honored. Humbled. Grateful to be considered worthy of such an invitation, especially since I consider myself very much still just on the path.

I hate saying no.

Especially to friends, colleagues and people whose ideas and quests strongly resonate with me. But, at least for now, with rare exception, I do.

Why do I say no?

The first level of “no” is misalignment. I rule out most invitations quickly because they’re just not well aligned with who I am, what I believe and how I want to serve or see others served. That’s the huge cut, but it’s also a relatively fast and easy one.

The second more involved reason is bandwidth.

I have limited creative “bandwidth.” I once used that term when I turned down an invitation and, though I intended only to use it as shorthand for the organic cap on my ability to create and act and connect and make, the person took great offense. Bandwidth, how impersonal.

The term actually comes from a world where you’ve got a conduit of a particular size. Maybe it’s a pipe or cable or fiber optic. It can only hold so much hot water, electricity, heat, data. Once you hit the limit of the medium, you’re done. Cooked. Sometimes, literally.

From Dictionary.com –

band·width [band-width, -with]

1. Telecommunications. the smallest range of frequencies constituting a band, within which a particular signal can be transmitted without distortion.

2. Digital Technology. the transmission capacity of an electronic communications device or system; the speed of data transfer: a high-bandwidth Internet connection.

3. mental capacity; intelligence: Don’t listen to him—he has really low bandwidth.

4. a person’s capacity to handle or think about more than one thing at the same time: He doesn’t have the bandwidth to make those kinds of decisions.

That fourth definition is what it’s all about. We can do things to expand our bandwidth. Like sleep, meditate, exercise, eat right. And I do. But in the end, there will always be a cap on how much we can do, I can do, at any given time.

I like the way my energy-management guru, Charlie Gilkey, put it to me. I have X units of energy/effort on any given day. Not X + 1. Or X + 2. Just X. Some of that goes to building vitality, some goes to building connection and some goes to contribution (that’s my add).

When it comes to allocating my contribution units, I wake up most days with more ideas in my head than I will ever have units of effort to think about or execute on.

So how can I justify allocating some of my bandwidth units to other peoples’ projects, when I don’t have enough for my own? Every time I say yes to someone else, I say no to me. Or, at least “not now.”

Question is:

What would make it worth it to say no or not now to me?

And, the short answer is, I say yes to other people when:

  • Their project is well-aligned with my values,
  • Their project serves a community I care deeply about,
  • It does so in a way that’s substantially better than or different (in a complimentary way) than I could or am serving that community,
  • I am fairly compensated both for my contribution AND the opportunity cost to the project it’s taking me away from.

Compensation, by the way, comes in many different forms, from money to relationships to experiences to what my grandma used to call “nachas,” or the joy you feel when someone you care so deeply about flourishes that you feel it as your own success.

Why do I say no to almost everyone these days, including friends, even though I hate to?

Because their projects don’t meet the above threshold.

So, I say no. Most always. With love. But no.

Which leaves one question…

And that’s the question my friend asked at the beginning of this conversation:

What would it take to say yes?

The answer lies in the above “test.”

I speak at World Domination Summit because I know my buddy Chris Guillebeau will create a stunningly transformative experience. End-to-end moments of awe for a community I love to see served. And, for me.

The ethic Chris cultivates, the generosity he manifests, the curation of values and conversation is like nothing I’ve experienced. So I’ll gladly get on a plane to contribute to the level of magic he brings forth, because he serves my community in a very different, stunningly high-value way. He compensates me in ways and on a level that allow me to feel good saying yes to him and “a little while longer” to me.

My middle-school daughter came home from WDS last year having broken a Guinness Book world record, Bollywood danced with thousands and fallen in love with Portland, a great city filled with great friends. Talk about doing something cool for my kid (and talk about her bragging rights!). Not a lot of money that could’ve matched the value to me of the story she now gets to tell for life.

Which brings in another factor. I love working with people I love. Or people who’ve invested in my communities and shown they support and care about not only the things I create, but the people and things I, too, care about.

The chance of me saying yes to someone I’ve already got a relationship with, someone I know, respect, like and trust, is way higher than the likelihood I’ll sign on from a random call, email, DM, contact-form message, PR-pitch or Facebook update. And I don’t even have much capacity to do that these days, beyond what’s already in my creative pipeline.

Here’s the one interesting gray area with all of this—opportunities for genuine collaboration.

If you and I can enter into a genuine collaboration where we both bring value and build something together that’s better than anything I could’ve built alone or just with my team, that’s a conversation I’m interested in having.

But other than that, for the foreseeable future, I serve the God of Bandwidth.

I’m on the no train. Which allows me a lot more time to say yes to the smaller universe of stuff that matters most.

How about you?

With gratitude,


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35 responses

35 responses to “When No Means Go”

  1. Jonathan:
    What you shared resonated so strongly since I am also asked to participate in all kinds of projects, usually on my own time and for little or no compensation. I am learning the art of saying no. Not easy, but necessary. Thank you for speaking your truth.


  2. Karen Putz says:

    How timely this is, as I’m struggling with “no” lately! This is what stood out for me:

    So how can I justify allocating some of my bandwidth units to other peoples’ projects, when I don’t have enough for my own? Every time I say yes to someone else, I say no to me. Or, at least “not now.”

    This is going on my wall. 🙂

    • Yup, that’s the quote that summarized it for me. “Yes” is only gonna happen if I’m delighted to give up what I already wanted to do. I don’t have “spare” time.

      I just have to learn to say no to myself.

  3. Love this and thank you. Helpful and wise as usual. 🙂

  4. Oh my goodness YES. This is so validating as I ride the no train quite often. After two years of “key takeaways” and data dump in an MBA program, the most persistent learning I’ve kept is Michael Porter (godfather of all things strategy and competition) in his landmark essay from Harvard Business Review 1996: “the essence of strategy is what you say NO to.”

  5. Iain Forrest says:

    Wow. I’ve read Seth’s post first this morning and now yours.

    You were right to publish this. Both posts gave me small aha moments in both my business and personal life and in very different ways.

    Seth helped me see the bigger picture in business. You’ve helped me see the bigger picture in me. Honestly i value your post more today. As i struggle with the limits of my own bandwidth in trying to finish and launch a project i’ve been working on for over a year, yet trying to fit in every request of my family because there so important to me.

    I actually just had a discussion yesterday with my wife about me having to say no to most “extra” things right now. I have my core time with my family, but my work time and play time is devoted to fulfilling my creative contribution for the next month or so.

    Thank you for helping me feel better about this decision and giving me a greater understanding of why I was feeling the way I was feeling.

  6. Chris Shouse says:

    Yes that was excellent.

  7. Ha! I wrote about this yesterday, calling it OPA – Other People’s Agenda. How hard it is to not get sucked in. How easy it is to get distracted from our own focus.

    Must be in the air these days. I like the way you wrote about it. Insightful and useful as always.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Funny, I actually had another acronym in the draft of this post, but then I realized it could’ve triggered an association with a not so respectful acronym of the same initials from an 80s song that I wasn’t down with.

  8. Much, much appreciation and love for writing this.

    I nodded my head along with many of the points you made, because they’re thoughts I’ve had myself when I receive requests for my time, energy and attention. Or TEA as Charlie would lovingly call it.

    Going to meditate deeply on this one.

    I think there’s a big, juicy cocktail of yes that’s brewing in my brain. Just need to figure out the right aphrodisiac… I mean, ahem, approach. 😀

    • Jonathan Fields says:


      Well, it was your post that partially inspired this little exploration. Can’t wait to see what you whip up. 🙂

  9. Jennifer says:

    We’ll, I suppose I’m okay with it as long as I’m still a “Hell, Yes!” I love that you bring this up today, since I said “no” to the “opportunity” to intro nutritional supplements to my menopausal readers. Ugh! Since you know how I feel about all that, you can imagine the irony! #VivaLaMidlifeRevolution

  10. Tom Bentley says:

    I did wonder why Seth kept texting me about how Fields tries to horn in on all his ideas.

    Jonathan, good stuff. It’s a rare art to be able to say “no” with grace, and rarer yet to say it with the clarity you’ve expressed here, which respects those who are on the receiving end and your higher motivations as well.

    Though why you wouldn’t agree to co-write my banana pancakes cookbook mystifies me.

  11. Thanks for posting this, J. So, it’s the tea, eh! That’s how Seth does it.

    (Deciding whether to keep the tea he sent me.)

    I was just talking to someone about our health and life journeys over the past few years and how, for one of the first times in my life, I had to practice the Way of No. Not because I wanted to. Not because it was “the productive thing to do.”

    Simply because I didn’t have the energetic bandwidth, post-car accident and while handling some of Angela’s health issues.

    But that period taught me more than any other thing I’ve “learned” in business. I had to concentrate resources then and did amazing things, all-told. The question is, what might I do now if I continue to focus with increased bandwidth?

    The Way of No is the Way of Go. (TM) (CR) (Okay, I’m borrowing it from you.)

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Yeah, I think my health and vitality and increased need to focus on that over the last few years has done the same for me.

    • If that doesn’t work, you can always use the line I had for my boys when they were young, “If you ask me again, you’re not going to like the version of your mother you’re gonna get.”

  12. Jeff Dolan says:

    Thanks for being brave and posting your take on No. Good work!

    The No Train saves many an artist. The challenge though for those without a clear direction as you have, is to have a destination for the Yes Train.

  13. susan kuhn says:

    Hiro Boga posted this gem on Facebook the other day: “Boundaries are the chalice in which love abides.” There is no yes without a lot of “no.”

  14. Robert Chen says:

    Timely post as I find myself inundated with “opportunities”. Definitely feel the toll on my current projects and need to get better at saying “no”. This is one of those rare situations where I find my optimism becoming a hindrance. Thanks for deciding to write this.

  15. […] afternoon, Jonathan Fields’ “When No Means Go” arrived in my in […]

  16. Julie Bennett says:

    Thanks for sharing this Jonathan – first, because while I like Seth’s work, I am not a subscriber, so his message along these lines would not have landed in my inbox like yours just did. Second, this theme must be in the ether this past week. I’ve been facing very similar situations – presented with multiple opportunities and while they all have great potential and merit and I very much like the people who presented them, saying yes to them means saying no to me – and would significantly impact the time and energy I would have left for my own creative ventures which I most excited about. It’s not been easy to say no, when I am such a natural ‘helper’ but honoring myself, my time, and my own creative projects, I am also sending a message to myself that I’m worth it – and the Universe will see and hear it too and step up to support the unfolding of my goals. I’m excited! Hope to see you at WDS in July!

  17. Rebecca says:

    I get both of your’s and Seth’s emails in my inbox. It’s a bit of synchrodestiny if you ask me. I was on the no-train all of October and it helped me get a book proposal in and nurture the connections I want to build in my business.

    When you know your purpose and you want to fulfill it, in this lifetime, and it’s connected to your work as well as your heart and loves-sometimes to even the dearest we must say no.

    I’m glad you and Seth were in tune on the same day, because your messages gave their own joie de vivre. Thank you.

  18. Arbaz says:

    Hey Jonathan,
    Loved the article you wrote. I have faced some situations where people ask me to work with them or help them in their projects which I have knowledge of.
    But saying no to them is a little bit hard but I have to as I can’t just leave working on my dream and start helping them in building theirs.

  19. dipalle says:

    This kindof no is not really negative. As Eckhart Tolle says learning to say yes to existence. This kind a no that you describe so wonderfully Fields, comes when one is so tuned in with ones purpose n aligned to all that one resonates with n this many times happens to me even when I don’t know much about the people or projects I am invited to work on n I have intuitively said yes to. Hermes one is only learning to say yes to existence while saying a nofromthe space you describe so well. Much thanks. Dipalle

  20. Tova says:

    This was a great post Jonathan, and something I needed to hear today. Thank You :)))

  21. JF – glad I left this in my Inbox long enough to take it all in – including the awesome comments. I’m making November my practice launch of my own personal “no train”. You’ve given me the courage to re-prioritize ME and my own bandwidth. I aim to spend more time doing what I love and less time feeling drained by commitments – – – not an easy one for a young non-profit but I often find myself wondering how things would be different if ALL of my time and attention was spent growing that. It will be amazing – I believe it now. Thank you!

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      If anyone deserves that, LB, it’s you! Can’t wait to see what it births.

  22. […] lot of my peers have been talking lately about the importance of saying no to stay sane and keep a healthy balanced life. When you get to a point in your life or career when […]

  23. Sandra says:

    This is awesome! To start with no, not from a selfish or begrudging place, but just a reserved space for the YES! I also feel the way forward is to create + collaborate with people we resonate with and on projects we love!

  24. Jasmine says:

    Yes!!! I mean NO! I mean Yes. 🙂

  25. Biron Clark says:

    I’m really glad you wrote this article- I really enjoyed the perspective a lot.

    And it was definitely the right decision to publish this despite seeing similar content from other people. I figure almost nothing is 100% original these days, but like you said, each person has their own spin or perspective on something. No two perspectives are alike, so it’s more about expressing your individual thoughts on a topic, rather than finding a completely unique topic that has never been touched before.

    Cheers for the great article!

  26. Nancie says:

    I like your take on writing similar content. It might be similar, but never the same. I think it’s important that we all add our own unique voices into the universal mix.

  27. Karen J says:

    Good morning, Jonathan! Great post — and good-for-you for hitting Send “anyway”!

    Here’s another reason (if one’s needed) to go ahead and post even if somebody “bigger” or “better” already did:

    Jane’s tribe is NEVER an exact duplicate of Joe’s. So some people who’d never see Joe’s post *will* read Jane’s, and the ripple effect takes over.

    (I wouldn’t have seen this if Ariane Benefit hadn’t linked to it…) 🙂
    Bright November Blessings ~