How To Say “No”: Advice From The World’s Most Powerful Man

One of the hardest things to do in life is to say “No.” To invitations, to requests, to obligations, to the stuff that everyone else is doing. All of us regularly say yes unthinkingly, or out of vague attraction, or out of greed or vanity, or out of fear of disappointing a friend or acquaintance. Because we can’t say no—because we might miss out on something if we did. We think “yes” will let us accomplish more, will give us more of what we want, when in reality it prevents exactly what we seek. All of us waste precious life doing things we don’t like, to prove ourselves to people we don’t respect, and to get things we don’t want.

This is nothing new. Seneca wrote two thousand years ago that if all the geniuses in history were to get together, none would be able to explain our baffling relationship with time. He says:

“No person would give up even an inch of their estate, and the slightest dispute with a neighbor can mean hell to pay; yet we easily let others encroach on our lives—worse, we often pave the way for those who will take it over. No person hands out their money to passers-by, but to how many do each of us hand out our lives! We’re tight-fisted with property and money, yet think too little of wasting time, the one thing about which we should all be the toughest misers.”

Property can be regained, money can be re-earned. Time? Time is our most irreplaceable asset—we cannot buy more of it. We cannot get a second of it back. We can only hope to waste as little as possible. Yet somehow we treat it as the most renewable of all resources.

You can only hand so many hours of your day over to other people before there is none left. Even if there are some left, you may have lost the clarity, the energy and the capacity to do anything with them. So, next time someone is asking for just a little of your time, or you feel the pressures of minor social obligations, or the temptations of potential financial gain—remind yourself of this advice from Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius:

You Have Two Tasks

“What, then, makes a person free from hindrance and self-determining? For wealth doesn’t, neither does high-office, state or kingdom—rather, something else must be found… in the case of living, it is the knowledge of how to live.”

—Epictetus, Discourses, 4.1.62-64

You have two essential tasks in life: to be a good person and to pursue the occupation that you love. Everything else is a waste of energy and a squandering of your potential.

How does one do that? OK, that’s a tougher question. But the philosophy we see from the Stoics makes it simple enough: say no to distractions, to destructive emotions, to outside pressure. Ask yourself: What is it that only I can do? What is the best use of my limited time on this planet? Try to do the right thing when the situation calls for it. Treat other people the way you would hope to be treated. And understand that every small choice and tiny matter is an opportunity to practice these larger principles.

That’s it. That’s what goes into the most important skill of all: how to live.

Clarify Your Intentions

“Let all your efforts be directed to something, let it keep that end in view. It’s not activity that disturbs people, but false conceptions of things that drive them mad.”

Seneca, On Tranquility of Mind, 12.5

Law 29 of The 48 Laws of Power is: Plan All The Way To The End. Robert Greene writes, “By planning to the end you will not be overwhelmed by circumstances and you will know when to stop. Gently guide fortune and help determine the future by thinking far ahead.” The second habit in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is: begin with an end in mind.

Having an end in mind is no guarantee that you’ll reach it—no Stoic would pretend otherwise—but not having an end in mind is a guarantee you won’t.

To the Stoics, oiêsis(false conceptions) are responsible not just for disturbances in the soul but for chaotic and dysfunctional lives and operations. When your efforts are not directed at a cause or a purpose, how will you know what to do day in and day out? How will you know what to say no to and what to say yes to? How will you know when you’ve had enough, when you’ve reached your goal, when you’ve gotten off track, if you’ve never defined what those things are?

The answer is that you cannot. And so you are driven into madness by the oblivion of directionlessness.

What Is Important To You?

“Because most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquility. Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?'”

—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations4.24

Only you know the race you’re running. Each one of us has a unique potential and purpose; that means we’re the only ones who can evaluate and set the terms of our lives. Far too often, we look at other people and make their approval the standard we feel compelled to meet.

According to Seneca, the Greek word ‘euthymia’ is one we should think of often. It is the sense of our own path and how to stay on it without getting distracted by all the others that intersect it.

In other words, it’s not about beating the other guy. It’s not about having more than the others. It’s about being what you are and being as good as possible at it without succumbing to all the things that draw you away from it. It’s about going where you set out to go. About accomplishing the most you’re capable of in what you choose. That’s it. No more and no less.

By the way, euthymia means tranquility in English. It’s a word Marcus Aurelius used repeatedly. It is difficult even to conceive of what life must have been like for Marcus Aurelius— he wasn’t born emperor, nor did he seek out the position. It was simply thrust upon him. Nevertheless, he was suddenly one of the richest men in the world, head of the most powerful army on earth, ruling over the largest empire in history, considered a god among men. How easy it would have been to lose his sense of what was important—falling prey to the lies from all the people who needed things from him. It’s no wonder he wrote a book entirely to himself full of reminders like this one:

“Concentrate every minute like a Roman— like a man— on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. Yes, you can— if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered , irritable. You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life? If you can manage this, that’s all even the gods can ask of you.”

It’s time to sit down and think about what’s truly important to you and then take steps to forsake the rest.

Maybe your priority is money. Or maybe it’s family. Or influence. Or change. Maybe it’s building an organization that lasts or serves a purpose. All of these are perfectly fine motivations. But you do need to know. You need to know what you don’t want and what your choices preclude because strategies are often mutually exclusive. Life requires tradeoffs. So why do you do what you do? That’s the question you need to answer.

Stare at it until you can. Only then will you understand what matters and what doesn’t.

Only then can you say no.

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