When to Decline an Offer

Your career is as driven by what you say “no” to as it is by what you agree to. Find out who you are, and who you aren’t in this self-assessment.

Great organizations are defined by what they say “no” to. The same is true for great individual careers.

A great career is defined by what the individual is able to put in and get out: She can make the type of contribution she finds optimal for her talents, passions and values, and she can reap the type of results she wants.

To achieve such a career, you need to say “yes” to a few key jobs and say “no to many attractive alternatives.

How to know what’s a “no”

What’s up with Abraham Lincoln? There have been literally hundreds and hundreds of books written about him. These include the most introductory of children’s books to the most sophisticated histories. Why did he have such a memorable career? I think it all comes down to the fact that he dedicated his career to two propositions: “United we stand, and divided we fall” and, “All men are created equal.”

What is the proposition to which you are dedicating your professional life? This will help you a great deal in deciphering what to do and what not to do in your career.

More than 12 years ago, I dedicated my professional life to this proposition: Mastering business basics drives better sustainable results. Not quite as catchy or life-changing as Lincoln’s propositions, but it’s been clear enough to help me make decisions on what to do and what not to do.

The best contribution I can make is to uncover these business basics, these processes for improving results in a sustainable way, and then explain them in a user-friendly manner. In other words, I see myself as a teacher. Not a teacher who has all the answers because there are no set answers in business, but rather a teacher who causes people to focus on understanding and executing the basics of business at a very high level.

In choosing to be a teacher, I simultaneously chose not to be a manager or an executive.

Before reading on, take out a sheet of paper. Decide on the proposition to which you are willing to dedicate yourself. Write it down. You may end up rewriting it many times over the months to come. With a clear proposition in hand, you can then decide where to place your time and where not to place your time.

Your proposition will help you choose which roles you will want to fill — and which ones you won’t.

Sacrifices and opportunity costs

My third-grade son, Ben, came home with his folder of papers. One of them said, “Explain the idea of opportunity costs using the example of Pizza Hut.” Ben smiled and said, “That’s easy. I like sausage pizza, and I like pepperoni pizza. If I choose the pepperoni pizza, my opportunity cost is the sausage pizza.” What a great explanation ! He learned something valuable that day from Mrs. Edwards. When you choose to have something that means you are also choosing not to have something else.

As you go about building a great career, always take the time to clarify your opportunity costs, the things you are choosing not to have. If you choose to work as an employee, you are choosing not to be an entrepreneur. If you choose to be an entrepreneur, you are choosing not to work for someone else.

Both choices can be good, but you can’t have both simultaneously.

Fifteen years ago, I was considering starting my own business. I was a full-time, tenured teacher at a very well-known high school in St. Louis. I wrote down my opportunity costs if I left, which included the following: R eally wonderful students would no longer just show up for me to teach, I would not have colleagues to bond with between classes or at lunchtime, I would not have a guaranteed paycheck every month or a guaranteed job for life. To me that was a lot of opportunity costs to give up.

Only once I became comfortable with what I was giving up was I able to go out on my own. However, once I left I didn’t go back and try to teach at the high school while trying to run my own business.

I know people who did just the opposite. They were entrepreneurs and chose to teach or to work for someone else. They had considered their own opportunity costs of not running their own businesses, and they chose to work inside an organization. You have to choose what you think is the best route for your career. Step back and clarify what you will do and why you will do it and what you won’t do and why you won’t do it.

You have to choose your opportunity costs as much as, and maybe more than, your opportunities.

Take out a second sheet of paper and write down all the things you are not going to get as a result of going in the direction you are considering. Make sure you are comfortable with what you are giving up before you get comfortable with what you are going after.

The choices of Charlie Rose

Charlie Rose is my favorite interviewer. I knew who he was, but I didn’t really study him until I recently read an article about him in Fortunemagazine.

The proposition to which Charlie Rose has dedicated his career : “wanting viewers to feel like they were eavesdropping on a conversation each night – fully engaged if not actually participating.”

He chose to:

  • Hone his craft over a number of years until he got the opportunity to doThe Charlie Rose Show on PBS in 1991.

He chose not to:

  • Stay with commercial TV.

He had walked away from a well-paying program called Personalities in 1990 because he wanted to do a more serious talk show. He also said no to a full-time anchor slot on Sixty Minutes II in 1996 that would have earned him a great deal more than he makes on his own show on PBS. He turned it down because he felt doing his own show was, as he said, “the chance to find your own reality – for yourself, not for others, what no man can ever know. In the end, I have not finished the journey.”

In saying no to a variety of opportunities, Charlie Rose defined who he was and who he wanted to become. He wants to do serious interviews with people on important topics without any pretense whatsoever. And he does it very well.

Accept who you aren’t

At the same time you’re defining where you’re going, you must get comfortable with the ideas of limitations and consequences. You can spend your whole life trying to be everything and keep chasing one career dream after another. Or you can say, “I’ve chosen this path for my career. Here is the general path where I believe I can make my greatest contribution.” And then be OK operating within the limitations and consequences of the career you have chosen. Actually, there’s real power in deciding the limitations you are going to accept. It means you are willing to focus seriously on the work you have chosen to pursue.

In studying hundreds of really successful people, I’ve noticed that the best of the best stick with their chosen path. What’s Steven Spielberg doing these days? He is still making movies. What’s Oprah doing now that she’s made billions? Still interviewing people to find out what they have to offer her audiences. What’s Steve Jobs up to? He’s working on guiding Apple to make electronic technology incredibly useful for consumers. What is Charlie Rose doing tonight? Now 67, he’s interviewing one of the world’s movers and shakers. Now that Bruce Springsteen has turned 60, what’s he doing? Putting on great concerts. What’s my mom doing today at the age of 80? She’s still being a great stay-at-home mom as she has been for the past 54 years and caring for other people.

Be OK with who you are and who you are not.

To manifest a great career, you have to stick to the path of your own choosing and not feel bad about all the paths you have chosen not to pursue. In reality, the more you consciously say no to alternative paths, the more sincerely you say yes to your life’s work.