The Power of No: How Narrowing Opportunities Can Lead to More Success

Though we may all have our own definitions of it, everyone wants success. We dream about it, think about how we can achieve it and talk about it with those around us. Striving for success can be all-consuming, and if you’re ambitious, it seems to be ever-present. But what if the constant desire for success is actually paralyzing our efforts to achieve it?

There’s something called the clarity paradox, and it could explain such a concept. With the clarity paradox, drive and purpose create success, which leads to new opportunities. But these opportunities can dissipate our continuing effort, causing our original purpose, (you know, the one that helped you get to where you are), to be jumbled, unfocused, or lost altogether. Strangely enough, success and failure can go hand in hand if you’re not careful.

Enric Sala, a professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, had a pressing feeling that his journey of success wasn’t quite where it should be, which left him feeling like a fraud for going along with it. These feelings pushed him to leave his job as a professor entirely in order to pursue a career with National Geographic. His new occupation blossomed and he began to feel closer to his true purpose. Yet, something still didn’t feel right for him.

He was experiencing the clarity paradox. His success had thrown him off from his true goal. And after a few more years, he switched paths once more. This time he aimed to be an explorer-in-residence at NatGeo. This would involve diving in beautiful, remote locations. He’d also be able to apply his scientific and communications background to influence global policy. He finally got to a place where he felt genuinely satisfied, but the path to get there wasn’t always clear.

When it comes to your own decision-making, be specific and detailed with your options and choices. For example, if you’re considering a move from one home to another, or downsizing from your current living situation, asking yourself “will I use this piece of furniture at some point?” isn’t the right question. Instead, ask yourself “do I absolutely love/need this piece of furniture?” This questions leaves you with a concrete answer and removes the possibility for confusion or changing your mind down the road.

Making decisions for your long-term goals should be no different than deciding for small tasks.

When you only seek out the “good” opportunities in life, you risk straying from your main goal. Ask yourself what really motivates you, what you’re passionate about and what you could see yourself doing for the rest of your life while being ultimately fulfilled. Focus on your goals and don’t get distracted by just any “good” opportunity that presents itself. Though you may have fewer options as you go forward, you’ll rest easy knowing that you’re weighing your options the right way. And you’ll probably end up closer to where you wanted to be in the end.

Next, you need to ask yourself what’s totally necessary for you to be happy. Define your non-negotiables. Anything that doesn’t fall under that category should be cut out as an option from the start.  Our lives tend to collect clutter the same way our closets do. Be proactive and clear out the unnecessary things. Keep the things that really matter and be aware of this as your life goes on.

While going through this process, be aware of the “endowment effect.” This can occur when something you own feels super important, simply because you own it. For example, a shirt that you haven’t worn in years doesn’t have obvious value to those around you, but when you think about giving it away, the value is extremely obvious to you. Try to detach emotionally from material items and look at them from an objective point of view. Do these items still have the same value? The answer is probably no. Apply this method to your career paths and opportunities – and you’ll be able to see what is actually valuable to you and what isn’t.

It’s not always easy to say no to a new opportunity, but learning to pick and choose through a series of concentrated, simple steps can yield results that will make your life the one you always thought you could build.