How learning to hear “no” can save your career.

Yesterday, I wrote about how our culture cast Simon Cowell as the villain of American Idol, just because he has the audacity to tell people “no.”

We’re so concerned with being liked, with validating everyone’s experiences, and with wanting happy endings. In that mindset, someone that says “no” really is a villain, aren’t they? They’re crushing your dreams, keeping you from that next step, and forcing you to work harder.

And American Idol really has turned our reactions to “no” into family entertainment. It’s easy to identify with the contestants that don’t get that golden ticket to Hollywood. It’s easy to picture yourself as that auditioner who has to fight to prove themselves in front of the judges panel.

It’s easy to say, “you’re wrong.”

But what would happen to your world if you embraced how right they really are?

True story: I was the world’s worst virtual assistant.

Maybe not, but pretty darn close. I just couldn’t say no. Not long after Lori was in the hospital, I buckled down and wrote More Gigs Now as an opportunity to get more financial support from my own core audience. (That’s you, by the way.)

More Gigs Now was a hit, right out of the box, and its case study caught the attention of some folks who were producing books and classes of their own. Before long, I had a sideline business “producing” books, tapes, and events for folks who wanted me to help them get the same kind of results.

At the pinnacle of that career arc, I got to help Andrea J. Lee and her team develop some really cool stuff. But we hit some turbulence. I couldn’t possibly say “no” to someone with such a strong network, with such passion for her work, and with such great projects! Even as my own business grew to the point that it merged with a similar business, I still couldn’t keep up with the demand. The quality of the product suffered, and that put a strain on our relationship.

So Andrea ended up being the one to tell me, “no.”

“No,” because I simply didn’t have the capacity to deliver at the level she demanded.

“No,” because other vendors were simply better equipped to get the work done.

“No,” because it had become really clear that this work wasn’t really where my passion was.

That was the critical moment that got my own career back on track.

I had become so hitched up to the obvious opportunity that I set aside all my other long-term goals. Andrea could have just stopped giving me business and shifted to another vendor, but that’s not her style. It was important enough to her to say “no” the right way, so we could part friends and so I could incorporate her feedback into my forward planning.

Was I devastated? Sure.

But I needed to hear that I wasn’t good at what I was doing in that moment so I could refocus my energy on projects that really allowed me to shine. That process led me to an even greater partnership that has impacted my career in a huge way, and it forced me to get back to my own writing.

Turning “No” into “Yes, and…”

Getting fired by Andrea was pivotal for my personal and professional development. And if you’re truly fearless about growing your audience, get ready to embrace some of your own negative feedback from a different point of view.

As part of my book-a-week experiment, I just finished reading Trust Agents by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith. They reference an exercise I’ve used myself since I learned it in college. (Who knew how important that required Intro to Acting course would end up being?)

Improvised theatre requires participants to accept the world around them without question, and to keep the story moving forward. Expert improvisors play the game “Yes, And” to see who can stump the other with the most ludicrous situations.

Participants can’t say no.

Play this game when you’re faced with rejection, and you’ll find your critics willing to open up for some constructive feedback about where you really are on the track to where you say you want to be.

Embracing criticism leads to powerful questions.

Imagine you’re trying to book a show at a bigger club than you’ve been playing in your home market. Too many of these conversations sound like this:


ARTIST: “Oh, I guess you just don’t know great talent when you see it.”

TALENT BUYER: “Get off my phone.”

And they’re usually followed with Facebook and LiveJournal posts about how much Club X sucks and how lame the talent buyer is. Doesn’t change a thing.

Now, imagine where you could go if you turned a critic into a coach by really hearing the reason they’re saying “no.”


ARTIST: “Okay, maybe it’s not a fit. Can I ask you some questions so I can be a little better prepared for next time?”


ARTIST: “Is it more like ‘not now?’ What could we do to earn a spot at your venue?”

TALENT BUYER: “I’m not sure the sound I’m hearing on your demo fits what we’re doing at our club.”

ARTIST: “Then I definitely appreciate the time you took to listen to it. What venues in town do you think would be a better fit for our audience?”

By staying positive and by finding the nugget of fact in each of your critic’s perceptions, you can learn a lot more about how others see you. You may even build up enough personal rapport to earn a referral to a more appropriate partner. At the very least, you’ll start to learn how to navigate the complex conversations in your future.

“No” isn’t always the final word.

Creative people hate rejection. It’s so hard to separate a critic’s evaluation of our work from our self-perception. And our critics don’t always have the advanced communication skills to tell us “no” without hurting our feelings.

If you can focus on the reasons why someone’s telling you “no” at an audition, when booking gigs, or when looking for new success team members, you can gain great insight into what you can do differently the next time you get that kind of opportunity.

Back to our American Idol case study: Jordin Sparks didn’t pass her first American Idol audition in front of producers in Los Angeles. She had to go back to Arizona and win a local television competition to earn another audition in front of the celebrity judges. Even then, Simon Cowell said “no.” Learning how to say “yes, and” to Simon’s “no” led her to her season’s championship, a Top 10 album, and a starring role on Broadway.

Not a bad result from getting “no.”

Tell me more about your own “no” experiences in the comments.

2 responses

  1. New @spinme post: How learning to hear “no” can save your career.

    This comment was originally posted onTwitter

  2. New @spinme post: How learning to hear “no” can save your career.

    This comment was originally posted onTwitter