One of the great constants of our life, especially for those who seek to accomplish exceptional goals and lead exceptional lives, is no!

But should we really take “no!”–other people telling us that we will not succeed–for an answer?

I know some people who didn’t, and became enormously successful:

I just interviewed one of my close friends for my radio show; he is a successful, burgeoning entrepreneur (my age) who developed a product to use with the iPhone.  So far, in less than a year, they have sold about $200,000 of their product, and raised over $1.5MM in venture capital from investors.


I asked him on my show: “How did you convince these people to give you so much money?”  Clearly his product was exceptional.  But then again, there’s plenty of exceptional products and ideas out there that don’t get a dime.

His answer?

Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t.  People will all tell you that your idea won’t work.  That was one of the first obstacles we hit when we made our prototype.

“But we proved them wrong.  We satisfied their objections with success”

I kept pressing him on the issue.  I didn’t really believe that the main reason he had raised so much money was just that he stuck in there long enough, over the objections and less-than-favorable prophecies of others.

I figured that it might have been through connections and the goodwill of acquantances that his team was able to get into TechStars (one of the elite startup incubators in the United States), raise a ton of money, and eventually wind up working with Tony Hsieh (the founder of Zappos.com) in Las Vegas.

But I couldn’t get him to change his answers.  He just plain vanilla never gave up!  He didn’t take “no” for an answer.  And the determination paid off for him and his team.

My friend’s experience points out an interesting trend associated with the word “no”.  Most people are used to taking it as an authoritative requirement that, whatever it was they were trying to do, it now can’t be done, just because someone else said so. 

Sometimes, that person saying “no” is someone pretty important (as was the case with my friend, who was told “no” by some investors).

But does “no” reall have a reliable track record?  Does “no” actually mean that you can’t be successful?  How many other great women and men in history were told “no” and that they were not good enough, only to have eventually been successful?

What I recommend is a radical reassessment of what we were told by our mothers as children; “no means no!”.  Sorry mom.

So when we are told “no!”, do these things before automatically agreeing:
  • Consider the importance of the source.

The problem with “no” is that we tend to give everyone’s “no” equal weight.  I used to belive that I could not be a successful entrepreneur because my friends said so.  It used to depress me.  But I thought about it: what do my friends actually know?  They’re not trying to do it.  I’m the one with the goals; I’m the one with the motivation; they may be sincere in their assessment, but misinformed and without basis to make this judgment.

So when you someone tell you “no”, how much does it actually matter?  Being told “no” by someone who is sucessful or you intend to emulate might be another story.  But even still, there’s no guarantee.

Rather than just taking their word for it, I recommend two things:

A. Actually try your idea to see if it will work (rather than just asking people), and

B. Find out the average response to your action.

Generally, what will actually prove your idea is what actually happens, not what people say will happen.  If you have a product to sell, go try to sell it (like my entrepreneur friend mentioned above).

By training yourself to get your “yes” or “no” answer from nature, you will learn to better “read” markets or be in tune with those things that actually decide whether or not you will be successful.  Then you can figure out for yourself is
the answer is “yes” or “no”.

This will lead to the average response to your action.  It’s like a diverse investment in the stock market.  If you are gaining overall positive traction, you can assess that your idea is valid, and vice versa.


  • Understand why people tell you “no”.  It’s not necessarily because your idea is undoable.

When we ask people for honest appraisals and predictions, we generally approach it in a master-to-apprentice sense, with us as the young apprentice, and ther peson we are asking for advive as the wise sage.  But this approach is suboptimal, because:

* We automatically assume that they have a strong, well-rounded perspective on the issue from which to give a valid opinion in the first place,

*We assume that they are truly passionate about helping us out, and

*Their advice is unbiased by their own opinions or inclinations.

We probably think these things simply because we are unsure of ourselves.  We have a natural inclination to believe that, for the sole reason that other people say something is a good idea, it is  a good idea.  I think we all know that these assumptions listed above that we make are not necessarily correct.  And believing them by default distorts the true value we would receive by asking people for their advice.

I’ve found that many people, when they give advice, are well-intentioned but not well informed, and their perspective is shaped by their stereotypes and predispositions rather than from a truly well-rounded, neutral platform (such a netural platform is necessary to provide objective, usable advice).  If you ask your risk-adverse friend if your high-tech invention will work, what do you expect that they will say?

So, upon asking for advice, it’s absolutely essential to try to understand the other person’s predispositions and biases.  This will give you light to help decide whether their opinion is valid or not, and will keep you from making decisions on not-useful information.

  • Be dissinterested about your idea, and figure out if people tell you “no” because it is actually a bad idea, or are just saying “yes” to be nice.  See what criticism can actually be helpful towards your goal.

The problem with most of us is that our idea is “our baby”.  And that makes sense: of anyone, we have put the most time into it, and are probably the people that care about it the most (with our moms being in second place…I write this in apology for my earlier comments).  So we have the usual dispositions to beam with happiness upon being complimented, and seethe with anger when being told it isn’t good enough.

This means that it is tough to sort out compliments and criticism of our ideas and goals.  We are too emotionally motivated.  But what if we are dissinterested about our idea?  That is, what if we don’t have either a positive or a negative disposition about it?  So we approach it logically, and think candidly about the compliments and criticism of others.

I think this piece of advice is a bit idealistic.  As I was writing it, I thought “R.C., even you don’t find it easy to think this way and be dissinterested with your work”.

Such is the case.  But that doesn’t change the point I am trying to make.  The most useful frame of reference for you to take is a neutral one.  The better you are able to do that, the better you can assess the feedback you gain from your idea.

  • Don’t see another person’s rejection of your idea as an implication that your idea is actually undoable.

A rejection ought to be seen for what it is: another individual or group not finding what you have to offer to be sufficient to meet their needs.

Notice the narrow interpretation here of rejection: it inovlves only another specific person or group of people, and that you were unable to meet their needs.  I learned this lesson well through a grant contest that I applied for with a startup company.  Our company was unsuccessful in the contest.  Luckily, the contest managers gave all contestants their feedback from the judges.

When I read ours, I could not help but be amused.  We were graded by two judges, who both had the exact opposite opinion of our work.  One judge thought that we had done well, and recommended that we advance into the final round of contest for the funding.  The other judge thought that our idea was poor and had no clearly defined market, and recommended that we not proceed to the next round.

How could two different people look at the same proposal and have completely opposite reactions?  This was a good lesson for me, because it confirmed that the negative opinions of others don’t imply that an idea is actually not feasable, and doesn’t imply that others will think the same thing.  If this is the case, why would we grant so much weight to any given person’s “no”?

So change the way you understand “no”!  If you are sincere in your efforts and long for accomplishment and success, understand “no” for what it really is, and continue to fight on in spite of the disapproval of others.

Photo Credit: © Ooi Hong Kiong | Dreamstime.com