The liberating power of NO

Yes is the default in the world we live in. Our minds are fixed on instant gratification, we need to delay it at times and tame our inner ‘chimp’ to embrace the power of ‘no’

It’s Saturday, my friend Munyaradzi comes to my place with a proposal for a boys’ day out. It sounds brilliant, it has been long since I have been out with the boys and when last did I meet Eddie? I want to go. I really, really want to go. The obvious is a yes, but hold on there is a problem, part of me wants to say no. These are the days I had set to sell my wares. I had just received my order and now had to move around selling the goods. At this moment, I think to myself, ‘goods are sold to people and this trip shall give me the opportunity to meet people, and sell them, hey.’ The yes part is now overriding the no and I am filled with a blinding flash of yes, why not I deserve to relax with the boys after all. Hold on, I start to think, what will benefit me more long term, going out with the boys and being with the people I have known for most of my life or selling my goods and potentially meeting new people. The no part of my brain just like a resilient boxer taking punches is still in the fight. Think of the sales and potential new clients, you will never sell anything if you spend your time going for outings with the boys.

The above story in my life highlights a central dilemma we face each day in all aspects of our lives. Yes is the easiest response to most questions. My psychologist friend has often argued that it is manipulative to ask a person something in front of people as we are trained to say yes. I am not one to argue with her on this as I am not an expert and would implore research on this aspect, however, for most of my lifetime, yes has been winning the race. The forces of no tell us not to give in to our impulsive side, but to look elsewhere in our brain for guidance.

In 2002 and 2017, behavioural psychologist Daniel Kahneman and economist Richard Thaler respectively, won Nobel prizes for their work on saying no to impulses. Many a writer and researcher have picked up on the research by Kahneman with many books on this topic. Works such as the Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischel, The Impulse Society by Paul Roberts, Irresistible by Adam Alter, Your Money and Your Brain by Jason Zweig, Wait by Frank Partnoy portray that we need to go against our impulse to say no when all points to yes. All these authors admit that you have gut feelings and impulses that influence us to agree. One should not be pressured by these, take a step back, think again and say no.

Steve Peters, a psychologist, calls the impulsive part of the brain, the chimp. The limbic system is what he is referring to, the centre of emotions. This part is fixated on food, sex and immediate danger (what Maslow called physiological needs). In the prefrontal cortex there is the inner human, Peters points out that some people indicate this as where the soul is. This part looks for evidence and argues rationally and sees the world in what Peters calls “shades of grey”. Peters highlights that the inner chimp is much more powerful than the inner human as when data reaches the brain, it gets to the chimp first. This highlights that what we observe is framed by our impulses. When you see, hear or smell something you want, yes comes first. Yes is louder, no is a distant second.

We now live in a fast paced world, all seems instant. Miss someone, you can instantly message or call; want food, you can instantly order; want to feel pretty post a picture on Instagram and instantly receive likes. It is a world geared to the chimp – or, in Walter Mischel’s terms, the “hot system” of impulse, rather than the “cool system” of taking stock, looking for evidence, thinking about what’s best in the long term. Daniel Kahneman refers to “system one” and “system two” – gut reaction versus taking a moment or two to think things through.

There is instant gratification in saying yes, however, this is not sustainable. Walter Mischel in his Marshmallow test tells us about his experiment involving children and marshmallows. In the experiment, conducted at Stanford University in the 1960s, four-year-old children were given a choice. A marshmallow was put in front of them, and they were told that they could eat the marshmallow now, or wait 15 minutes, after which they would be given two marshmallows. The children were left alone in the room with the marshmallows. Some said yes. Some said no, for the whole 15 minutes. The children were monitored over the years. Those who had said no got better grades and were less prone to impulsive behaviour and, according to tests, were “more likely” to be well-adjusted.

Give yourself time to go beyond the inner chimp and see if the behaviour you about to involve yourself in is supportive of your bigger vision. Wielded wisely, no is an instrument of integrity and a shield against exploitation. It often takes courage to say. It is hard to receive. Setting limits sets us free. It is likely that we are unaware of the surge of strength we draw from saying no because, in part, it is easily confused with negativity.

No is an affirmation of self, implicitly acknowledging personal responsibility. It says that while each of us interacts with others, and loves, respects, and values those relationships, we do not and cannot allow ourselves always to be influenced by them. The strength we draw from saying no is that it underscores this hard truth of maturity. No is both the tool and the barrier by which we establish and maintain the distinct perimeter of the self. No says, “This is who I am; this is what I value; this is what I will and will not do; this is how I will choose to act.” We love others, give to others, cooperate with others, and please others, but we are, always and at the core, distinct and separate selves. We need no to carve and support that space.

The most important thing to remember is that even when we say yes, we are saying no to something else. Always look at the opportunity cost, as for every subsequent yes, there is a no and are we taking something on board for a momentary happiness that has consequences for us later on. It becomes imperative to note that there are certain areas in life that we need to learn to say no. Below are such examples of scenarios that saying no is necessary:-

  • When it keeps you true to your principles and values. 
  • When it protects you from cheerful exploitation by others.
  • When it keeps you focused on your own goals.
  • When it protects you from abuse by others.
  • When you need the strength to change course.

These are the times you have to be selfish and know that you are the most important person in your life. The point, as always, is to increase freedom and happiness. Not being able to say no has a huge opportunity cost in that it steals energy from the yes that really matters. Just like you do not need to say yes to everything, you need to manage such that you not giving a no for the sake of disagreeing. The purpose of the no is to ensure that there will be a right committed yes. Your life will start filling with the activities that bring you joy and fulfillment. You will be liberated. And it all starts with no.

I wanted to go for that boys’ outing, however, I needed to make more money so I could do the diploma I wanted. I declined Munyaradzi’s invite and coincidentally the day was really fruitful and ended up meeting a client that has become a major customer, sometimes it is important to wait for fifteen minutes and get two marshmallows

To thrive, we must slow down. Everybody else is led by their inner chimp. So slow down. If you wait, you shall be the ultimate victor.

Kudzayi D. Mandebvu can be contacted on, twitter: @degreykudzayi


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