When you’re given an opportunity—whether it’s a promotion, potential customer, or learning experience—the most natural response is to say yes.
Why not accept a higher salary? Why refuse a chance to study abroad? The reality, however, is that most of us say yes too much, too quickly, and without enough thought. We’re wired to please others, and we’ve been conditioned to think all opportunities are good things.
So instead of always saying yes, ask yourself these five questions first.
1. Am I just trying to be polite?
Suppose your boss just gave you an offer—a chance to lead a popular project at work. But for some reason, you’ve got mixed feelings. Ask yourself: What’s attracting you to the possibility, and what’s pushing you away? Perhaps you’re not interested in the project itself, but you’d like to make your boss happy. Or maybe you’re scared how the team will react if you say no.
Either way, if your main motivation is pleasing—or appeasing—others, you should probably decline. Not only is politeness a bad reason to accept an opportunity: it can often wind up harming the colleagues you originally wanted to make happy. Turning down your boss might be awkward in the moment, but it’s worth the brief discomfort to save yourself from months of work you didn’t want in the first place.
2. Will another opportunity come at the expense of this one?
Maybe you’ve just started your own business, and you’ve got a big potential customer on the line. It’s your chance to lock in three months of revenue, guaranteed. And yet, the customers’ demands are high—high enough that you’d probably have to put most of your hiring and marketing on hold just to hold up your end of the deal.
It might be better to say no. Every opportunity you accept means there’s less time for another one, and sometimes, the future opportunity is more important to your longterm success. Figuring out what you can afford to not do is often the best first step toward figuring out what you can do.
3. Is the opportunity based on a misunderstanding?
Imagine your organization needs someone to take a month-long trip to offices across Europe, North America, and Asia. Even though you’ve got local work to focus on, you’ve made a reputation for yourself. You’re easygoing and up for anything—the perfect candidate for such a job.
Or are you? Sometimes, you can get an opportunity based on misconceptions and misinformation. Maybe the team thinks you’d be good at sales, when really, you just have strong opinions in meetings. Perhaps your boss wants you to review international spending—but it’s under a false assumption you love numbers and budgeting.
Whatever the case, make sure underlying assumptions like these are cleared up before you say yes. It’s tempting to grit your teeth and agree to the task, but you’ll likely only reinforce the misconceptions. Instead, try using a bit of honesty to set the record straight and explore alternatives.
4. Does the opportunity build toward something greater?
Maybe you’re a freelance designer, and a big corporation wants some help with their website. They’re making you a handsome offer, and even better, the project won’t interfere with your other clients. Still, corporate websites don’t get you excited. You’d prefer to work with smaller teams—start-ups taking on risky projects that match your design sensibilities. What should you do? Unless you really need the money, it might be better to pass. Every opportunity you take—even the small ones—should move you closer to your long-term goals in some way. Perhaps the offer will lead to great connections. Maybe you’ll add a few key bullets to your résumé. But if an opportunity doesn’t fit anywhere in your plan—or worse, takes you further from your ultimate goals—think twice before saying yes. The first step is thinking critically about what a meaningful career means to you.
5. Did I accidentally already say yes?
Sometimes you don’t realize you’re looking at a bad opportunity until you’ve already agreed to it. It’s simply too easy to get swept up in the moment, to say yes before you’ve had a chance to think it through.
The solution? Just say you’ve change your mind. Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos says if you want to be right, you have to change your mind frequently. Apple CEO Tim Cook says Steve Jobs was “an awesome flip-flopper.” The two executives might have held strong opinions, but they were willing to change course the moment they saw a better solution. Too often, we become entrenched after we’ve agreed to something, repeatedly justifying the decision even after if we’ve come to resent it.
So next time you wake up feeling uneasy about yesterday’s commitment, consider telling your team you simply had a change of heart. You’ll save the team months of regret in exchange for one awkward meeting. The best part about saying no to many opportunities is how great it feels when the right one comes along. Once you make asking these questions a habit, you’ll quickly see how much more the good opportunities start to stand out.