EP 016 - The Infinite Power of "No"

From an early age we are ingrained with the idea that "no" is a negative word. In some cases, obviously, rightfully so. However, what if we could use "no" to our advantage--instead of as our oppressor? What if "no" became the most powerful word we hear? - Feel free to stalk the XD Podcast on Instagram and Facebook and as always thank you for listening...and if you truly have found value in what you're hearing, please share with your friends and co-workers :) 



When we are children… our life seemed to revolve around hearing the word no. As a parent of two now, I can certainly understand why the word is used so much…

“Can I have that toy”

“Can I have more candy”

“Can I use the living room as my personal soccer/football/baseball/jungle gym/night club/wrestling ring”

All of which receive an adamant, “no”. As children we heard it constantly. And hearing that two letter word ingrained in us the idea that “no” equaled denial and rejection.

When I was the classic struggling actor in New York City years ago, I heard the word "No" so many times, I lost count. When auditioning, the old saying is, you’ll hear a hundred Nos before you hear a Yes. And again, just like when I was a child, hearing the barrage of “no” made me feel rejected, and denied.

However, eventually I stopped letting "no" be an oppressive word, and instead let it teach me many lessons about life, personal drive, overcoming adversity, and ultimately about how to thrive in career in human centered design.

I made that little negative word my fuel and my career motivator. I knew if I wanted to live the life I had dreamed about--I needed to dig deep and pivot away from acting. So, I figured New York will always have actors, and those actors will always need headshots, so I started a headshot photography studio, from there my little side hustle lead me to branding and websites, which then lead me to UX, which then lead me to starting (and then selling) two businesses, which then lead me to working at companies both big and small--from over 10K employees, to two employees where the old theatre adage of "there's no part too small" continued to ring true.

And the thing is--I didn’t get here from hearing a bunch of yeses. It happened because I heard a bunch of “nos”... which helped me develop a very thick skin, a restlessness for knowledge, and a problem solving mentality that “Yes” never quite afforded me.

You see I think there’s tremendous power in “No.” And I think it’s time we turn the idea of “no” from a negative word--To a word that inspires, and lights a fire to dig deep and keep going.

Now by no means - see what i did there? "NO means" - haha okay anyway--by no means am I saying that you should live your life from a always “no” default. What I mean to illustrate here is the way we interpret receiving a “no” can lead to massive changes and improvements in our personal and professional lives. Much like in design- we seek to solve problems. And in life, when we are told “no,” there is instantly a problem staring us in the face, ready to be solved--or at the very least further investigated.

To me--the reason No is so meaningful is because of the word that should follow immediately after, which is... "why?". No we can't build that. No the design isn’t working. No you aren't right for this position. See--If you replace all of the “Nos” in those statements with Yeses, sure the immediate outcome is positive--However, in my opinion, No provides you with infinite opportunity to learn and grow and discover and unravel things on a much deeper, more meaningful level.

There is an author--Paul Arde--and he has a great quote which is, “Do not seek praise. Seek criticism.” For designers, I don’t think there is a more meaningful quote. If you want to get something right, and you should, then praise is not the thing that you should be seeking. Of course, praise can be used as a tool to motivate, but seeking praise is where danger lies. Let’s say for instance as a team we’ve build a prototype, and we need to get it in front of users to test the thing. If I were to walk into the testing room with the hopes of the user loving the design--That would be a great disservice to the work we’d done. That or I’d be the luckiest human alive. Never in almost 10 years of design have I left a testing session where the users are 100% positive. Again, my drive during the entire design process should be that the outcome is 100% positive, but my mental state going in to testing should not be waiting on adulation for my hard work. In design--Nothing is ever really done, or perfect, and so the sooner we can embrace criticism the better, because odds are we’ll get a lot more of that than we will praise. So just imagine, if we’re able to take the motivations we feel from “yes” and apply them to all of the “nos” -- to me that’s so exciting and unlocks creativity and squashes feelings of rejection forever.

Now if any of you by some chance have a background in acting or improv--you might be thinking, wait wait wait… we’re taught from day one to embrace the phrase, “yes, and…” Which I’m not saying you should throw that away. I think it’s a great mentality to have for a variety of reasons. “Yes, and” helps foster an open-mindedness and helps a conversation stay open, and keeps the blue skies blue. So my intention is not to minimize the impact of that phrase. I especially think this phrase is powerful in brainstorming sessions where you are trying to encourage as many ideas as possible without poo-pooing anything.

However, in other scenarios especially in considering feedback or iterations--I think there is potential for more impact in using the phrase, “No, but…” instead of “yes, and…” In my opinion, “Yes and” does it’s job right. It opens the door with the “yes,” then the “and” is the hallway of possibilities and you can walk forward. Again, this is an important tool. However, with, “No, but…” We are standing in front of the door, and it is closed with the “no” however “but” tells us there is a way to get this door open. And we are forced to question why it’s closed. Forced to examine the reasons why it isn’t quite ready to be open. Then, if you repeat this over and over again, finally one day, we get a “Yes, and” and suddenly instead of walking through the open door to the hallway of possibilities, we are able to throw it open and run with all of our might down the hallway of possibilities.

Now then if you have listened to this podcast at all you know I’m a sucker for metaphors, so hopefully I didn’t lose you on that one I may have even lost myself hahah but hopefully you get the idea.

All this to say--back to my acting parallel...In acting we are taught to empathize with the characters, to define objectives, study the time period in which the piece takes place, and above all else--that acting is about listening. Design, I would submit, is also about listening. Listening to users when designing a product, listening to employees when designing a business, listening to colleagues when designing ways to collaborate, and last but not least- listening to yourself when designing your own path. And if yes is working well for you, to that I would say, “No! It’s not” - just kidding - if it works for you--than by all means you keep doing you-because that is phenomenal. But for those struggling with rejecting, or tired of feeling constantly knocked down by a bunch of rejection, just try to tell yourself that though hearing "yes" right now would be nice, listening to "no" can be powerful.