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  • Phil Venables

"Hell Yes, or No" vs. "Soft Yes, and Fast Quit"

I am a big fan of the concept of saying, “Hell Yes, or No” to decide whether to do something or not. Derek Sivers has written well about this. Similarly I really enjoy reading Greg McKeown on the concept of essentialism, or as he describes it, the disciplined pursuit of less.

At a certain point in your life and career when you’re in a situation that you or others might describe as "having made it” you will likely have a lot of high quality choices. These will present a range of possible priorities and a set of potential accumulated commitments that may often be in conflict with each other. This may result in a work/life balance challenge or the inability to do any of your commitments well. At this point in your life then, yes absolutely, it makes total sense to be an extreme essentialist and to only pursue those things which have you unquestionably screaming a “Hell, Yes”. However, like with most bits of advise around career and life choices, the benefits of this approach can sometimes be outweighed by the downsides if you follow it with too much fervor. Basically, it is just not applicable in most, or even many, situations for most people. More than that, for many starting out or changing careers, industries or roles, it is actually a terrible piece of advise that can close doors, reduce options and conspire to avoid exposure to the very people and situations that later in your career will give you a huge amount of choices. The early career alternative that most people I know, including myself, have followed is a very different path from “Hell Yes, or No”. That path is essentially to say a soft yes to many things that seem in some way reasonable endeavors, start pursuing them and get a direct experience of what they are. Then, from that initial experience, if it feels like it then should be a "Hell Yes" then at that point power into it, double-down on the effort and make the most of it. However, if after some suitable period of effort it doesn’t look like that, then fast quit, remove yourself or swap someone else in who, for them, it might become a Hell Yes. This approach of keeping your options open and developing your world-view at the early stage of your career enables you to both be involved in many things that can lead to many more things, without also accumulating activities that spreads yourself too thin.

The types of things to get involved in include professional associations, industry groups and think-tanks, conference organizing, advisory Boards, fiduciary Boards, volunteer and charitable work, extra-curricular activities in your job role, taking on new responsibilities in your career, classes, courses and hobbies. Over the past decades I’ve been involved in many of these activities but I would say I only really ended up focusing intensely on about 10% of what I initially got involved in.

Here's the main point, I would not have been able to pick that 10% in foresight without joining in the 100%. Similarly, I wouldn’t have been useful or productive on the 10% if I hadn’t fast quit the other 90%. Even then, I still benefited from some of the contacts and learning from the 90% especially as I think I have generally exited gracefully and professionally from those. That last point is also crucial, you have to be professional, signal your soft yes in advance, provide some value in the initial engagement and don't fail to meet whatever your initial commitment was - otherwise your professional reputation won't amount to anything. Bottom line: You just never know what hidden gems exist even in some of the opportunities that are perceived to be less inspiring until you take a short peek. When you’ve taken that you’ll quickly and intuitively know whether to fully commit without having expended much effort, and then, there is still plenty of room for when more obvious Hell Yes opportunities do come along.

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