In life sometimes you hear somebody say something and it resonates so deeply that it changes your perspective on everything. I had that experience when I was 11 years old and it changed everything.
I was a naturally curious child. Some people – normally my mother – would have said I was ‘into everything’. I thought this was a good thing; often she did not. I was always exploring, trying to find out how things worked and always asking questions. When I was at nursery and we had our afternoon naps I’d sleep for 15 minutes and then start waking all the other kids up so we could play again. My nursery teachers eventually made me sleep in the staff room so I couldn’t wake the other children. This was heaven for me because I got to ‘earwig’ on their conversations.
When I was growing up we had a family friend who was a self-made multi-millionaire. I found him fascinating and would always try to ask him lots of questions. My mum didn’t think that this successful man would be interested in the questions of an 11 year old so she often tried to limit my conversation with him. She was also from ‘children should be seen and not heard’ school of manners. My much more progressive approach was the total opposite. I’d try anything to get to talk to him.
One day we all went for a walk and I decided this was my opportunity. He was very rich, I was 11 and not rich so I decided that asking him how he became rich might help me become rich too. It seemed entirely logical to me so I started asking my questions. My mum clearly thought my ‘So Wally how come you’re so rich?’ approach was incredibly rude and told me to be quiet and stop asking questions.
His response was to tell her off for telling me off. It was a sweet moment for me, I can tell you. He went onto to give me some of the best advice I’ve ever received. He said: ‘Wendy, if you want to know the answer, ask the question.’ and ‘if you want to be on the team say yes when they ask you to join.’
This simple and yet profound advice has stayed with me since then. His advice gave me the courage to ask questions and get involved in things I wouldn’t have dared to. This approach had worked for him and so I figured it might work for me. This incredibly successful man had given me permission to take risks and to not fear failure.
A recent survey found that successful CEOs were ‘more likely to say yes than to say no.’ this seems obvious, doesn’t it? If you want to make something happen – anything happen – you have to say yes. Because saying ‘yes’ opens a door for you in a way saying ‘no’ never will.
In my last job part of my role was to invite people to speak at a conference. It was a privilege to do. Most people’s response was ‘yes of course, I’d love to do that.’ Pretty much the only people who ever said ‘no thanks, I don’t think I can do that’ were women. Women seemed to see the hundred reasons why they couldn’t or shouldn’t take the opportunity while men seemed to see all the reasons they could and should.
One day I had to call someone I was just getting to know to ask them to speak so I started the conversation: ‘Hi Rachel. I ‘m just calling to ask you to…’ before I’d finished my sentence Rachel said ‘yes, I’ll do it.’ My response was ‘but I haven’t actually told you what I’m asking you to do yet.’ Rachel’s response was ‘whatever you’re going to ask me to do I’m going to say yes to it.’ I’d never had someone say ‘yes’ before I’d even asked before.
Rachel’s approach was and is unique. Her view is that women often say ‘no’ and rule themselves out before they even know what they are being asked. So Rachel’s approach is to say ‘yes’ and then find out more. And if the opportunity isn’t right for her she’ll find someone who can do it better than she can.
In very different spheres Wally and Rachel and their say ‘yes’ approach have made a significant impact. Wally’s company started with one lorry on a farm in East Anglia; it is now one of the largest haulage companies in the UK employing thousands of people. Rachel started her career as youth worker on a Youth for Christ bus in East Anglia; she is now the National Mission and Evangelism Adviser for the Church of England.
It’s amazing where saying ‘yes’ can lead you. So ask yourself are you a ‘yes’ person or a ‘no’ person? Do you rule yourself in or rule yourself out? Do you open the door or close it on yourself? Wally or Rachel didn’t know where they’d end up when they started out. The same is true for you and I but remember if you say ‘no’ you’ll probably end up where you started behind the door rather than through it.
So give it a go say ‘yes’ what have you got to lose?
This article was previously published in Liberti Magazine.