How to Know When to Say 'No' to a New Opportunity
There have been many iterations of the proverb, “Opportunity knocks but once.” One of the earliest versions, as told by the Romans, said, “Opportunity has hair in front, behind she is bald; if you seize her by the forelock, you may hold her, but if suffered to escape, not Jupiter himself can catch her again.”
This is the kind of urgency that moves many inexperienced entrepreneurs and new professionals to take the first opportunity that comes their way. You never can tell where it might lead, right? But as any seasoned businessperson will tell you, the secret to success is not taking every opportunity that presents itself. How do you tell potential fast tracks from the dead ends?
How to tell a good opportunity from a waste of time.
The ability to identify a worthwhile opportunity is a skill best learned as early as possible. Even if you’re still in college, there’s no such thing as developing too much experience too soon!
Start with internships and look for signs that they’re giving you what you need to advance after college. Being included in company culture, and getting your first independent project, are two major signs that an internship will serve you well. You’ll only receive from an internship what you put into it, so give it your all. Even if it looks like it’s going nowhere at first, your boss will notice your dedication. After all, after building up a business persona from networking and your online persona, internships are your foot in the door.
Equally important as knowing the value of your experiences is being able to calculate your opportunity cost -- what your time is worth to you, based on your current needs, skill set and enjoyment of a task. This discernment works in all areas of your daily life to save you both money and time, depending on which you need more of at the moment. Practicing it sharpens your opportunity-detecting skills, while freeing you to pursue options that you might not have been able to investigate before.
Once you have some business experience under your belt, the crossroads you begin to reach will have greater significance for your finances and your career. In other words, your opportunity cost is increasing. The need to critically evaluate a new business venture is now much greater than it was when you were still an intern.
Gauge things like the need (or lack of need) for each change, the investment required of you for the venture, the opportunity for expansion, the enjoyment you will receive from your decision, and other crucial factors, before you make a choice. For an enjoyable take on what happened to several entrepreneurs when they jumped into something too quickly, check out this Fizzle podcast and take notes for future reference.
How to decide which opportunities to skip.
Sometimes the above tips are not enough to help you decide which path to take. A too-good-to-be-true opportunity can blind you to warning signs. Use these evaluators to help you realize when you should say no:
- Watch for signs that the proposed opportunity will be bad for your business (you don’t have the needed personnel, you’re already over committed, the client doesn’t know what they want, etc.).
- Be willing to recognize that the idea is not realistic, or no longer interesting to you.
- Realize that your well-being is more important than a job you know you can’t do your best on.
- Admit when you can’t improve a project any farther, or when you’re taking it in a direction that is no longer relevant.
- Be honest with yourself: the project you’re about to take on might interfere with the quality of your work for an existing client, particularly if you’re not thrilled about the newcomer.
- Know when you value your personal involvement with your business or product more than any profit you might make from selling it.
Additionally, ask your mentors or respected professionals in your community about any business decisions they’ve regretted or advice they have. If you share their values, your knowledge of their experiences will help to prevent you from making a similar mistake.
How to say no without burning your bridges.
Occasionally you will need to break the news of your decision to pass an opportunity by. However, you dread the reactions of those who were counting on you to accept it. Learn now how to let them down gently without alienating them forever. Just because refusing an opportunity can feel like an impending conflict doesn’t mean it has to be. Though others may not be pleased that you are telling them “no,” they will respect you more if you are direct than if you beat around the bush in an effort not to make them angry.
When negotiating your “no,” you don’t want to make the other party feel like you’re pushing them away forever, or for personal reasons. Be clear up front that you’re only refusing their proposal because accepting the opportunity would be detrimental to your current responsibilities. Even if they persist in being upset with you, aim to compromise whenever possible to show them that you still value your working relationship.
Don’t just say no and walk away. Indicate that, if you can, their offer is only partially acceptable in your current situation or that you are interested in working with them in the future. Whatever your response ends up needing to be, don’t be vague or lead them on. Say “no thank you” calmly, but leave no room for them to try to persuade you otherwise if the opportunity is one you truly cannot afford to take.
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