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Tell Me What You Say Yes to, and I’ll Tell You Who You Are

“The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say no to almost everything.” — Warren Buffett

According to Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do.” More directly, we are what we say yes to.

Every second of every day, you’re saying yes to something. Every time you do something, you say yes to that thing.

  • Every time you hop on Facebook and begin scrolling, you’re saying yes.

When you say yes to anything, you say no to almost everything else. Every choice has embedded opportunity cost. Every choice is very costly. Saying yes isn’t free.

Self-Signaling: The Science of Identity

According to research by Dr. Ronit Bodner and Dr. Drazen Prelec, “Actions provide a signal to ourselves, that is, actions are self-signaling.” In other words, your actions provide a signal to you of the type of person you are.

If you wake up early and go running, you’ll think to yourself, I’m the kind of person that wakes up early and goes running. Whatever decisions you’ve made, you’ll conclude that I’m the type of person that does X, Y, OR Z. (Luckily, as will be shown in a moment, your past is actually highly fluid, and can be changed by future actions.)

In the recent book, Skin in the Game, Dr. Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains that what you do is the purest definition of your value system. In Start with Why, Simon Sinek said the same thing. Your actions demonstrate what you really believe.

Gandhi said, “Action expresses priorities.” He also said, “To believe in something, and not to live it, is dishonest,” which is what psychologists call cognitive dissonance— the state of internal conflict. You can’t be confident if you don’t trust yourself. Confidence is a by-product of congruent and successful behavior.

Confidence is the emotional state of someone whose prior action was intentional and accurate of the person they planned on being.

Past, Present, and Future Identities

“It’s a conscious decision to choose your priorities every day.” — Elisabeth Hasselbeck, Interview with Woman’s Day, 2010

Your present identity is based on what you said yes to yesterday. Who you are today is a product of your previous decisions.

Your future identity is what you say yes to today. Who you’ll be tomorrow is a product of your current decisions.

Your past identity is what you’ll say yes to tomorrow. Who you were in the past is a product of future decisions, because memories are highly fluid and change based on current and future experiences. No matter how dark or conflicted your past, it can absolutely be transformed. As you change, the meaning of your past changes — as does the memory of it.

Your past can be redeemed by positive future decisions. Your present can make sense when you say yes to only that which you aspire to be like. And your future is as bright as your faith. As Napoleon Hill said, “Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, the mind can achieve.”

But only if you act in accordance with that future vision.

Hence, Zig Ziglar was famous for saying, “You’ve got to be before you can do and do before you can have.” You decide who you want to be and act accordingly. If you don’t act accordingly, you’ll signal to yourself that you’re someone else, because you are what you do. More directly, you are what you say yes to.

You decide who you want to be. But that decision is only a real decision if you do what that decision entails. Otherwise, it wasn’t really a decision. The decision is only a decision if action aligns with it.


“If you have more than three priorities, you don’t have any.” — Jim Collins, Good to Great

In the book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown states, “You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.”

Most things should swiftly be said no to.

To repeat the quote from billionaire Warren Buffett: “The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say no to almost everything.”

Similarly, Jim Rohn said, “A lot of people don’t do well simply because they major in minor things.”

Most people say yes to minor things. Hence, most people live minor, not major lives.

Who will you be tomorrow? That depends on what you do today.

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

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