The Power of No: James and Claudia Altucher on Boundaries, Surrender, and Escaping Your Cubicle

The Power of No can improve your life by cutting out distractions and boosting the quality of what you consciously choose to engage in.

Here’s how the latest book from James Altucher explains it.

The Power of No by James Altucher

When you have a tiny, tiny piece of crap in your soup, it doesn’t matter how much more water you pour in and how many more spices you put on top. There’s crap in your soup.

James and Claudia Azula Altucher, The Power of No

Are you the sort of person who says “Yes” to the wrong things?

In The Power of No: Because One Little Word Can Bring Health, Abundance, and Happiness, husband-and-wife team James and Claudia Azula Altucher discuss the practical consequences of saying yes to requests, relationships, and obligations that don’t add value to our lives.

As the authors state in the book:

Not being honest with yourself is how you say yes to everyone else but not to you. It’s a form of self-harm.

If you don’t say yes on your own terms, you are saying it on everyone else’s terms, and the results will hurt you.

Here are 5 of the top lessons, techniques, and takeaways from The Power of No.

The ABC Technique: Acknowledge, Boundary, and Close

In the book, Claudia recounts a party hostess who successfully guilts her into staying for dinner when she was planning to leave after cocktails:

I now know the key is to do what we call ABC: Acknowledge, Boundary, Close. Whenever you sense someone is about to start manipulating you, you need to go into ABC mode.

First the Acknowledge. I could’ve repeated what she said. Yes, a lot of work has gone into the situation (in this case, the dinner party), and it is wonderful.

The the Boundary: “I have to leave in five minutes.” The other person may or may not approve but that is no longer your problem. The benefits from doing this in your life will far outweigh the discomfort of that moment. Just keep repeating ABC.

Finally, the Close: After a few minutes, leave.

“Boundary” and “Close” make some obvious sense, but I’d like to highlight the underrated importance of “Acknowledge.”

Oftentimes, even if we are willing to say “No,” there is a chance that rejecting someone’s request too hastily will be hurtful. Acknowledging the other person for thinking of you or for their effort goes a long way towards smoothing any hurt feelings by your rejection.

Learn to Surrender by Being Prepared

I had to learn to surrender. If an athlete comes to the race prepared and does the best he can, he is a true professional and he can surrender to the results. I had to surrender to the fact that I couldn’t control everything. But I could be prepared.

The need for control is a very human desire. But it interferes with our ability to see the world for what it is: a place where you can influence only a tiny part of it.

That might sound fatalistic, but it isn’t. You absolutely must bust your butt to excel at the tiny bit of input that you do control—luck favors the prepared, after all, and this is how high need-to-achievers get ahead. But everything after that is outside of your control.

That’s what the Altuchers are talking about here with surrender. Surrender is a terrifying concept for controlling types (believe me, I’m one of them) but it’s absolutely essential if you want to live a life free of anxiety and filled with gratitude.

Well, what is surrender, then?

Can we just say, “Okay, you take care of it. You do it all,” where “you” is some higher power, some godlike entity?

That doesn’t work either. If you do nothing, usually nothing happens. This is just a more insidious way of trying to control things. It’s like you are trying to passive-aggressively guilt-trip the universe into providing for you.

Surrender is something else.

Surrender is about being at peace with the results of your efforts. It’s not about shirking the process or the hard work that you need to put in to get there.

Escape Your Cubicle by Being an Explorer

The Altuchers agree with me that most supposed 9-to-5 jobs can be characterized as salary slavery. But many wouldn’t, and I’ve gotten considerable pushback on using that term to describe how employers leech productivity. Here’s how James responds:

Fine, you might say, a job is a lot different from slavery: I can take a water break, for instance. And sometimes go to the bathroom. And when I talk to people who are the same sex as me, there aren’t even any rules governing what I can say. And I get a salary. Great.

Altucher goes on to list all the ways your salary is already accounted for by others: your mortgage (”Your company likes you to own your house because you are less likely to quit.”), student loans, health, relationship upkeep, and transportation.

How much goes to you? You wake up before dawn. You travel. You work hard. You come home late. You’re feeling stuck. You’re mildly depressed and may take medication for this. And you have trouble sleeping and digesting.

Shouldn’t you get paid more?

There are also all the ways companies inhibit your freedom: big employee manuals regulating your behavior, how you can’t talk to your boss in certain ways, can’t wear certain clothes, or can’t have office romances (even though those are the only single people you know!).

If you want more money, you have to beg for it. There are entire seminars created just to teach people how to ask for 5 percent more money at work. People are scared to death to ask.

Isn’t there another way?

Yes. There are always alternatives.

Now, more than ever, most people can make more money by being creative and figuring out how to offer services on their own. Money won’t solve all of your problems, but it will solve your money problems. Don’t let them take your money so they can keep you in slavery.

You want to own your time. To own your work. To own the value you create for others. To own your thoughts. To protect yourself so nobody can fire you. Not to be owned by the bank or the government or a boss. Not to be owned by your relationships.

“I can’t just quit my job!” you might say.

And we agree with this. Don’t quit.

But …

Start by being an explorer.

We live in a $51 trillion economy. You helped create it, just as slaves and death and misery helped create the beautiful pyramids. But 90 percent of what you create is taken from you.

Books Can Be Mentors Too

This might surprise you, but I have never met the best mentors of my life in person:

You can outsource 90 percent of mentorship to books and other materials. Two hundred to 500 books equal one good mentor. People ask us, “What is a good book to read?” and we never know the answer. There are 200 to 500 good books to read. Start with one, follow the recommendations for further reading in the back of that book, keep going, and add different topics—self-help, inspirational, individual to your area of work, and so on. Whatever your beliefs may be, follow your passions and see where they lead you. Underline them through reading every day. Note the passages that really stand out for you.

A huge reason why I read 150 books a year is that I don’t know when I’ll encounter the next life-changing idea in one—but they’re worth so much that I’m willing to plow through a lot of them to find it.

Here’s a short sampling of books that have changed my worldview in profound ways:

I’ve read these books over the past five years and I can say in all seriousness that I’m a completely different person after reading them. Try one out. Perhaps it won’t resonate with you the same way it did me. Or maybe it’s another book that will speak to you. But in any case, building a reading habit is one of the most sure-fire ways to accelerate your development as a person.

Treat Everyone as if It’s Their Last Day

James Altucher, like Austin Kleon, doesn’t like the advice of “live life like it’s your last day.” Not only can this attitude lead to mindless selfishness, it also doesn’t comport with the reality of subjective experience. “In fact, you will most likely never know a time when you are not alive,” says Altucher.

Think of someone you love. Or many people you love. Or even people you don’t care that much for. What if you got into a fight with one of them? What if they died today?

Here’s a new saying to try out. See how this improves the interactions you have today.

“Treat everyone else as if it’s their last day.”

The Power of No is that in saying no to the wrong things, you can create more space in your life for the right ones. Like kindness, gratitude, and perspective.

The secret cost of overloaded, overextended lives is the damage it does to the spirit. Short tempers, pointed word, and hurried interactions with loved ones and friends don’t lead to lasting fulfillment.

Use the power of no. Don’t live your life this way.

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