Who you are and what you do: lessons in saying no from Nintendo

Human beings are decision machines. Our free will may be an illusion, but our choices still matter. Most of our time is spent wondering whether the last decision we made was the right one, and what to do about the next. Worse, we tell each other what to do and complicate the process. In almost every situation we're compelled to say yes, when really we should be saying "no" more often.

No is your defence against the dark arts. It's the way you silence the cacophony of voices telling you what to do and embrace the primal part of your mind that already knows. It's how you carve out a personal life of magnificence or make sure your business isn't screwing things up.

Steve Jobs famously said that,

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you've got to focus on. But that's not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I'm actually as proud of the things we haven't done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1000 things.

Whether in relationships, business or what to do next Saturday, the magic lies on the far side of saying no.

And when you do know something is right, it's about saying, "FUCK YEAH!" instead of just, "Ok... sure."

It's super tricky to know when a decision is right, but there is a way to hack your decision making. Author of Essentialism Greg McKeown summed it up by saying, "If it isn't a clear yes, then it's a clear no."

Or, as Derek Sivers says, if you’re not saying “HELL YEAH!” about something, say “no”.

Easy to say, hard to do. Especially when someone you care about is saying "HELL YEAH!" to the same idea that you're saying no to.

I find another useful way of thinking about decisions is to remember what you are, and stick to it. Make that the immutable thing. What you do is where the change is allowed to happen.

If you're an artist then deciding to sell life insurance probably isn't a good idea. Switching artistic mediums, on the other hand, is a better place in which to find things to say yes to.

If your company is a bank then pivoting into selling fish and chips is stupid, even if you could make a lot of money. Rather rethink what a bank does and play in that space.

My favourite story about this is that of Nintendo.

You're probably familiar with the Japanese company that is responsible for the single greatest gaming console of all time. Nintendo is known as a video games company, but that's what Nintendo does. A games company is what Nintendo is, and its roots stretch back to way before anyone had dreamed of playing games on a computer.

Nintendo was founded in 1889 by Fusajiro Yamauchi to produce handmade hanafuda playing cards that have been common in Japan since emerging in the 16th century. In fact, Nintendo still makes playing cards today.
Nintendo Anniversary edition hanafuda playing cards

In 1956 Hiroshi Yamauchi, then president of the company and grandson of Nintendo's founder, traveled to the US to meet with the United States Playing Card Company and realised that the global market for playing cards was limited.

Under pressure to grow the business, Yamauchi and his team said yes to a lot. Nintendo started to chase new opportunities, becoming a hotel and a taxi company, amongst other things.

The organisation lost sight of what it was, and the diversification of its business resulted in failure. But while Nintendo tried and failed to be other things, its gaming division chugged along, producing new toys and card products that delighted customers. Eventually the company returned to gaming.

In the 1970s a new technology was beginning to change the way we work. Microcomputer kits were being sold for the first time, thanks to chips like Intel's 8008.

The rise of the personal computer was still a decade away, but Nintendo had the foresight to realise that the way we play was about to change. It was time to rethink the business again, but this time Nintendo looked to what it does, not what it is. It said yes to a new way of doing that aligned with its core.

Nintendo's first venture into video gaming came when it secured the rights to distribute the Magnavox Odyssey console in Japan in 1974. In 1977 it sold its own system for the first time, with the Nintendo Color TV-Game.

Nintendo Color TV-Game

The company said yes to the right things, changing what it did in order to protect what it was.

Skip forward to 1983, and Nintendo launched the Family Computer system, known as the 'Famicom' in countries where it was sold, including South Africa where I purchased one with pocket money I had been saving up. It hit the US market in a different form as the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES. This is when most of us would've heard of Nintendo for the first time, thanks to this guy:

Super Mario Bros.

The NES reinvented video gaming and Nintendo continued to lead innovation in the industry for decades. It had the first successful portable consoles, culminating in the Gameboy and its successors, and the Wii was the first commercial console to take motion-gaming mainstream.

Throughout the subsequent decades Nintendo has been challenged to say yes to making its games available on competing platforms. Its biggest competitor, Sega, did so in the 90s and has all but faded into obscurity since then.

A thousand times Nintendo said no to the idea of developing for other platforms. It wouldn't have changed what Nintendo is, but it was still a bad decision, even if the numbers stacked up in the short-term.

Now, for the first time, it has said yes, making Super Mario Run available for smartphones as the most downloaded app in its first day of availability during December 2016. The choice looked the same on the surface, but the timing was right. It was a, "HELL YES!" in 2016 instead of the "Maybe" it would've been in the early 2000s.

Nintendo is also about to unveil its new Switch console that is challenging the way we think of video games again, boldly saying yes to a new format that merges mobile gaming with an experience in your lounge.

There is a subtle difference between being open to new things and just saying yes to everything that comes your way. Saying no doesn't mean being closed. In fact, it means defending your openness from invaders and being true to yourself and what you are.

We should constantly be questioning and challenging ourselves, experimenting with new ideas and ways of being. Playing around with something new before you say no is fine, so long as you do turn it down once you know it isn't working.

If it doesn't feel right, just say no. Don't let the world mess with what you are. It might make someone sad, or piss off your colleagues, but once the dust settles down I'll bet it leads you to something better that makes you scream "FUCK YEAH!"

I'm a writer and broadcaster who also designs apps and strategies for disruptive startups in the financial world. Find out more on my about page.