I'm reading all of Warren Buffett's old Berkshire Hathaway shareholder letters. It's part of a project for my free e-book Warren Buffett Predicts the Future, which you can download here.

There are some really smart, interesting, and controversial items in there. For example, there's been a lot of debate about a single "Buffett-ism" -- his quote about the difference between successful people and really successful people.

My colleague Marcel Schwantes wrote about the quote a while back, but it's cited in almost every anthology of Buffett wisdom out there. It turns out, Buffett provides some good context in the shareholder letters: 

The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.

That's interesting when you unpack it. Does Buffett mean you can't be successful if you take on too many different projects?

Or else, perhaps the suggestion is that once you've got enough data about what you're good at, and what you can be successful at, you should focus exclusively on those things--and become really successful?

But also: I mean, that's a nice thought, but saying no all the time goes against most people's grain. We're a society built on FOMO, and for every opportunity you turn down, there will be at least one person telling you why you're making a big mistake in saying no this time.

All of which brings us back to the shareholder letters. Because I was struck by a single paragraph that Buffett has repeated at least twice, nearly verbatim. It's literally a postscript from his annual messages to Berkshire managers, reprinted in some of the shareholder letters. Here's the text:

P.S. Another minor request: Please turn down all proposals for me to speak, make contributions, intercede with the Gates Foundation, etc. Sometimes these requests for you to act as intermediary will be accompanied by "It can't hurt to ask." It will be easier for both of us if you just say "no."

As an added favor, don't suggest that they instead write or call me. Multiply 76 businesses by the periodic "I think he'll be interested in this one" and you can understand why it is better to say no firmly and immediately. 

Buffett has included this at least twice that I can find, in 2010 and 2014. It's a clever message, and it has the effect of doing two things:

  1. First, it reduces "request flow" (I just made that up, but you can figure out the definition), thus reducing the number of times that he has to consider requests and then say no.
  2. Second, it empowers his managers. He lets them off the hook when they're asked to leverage their relationships with Buffett. They can simply point to this direction from him; he's specifically asked them not to!

I am sure there are some exceptions. Occasionally, Berkshire managers probably receive entreaties to pass along to Buffett that are truly too interesting to dismiss out of hand. But Buffett has so powerfully raised the bar that I'd anticipate only truly unique requests would get through.

Now, the question for me, as with most of Buffett's advice and practices, is whether this is something that you or I should copy. In this case, I think the answer is likely yes, albeit perhaps in a different way.

It's all about setting expectations, really--your own, and those of people around you, and changing the default position from "what the heck, it can't hurt to ask" to "she's very busy, and she's rarely able to say yes to requests like this."

Frankly, I only wish I had the wealth or profile to have people asking me to speak and "intercede with the Gates Foundation" all the time. But I do find myself having to say no often.  

You should see my email inbox, which fills up with many more story ideas and PR pitches than I could possibly respond to. As much as I wish it were otherwise, I don't have anywhere near enough time even to reply to most of these requests.

Every once in a while, however, something makes it through that's really useful. That makes up for all the other things I had to say no to. 

I'm going to assume you probably have your own version of this issue too. I suspect all successful people do.

The question is: Are you satisfied being simply successful? And if you were to say no a bit more often, is Buffett right that you'd ascend to a slightly higher stratosphere: the realm of the "really successful"?

We should have the next Berkshire Hathaway annual report and chairman's letter in a matter of days, so check back for my take on the latest wisdom. Also, feel free to download the free e-book, Warren Buffett Predicts the Future.