Actor Tom Hanks is arguably one of Hollywood's greatest assets--with wild successes such as Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail, Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, and the Toy Story series, his career spans nearly four decades and is still going strong. Having "made it" the way so many of us want to, he recently gave an interview entitled "A Tom Hanks Type" on NPR's 1A with Joshua Johnson. About 35 minutes into the segment, Hanks dropped this gem of wisdom about keeping control over your life and career:

"The only way I think you can choose--in my position anyway, the only way I could shape my career was by saying no to things I didn't want to do. And if you say no, and no one else is offering you a job, that means you don't have a job. It's easy to say yes to something [when it pays] a lot of money, you get to go somewhere, you get to have fun. They're working. [Easiest] thing in the world is to say yes. But to look at somebody and say, 'I've done it already, I'm repeating myself, it's not going to advance me along anymore and I'm in this for something other than that,' then you gotta say no."

Why Hanks's words should blow your mind

In case you hadn't noticed, modern workers--particularly Millennials--are suffering from some rather serious Fear of Missing Out. Many of us have been told that the world is ours for the taking and that we should taste every possibility that crosses our path. After all, what if that next chance meeting on the subway could lead to us becoming the next Steve Jobs someday? And then there's the job market. If you don't step forward, there are dozens or even hundreds of other people who happily will. Better take what someone suggests and stay safe. We're even told by popular speakers like Guy Kawasaki to "drop everything for your boss," even if it's not fair or optimal, under the guise of getting ahead.

But Hanks's 36-second insight reveals a powerful truth: Just because you can do something doesn't mean that's what will fulfill you. If you don't connect to who you are, if you don't communicate what you're looking for in addition to how you can help others, the odds are good you'll satisfy everyone except yourself. Yes, it can be scary to stand up for yourself, to take a chance at being without pay, perks, or other accolades. Hanks points that out. But at the end of the day, the last thing you want is to look back and realize that those compensations are all you ever got out of the work.

But how do you refuse?

If you need to turn someone down and you don't want to be a jerk about it, there are just two guidelines to follow:

  1. Express some gratitude.
  2. Make it clear your "no" isn't the end.

For example, try phrases like

  • "I'm flattered you thought of me, but I'm looking to X. Are you working on any projects with that focus?"
  • "Thanks for the offer, but I don't think that's a good fit for me at the moment. I'd be happy to consider X, Y, or Z."
  • "I appreciate your consideration, but I have to say no. I'm your (wo)man if you need X, though."
  • "Thanks a lot, but I think I'd be more useful to you if I X."

Remember, you're not trying to burn bridges. Maintaining a strong network of people who really understand your goals drastically improves the chances you'll hear suggestions that truly help you grow and feel satisfied. You're just drawing a boundary and dictating the conditions under which you will or will not cross. Careers always are built one step at a time, but you get to decide when and where to plant your feet.