Do you ever wish you could see into the future and know how things will turn out, so you can stop throwing energy at things that aren’t going to amount to anything? Should I start a blog, or will it just end up on the electronic junk pile? Should I keep trying to build my yarn-dyeing business, or is it a dead-end proposition? Should I stick with my job, or quit and find a new one? And then, of course, is my career going to get better, or should I find a new one of those? Should I stay or should I go?
Most things are fun when you first start them. There’s the excitement and novelty of trying something new, the exhilaration of growth and learning a lot in a short time, and the dramatic progress of going from zero knowledge and skill to some knowledge and skill. But what happens after that?
Once the initial rush wears off, things level out. The novelty wears off, progress is less dramatic, and suddenly, it starts seeming like an effort.
At that point, I often quit. I’m kind of a serial monogamist, with guys as well as activities. There’s the initial crush phase where everything is skyrockets and bliss, and nothing else even seems interesting. Then things settle into a pretty happy, more reasonable routine. Then things get difficult (familiarity starts to breed contempt, bad habits accumulate to the point of annoyance, there’s a worldwide spike in the price of merino wool, etc.), and I quit.
I get a lot of teasing about this from some of my friends, and deservedly so. I always think I’ll love someone or something “forever,” but it always turns out to be more like 3 years. Houses, jobs, romantic relationships–each starts out appearing to be the grand answer and something I’ll love forever. Then, three years later, I’m gone. The one exception is my car, which I’ve owned for almost 13 years. (What can I say, it’s a Honda.)
Quitting: the opposing theories
We’ve all heard a million times: don’t quit. You can’t succeed if you quit.
A quitter never wins and a winner never quits.
Napoleon Hill1Vince Lombardi3
Most people who succeed in the face of seemingly impossible conditions are people who simply don’t know how to quit.
— Robert Schuller1
Most people give up just when they’re about to achieve success. They quit on the one yard line. They give up at the last minute of the game, one foot from a winning touch down.
–Ross Perot 1
I think the Ross Perot quote sums up the worst fear about quitting: what if I quit right when I was about to succeed?
But then again, there’s the opposing view.
Quit while you’re ahead. All the best gamblers do.
Of all the stratagems, to know when to quit is the best.
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no use being a damn fool about it.
–W. C. Fields1
Ok, so maybe the last one is tongue in cheek, but doesn’t it spell out what we’re really afraid of if we don’t quit: what if I’m wasting time and energy by foolishly pursuing a dead end?
When to quit
I’ve seen a lot of advice lately that says that if you keep doing a little bit every day toward your goal, you will eventually get there. But let’s face it, some things just never get anywhere. It seems obvious that if an effort is never going to amount to anything and you’re not enjoying it any more, it’s time to quit. But how can you tell the difference between being nowhere and being close to making it?
A related question is, how do you know whether it’s worth the effort to start something? If you’re just going to quit later, is the initial rush of jumping in worth the fact that nothing will be achieved in this effort?
I think that depends on your goal. If you want to have adventures, have fun, or broaden your life experiences, it doesn’t really matter if you never “succeed” in the sense of accomplishing anything or achieving any goals. Start at will, enjoy it while you can, quit if it becomes a drag.
But if you have a particular end in mind, such as earning enough income to quit your day job, suddenly it’s very important to know whether your pursuit will lead to success, or whether you’re wasting your energy and should try something else.
Someone recommended that I read The Dip by Seth Godin. It’s a short little book on exactly this subject. The premise is that anything worth doing has a dip: the part where the fun wears off and you have to put in a lot of effort to get any results. If you make it through this phase, then the whole thing takes off again and you start seeing a lot of success fast, but most people quit in the dip and never make it that far.
Not everything has a dip, though. The other main model presented in the book is the cul-de-sac or dead end. In the cul-de-sac, no matter how hard or persistently you work, the thing will never take off. There will never be a big payoff at the end.
That much we knew already. The trick is how to distinguish the two. I don’t know about yours, but my life doesn’t come with a graphical readout illustrating a post-dip upsweep coming up soon, or a cul-de-sac flatline. (I’m imagining it appearing above my head, like that guy in Stranger than Fiction.)
The book offers a pretty radical answer: quit everything you can’t be the best in the world at. Then throw all your energy at getting through the dip on the one thing you will be the best in the world at.
Specifically, if you’re trying to influence one person (as opposed to a market) and it’s not working, quit. If you’re not seeing any measurable progress, quit. If you’re in a non-growth situation, quit. (Examples here include dying industries and jobs with no room for advancement.) If these things are not true and you’re just panicking or frustrated, you’re in the dip–don’t quit.
This all makes sense to me. Also, the part about being the best in the world isn’t as crazy as it sounds. The trick is to define a small enough world. It’s like picking a dissertation topic when you’re trying to get a PhD: you have to become the world’s foremost expert in your topic in order to get a PhD. That doesn’t mean you have to become the world’s foremost expert in computer science, it means you pick some tiny, obscure tidbit of computer science that nobody has studied yet, study it, and poof! You’re the world’s foremost expert in it. Congratulations, Dr. You!
In this case, the assumption is that everything worth doing has a dip. That’s what keeps the rest of the competition out.
For something like word processing, Microsoft made it across the dip and then started digging it deeper and wider so nobody else could follow. You’d be crazy to try take on word processing as your next quest, unless you could come up with some radical new twist on it that changed all the rules.
But if you pick a smaller, specifically targeted market and make it through the dip, you can rule it. The trick is picking something where you have enough resources to make it through the dip. Everett Bogue seems to be a good example of this: tons of people are into minimalism, and tons of people are into making money online; he combined the two to make a small niche that he could rule, and did so.
Once you’ve identified what you want to pursue, the dip is your friend because it keeps the competition out. You just have to make it through yourself.
This makes a lot of sense to me. I’m still not 100% convinced that you need to quit everything you can’t be #1 at, but maybe he meant that more for “you” the company than “you” the person. I can say with a pretty strong degree of certainty that I will never be the best in the world at autocross; in fact, I’m pretty sure I’ll never be the best in the Huntsville, AL, club. I doubt I’ll even be the best female driver in the Huntsville, AL, club. But it’s a lot of fun, and it pushes me out of my comfort zone. I think it’s worth doing for those reasons.
I can definitely see the advantage of being serious about only one thing, though. Back in November, I was really excited about the revelation that it’s ok to try a bunch of stuff and let life sort out which things will work and which ones won’t. That makes a lot of sense to me, too, but actually trying to do it hasn’t been going all that well. I tend to get all obsessed about one thing and forget the others, then feel bad about neglecting them and try to catch up. I end up dropping most of the balls I’m juggling. Maybe it really would be better to focus on one thing. Obviously it would if I knew which thing to pick.
At least now I know what questions to ask. What small world do I want to rule? What dip is big enough to be worthwhile but small enough that I have the resources to get through it? What has to go so I can be #1 at what’s left?
Sometimes it’s actually easier to keep doing something than to quit, even if you know you should quit. Change is uncomfortable, and making decisions is also not a favorite among most people. I wish us all the courage to quit the cul-de-sacs and the determination to get through the dip. (And the wisdom to know the difference!)
1 Quitting quotes from http://www.finestquotes.com/select_quote-category-Quitting-page-0.htm
3I’m told the attribution was wrong on this one; here’s a source for the correct answer. Darn inaccurate internet. http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/v/vincelomba122285.html (Thanks, Lach!)