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Learning when to quit

Picture_19I just finished reading Seth Godin’s excellent book, The Dip. It’s “a little book that teaches you when to quit (and when to stick).” I have been thinking about this problem for several months now.

Mainly, I have thought about it in my yoga practice.

I’ve found that if I don’t push myself I get bored, and of course I don’t progress. But if I push too hard or in a thoughtless way then I tend to hurt myself. There seems to be this very fine balance point of (1) letting go and relaxing, while (2) creating a steady intention to go a bit farther. While thinking of those things, I also have to pay attention to my body’s physical resistance, which is not always the same. Sometimes I can’t go as far today as I have been going for the past week. And that’s when I push, thinking I’m supposed to challenge myself. That’s when I get injured.

There’s an ego thing involved, of course.

Godin’s book is interesting because it suggests that it’s often a good idea to give up, a notion that at first seems completely heretical. Yet he shows that many successful people have become successful by quitting something big. Michael Crichton, after graduating from Harvard medical school, decided he didn’t want to practice medicine (even though he would easily have made a lot of money) because he didn’t think he’d be happy. He didn’t even try it out for a few years. Instead he went on to be wildly successful doing something that he loved doing, but which presented a less certain future when he embarked on it. Smart people know when to quit, Godin says.


He points out that smart people have one big weakness that usually keeps them from quitting at the right time. “Pride is the enemy of the Smart Quitter.” This might be Hillary Clinton’s problem. We all know that she’s very smart, but somehow her campaign isn’t winding up the way she first envisioned it. She’s having financial trouble. The likelihood of her winning the nomination is getting smaller, and the cost of winning it is getting harder even from a non-financial standpoint. And despite it all, she proclaims she “won’t quit.”

Godin offers an interesting thought about the aftermath of quitting: it often feels very comforting. “One reason people feel really good after they quit a dead-end project is that they discover that hurting one’s pride is not fatal.” Obviously everyone wants to win, but it’s true that learning how to lose is important too. Hillary touts herself as ‘the experience candidate’ and yet maybe she hasn’t had enough experience learning when to give up. She’s only run for elected office once (the U.S. Senate), and she won. That’s the only elected position she’s ever held, and now she’s seeking one of the most important positions in our country.

It’s true that a lot of skills can be learned on the job. But I can’t think of too many world leaders who’ve learned the difficult art of quitting after they’ve been elected. That’s probably the main reason so many wars continue even after it becomes clear they’re both hopeless and unpopular.

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  • Larry,The Dip does talk about quitting but it is more about the inevitable slump that you will face in any career. It’s the spot between becoming competent in your career and becoming excellent.

    Think about the swell in the number of Realtors during the past few years. The National Assn. of Realtors went from 700,000 members to 1.2 million in the last 5 years. I suspect that this number will fall below 700,000 if this slump last longer than 12 months. Many of these people were riding good market conditions that allowed people of marginal skills to do well. When the market turned your skill set became much more important and you needed to have a good foundation in lead generation and marketing in place if you wanted to survive. In suspect that most did not have these skills at a level necessary to survive.

    Should they quit? Possibly. The true question is “Do they really want to be Realtors and the BEST in their area?”. If the answer to this is yes, then the hard work of learning the necessary skills, applying them, and never giving up until they have reached the other side of “the Dip” become paramount.

    Every dip has a bottom and you can come out the other side if you want to. The question is do you want it bad enough. The farmer looking for diamonds would have found them on the other side of “the Dip” but he quit.

  • Larry Port says:

    I really enjoyed Seth Godin’s other books, Purple Cow and Big Moo, and am looking forward to reading this one as well. This concept of the Smart Quitter, though, goes against a lot of training and nature.

    For example, another book on my shelf is Napoleon Hill’s classic Think and Grow Rich. The first chapter has a section called Three Feet from Gold where, after months of toil, a man stops mining gold … three feet from the vein of gold ore that would have made him a millionaire. The point is, sometimes massive success comes only after pushing through when it seems most difficult. How does the book reconcile this idea?

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