You’ve heard me talk before about purposeful perseverance. But here’s the thing: If all you need to do to succeed is not quit, then why do organizations or people less motivated, less talented, and less tested succeed while you struggle?
And what if the thing you desired so much, or loved so much to do just doesn’t have the same pulling power it once did? It used to make you tingle with anticipation, and now it’s about as exciting as an old sweater, and serves you about as well. Sure, it still fits, but it’s also moth-eaten and smells a bit of mildew. So why do you keep it around, anyway?
Often we cling to the old because it seems safe and secure. But I think Helen Keller put it best: “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. Security does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than exposure.”
I’ve been thinking about that quote a lot. I’ve also been thinking a lot about Seth Godin’s The Dip: A Little Book that Teaches You When to Quit (And When To Stick).
They both have a lot to say on what it means to live your life as a daring adventure.
Almost everything worth doing involves a lot of time and effort. Ask any concert pianist. Excelling means doing your best and whatever else is required. There’s usually a long slog between starting and mastery.
We’re talking about a long time of doing stuff you’re not even very interested in, or that doesn’t involve your “natural” talents. That’s okay—you can learn all that stuff if the dream or goal truly does matter to you.
Think of anything you’re proficient at now that you once tried as a novice: You wanted to speak Spanish fluently, write a novel, play a chord progression—and it took a lot of time and effort. Most of us understand that.
Where it gets tricky, though, is when we can’t tell if we’re just going through a particularly challenging patch on our way to the final goal or beating our heads against a brick wall.
In his book The Dip: A Little Book that Teaches You When to Quit (And When To Stick), Seth Godin describes two curves that you can use to classify all the challenging stretches you might meet as you try to accomplish something. Understanding and addressing these two types of situations—one that might make you want to quit, and one that’s telling you that you should quit—is the first step toward figuring out whether or not to keep working.
The first of these two situations is “The Dip.” The Dip is the long stretch between beginner’s interest and real mastery. Most people who undertake something bail during The Dip, and that’s why society puts such a high value on real accomplishment.
After all, if there’s anything anyone values it’s something that’s scarce—and The Dip is what makes real accomplishment scarce.
It’s easy to be Oprah—now. What’s hard is achieving her status. After all, Oprah endured a ton of obstacles and quite a few less-than-desirable jobs for almost 20 years before she landed her current gig. And society has rewarded her.
Even in small things—learning to play an instrument, say—so few people make it through The Dip that even if you’ve just managed to learn how to play with confidence and consistency in front of other people, you’ll find yourself heaped with accolades.
But the second situation—the second curve—is just a dead end. You work and work and nothing changes. There’s not a lot to say about The Dead End, except that when you spot it, turn around and get out of there.
That dead end is keeping you from what you’re really supposed to do. Your life energy is too precious to invest in a dead-end anything. I understand perfectly well that staying “secure” in a dead-end job is considered responsible and mature in our culture (and if that’s your take on your situation, you can stop reading).
For everybody else, though, there may come a time when you are doing work you love, work you feel you were meant, no, destined to do—but it’s hard and you’re not seeing the results, the accolades, the paycheck you’d like to have associated with it.
If you reach that point, or if you’re at that point now, and you’re considering quitting, here are the questions that Seth Godin suggests you ask yourself:
#1 Am I panicking?
Panic is never a good reason to quit. That’s why it helps to think about possible crises before you start any passion-driven work, and decide beforehand the point at which you would be willing to give up.
For example, before I started my business I decided it would be time to quit if I ever couldn’t pay my bills. Yes, I could tap every bit of my savings and invest them in my business, but I would never put anything on a credit card that I couldn’t pay at the end of the month.
If the moment ever comes when I don’t love my business or I can’t pay my bills, I’ll know it’s time to pack it in. I’ve had a lot of doubts about my business since the time I started it almost 2 years ago, but I’ve never had the desire to quit. I’ve never had the desire to quit because I know it’s not about the pressure, it’s about whether or not I satisfy—or don’t—the conditions I set from the beginning.
Bottom line: panic is not a reason to quit.
#2 Who am I trying to influence?
If you’re trying to influence one person—like your boss—or even a small group of people—like your colleagues—if your success is dependent on changing someone’s mind, forget it. Changing someone’s mind is difficult if not impossible.
Bottom line (and this applies to everything in life): your happiness should NEVER depend on getting a particular response or outcome from any one person.
(Note, though, that if you’re trying to influence a market, the rules are different, and it’s fine to try to influence a big group of people. In fact, getting feedback from a bunch of people is one way of keeping tabs on your progress (see #3). But don’t expect to get a big response from The Market until you’ve been tested and proven with a lot of individual players in it—until you’ve learned on a small scale what people are after and what you can give that they want. Sure it would be great if you had tons of adoring fans right off the bat, but it really benefits them and you that they wait until you’ve honed your skills a bit.)
#3 What measurable progress am I making?
This ties in with number #2. If you’re not getting a little better every day, you should quit. To succeed you have to be moving forward, even if you’re taking small steps. If you’re standing still and you’re choosing not to quit because it’s easier or safer (or because you believe in persevering as a virtue in itself, I can promise you that there is something far better, far more satisfying and rewarding for you to be doing. And the world needs you to do it.
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