Grit is essential to persisting in the face of challenges, sticking with your goals, and making your ideal future a reality. It is the best predictor of success, notes pioneering psychologist Angela Duckworth in her bestselling book and viral TED talk, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. But equally important is knowing when to quit and cut your losses at the right time.
Grinding away, putting in more effort, and exercising patience can be a waste of time, energy and attention. Sometimes you actually need to stop, step back, and head in another direction. Giving up when you can’t change unfavorable circumstances frees you to try other things that might work just as well, if not better. Rather than settle for mediocrity in a field that requires your weakest skills, you can strive for excellence in an area that demands your strongest assets and deepest interests.
Earlier this year, I read Seth Godin’s The Dip: A Little Book that Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick). I stumbled across this 2007 classic at the local library and finished it in one sitting on a Saturday afternoon. (It really is a little book.)
Godin says there are three types of curves in every endeavor:
The Dip is the long slog between starting and mastering. Pushing through, working harder, and increasing your effort when you’re in the dip – when most people would prefer to give up – lead to positive results. You become an expert by moving through the dip.
The Cul-de-sac is the dead end. These include jobs, projects, and activities that create no significant progress or meaningful outcome, no matter how hard you work or how much effort you invest. The cul-de-sac has no dip and is usually boring from the get-go.
The Cliff is an uphill curve with a steep plunge downwards. You move up with more effort and harder work, but there is a sudden drop-off at the end. The cliff has no dip and is exciting only for a while.
Godin writes: “Sometimes we get discouraged and turn to inspirational writing, like stuff from Vince Lombardi: ‘Quitters never win and winners never quit.’ Bad advice. Winners quit all the time. They just quit the right stuff at the right time.”
Here are 3 questions to ask yourself when deciding when to quit or stick with it:
Am I in a cul-de-sac or on a cliff or in the dip?
Giving up can feel a lot like failing, even when it’s necessary to achieve success or drop energy-depleting, non-essential activity.
Persistence can shift to pestering. Perseverance becomes delusion. Commitment turns to compulsion.
If something seems misaligned, too boring or too good to be true, take a pause and figure out whether you’re in a cul-de-sac or on a cliff. Research the industry. Talk to people you trust. Track your progress and review your results.
An example of a cul-de-sac is a profession where your core values and beliefs are incompatible with your work environment, rewards system or organizational culture that is firmly established or resistant to change.
A cliff is like a toxic relationship that can provide fleeting moments of fun and adventure, but is one you won’t regret ending once you have the guts to sever it.
If you stay too long on a dead-end path or on an uphill curve with a sudden drop-off, you end up with unnecessary failure and high sunk costs. Quit as soon as you can. And don’t continue an effort just because you’ve already invested tons of resources in it. Instead, consider the opportunity costs and tradeoffs.
On the other hand, if you’re in a dip, you need to avoid quitting just to relieve temporary discomfort or short-term pain. Abandon a worthwhile endeavor only when you have thoughtfully chosen to do so. Such strategic quitting is different from reactive or serial quitting, which is the root cause of many failures.
Am I willing to slog through the dip?
Becoming number one in your market, achieving a successful outcome or hitting your target goal means you will need to push through the dip. If you’re not willing to do what it takes to get through it, it’s wise to quit. You can always come back to the project when you are able to prioritize it, invest the resources, and make time for it.
Before the dip starts, think about how much time and energy you are willing to invest and how much discomfort and pain you will take on to move through it. If the actual levels surpass your expectations, weigh the challenges against the potential benefits and then decide whether to quit or stick.
Consider quitting when your current efforts are distracting you from what you should really focus on and master.
Am I doing this thing just for (or mostly for) fun?
Big successes come from moving through the dip and keeping the long game in mind. But the three curves are not a concern if you’re just trying something out and loving it. Start the creative project, take the next step, finish or fail, and learn from your mistakes.
The full-time accountant doesn’t have to shut down her Etsy shop just because it provides only a little extra income. The pianist who plays for fun doesn’t have to give up on composing and recording songs even if she will never sell her music. The weekend welder who makes tables and chairs for family and friends doesn’t have to become a top industry professional.
No one has to see it, buy it, or talk about it for you to have permission to stick with it. If it’s a hobby or calling you enjoy, don’t quit just because you can’t (or have yet to) make loads of money from it.
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It’s okay to accept mediocrity at the outset. To cut yourself some slack. To not be exceptional. At least in the beginning, most of us fall in the middle of the bell curve. With this premise, you will be more inclined to push through the dip instead of quit when you’re in it.
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Photo by: Seth Godin