When I was in elementary school, the hallways were filled with motivational posters.
Some contained timeless wisdom from philosophers as old, such as “An unexamined life is not worth living.” Others included more generic admonitions about the importance of character and honesty. And then there was this quote from Vince Lombardi: “Winners never quit, and quitters never win.”
I’ve seen that quote posted in classrooms and locker rooms across the country. But while the basic message sounds wise, it’s actually terrible advice. It encapsulates the way our culture views quitting: a moral failure, something you do because you didn’t try hard enough or weren’t good enough.
But as I discovered after reading The Dip by Seth Godin, quitting can be a powerful strategy for success. The key is to know when to quit, and when to keep going. But how do you decide that?
Below, we’ll find out. We’ll first examine what the Dip is. Then, we’ll take a look at how understanding the Dip (as well as a related concept called the Cul-de-Sac) can help you determine when you should quit, and when you should persist.
If you’re thinking about quitting something but aren’t sure if it’s the right decision, this post is for you.
What Is the Dip?
For pretty much anything worth doing in life, progress is not linear. When you begin a new pursuit, you rapidly progress as you learn the basics. Your quick progress is inspiring and motivating, and you feel like it will continue forever.
It doesn’t, of course. Sooner or later, you reach a point where your progress slows. Everything feels like a slog, and you begin to doubt yourself. Maybe this isn’t worth it, you think. Maybe I should quit.
Godin calls this point in your journey “the Dip.” It’s “the long slog between starting and mastery,” the point where most people give up.
If you take a larger view, though, you’ll realize that the Dip is the key to where you need to get. If you can make it through that long slog, Godin argues, then eventually your efforts will pay off. Indeed, the Dip is “actually a shortcut, because it gets you where you want to go faster than any other path.”
The Cul-de-Sac: A Dangerous Trap
Being in the Dip isn’t fun, but you do have the comfort of knowing there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. As long as you embrace the challenge and switch up your strategy as appropriate, you’ll get through it eventually.
There’s another situation, though, that’s far more dangerous and insidious: the Cul-de-Sac. Godin uses this term to describe a situation where no matter what you do, nothing really changes. Things don’t get much worse, but they don’t get much better either. They just stay the same.
A dead-end job is a classic example of a Cul-de-Sac. You dutifully put in your time from 9 to 5, counting down the days until you can retire. You pay your dues, you’re a “good employee,” but you’re also stagnant. So you resign yourself to mediocrity, accepting that this is just how life is.
What’s most dangerous about being in a Cul-de-Sac is that it’s comfortable. Therefore, it’s easy to stay in one far longer than you should (or, worse, not realize that you’re in a Cul-de-Sac in the first place).
If you discover you’re in a Cul-de-Sac, Godin warns, then you need to get out of it ASAP. Until you do, the Cul-de-Sac will consume time and resources you could be investing into an area where you can make progress.
How to Know When to Quit (and When to Keep Going)
The Dip and the Cul-de-Sac are simple concepts to grasp, but they can be much more difficult to apply. What are you supposed to do with this knowledge? How will understanding the Dip and the Cul-de-Sac help you make informed quitting decisions?
Here are a few key ideas from The Dip that can help:
View Quitting as a Strategy
“Never quit? Never quit wetting your bed? Or that job you had at Burger King in high school? Never quit selling a product that is now obsolete?” (64)
To know when to quit, you must first accept that strategic quitting isn’t a moral failure. It doesn’t make you a bad person; it makes you a wise person who seeks to avoid wasting time and energy.
Instead of thinking of quitting as a failure, think of it as the path to success.
Of course, this isn’t a license to quit everything. The key is to quit in the following situations:
- You’re in a Dip that you don’t have the time, resources, or motivation to get through.
- You’re in a Cul-de-Sac of any kind.
Quit Before You Start
It can make sense to quit in the middle of the Dip if you realize that you don’t care enough about the finish line to keep going.
Ideally, though, you should never attempt something if you can’t make it through the Dip. Otherwise, everything you do before and during the Dip is a waste of time. Time that you could better spend making progress on something you do care about.
So if you don’t think you can make it through the Dip, don’t even try. Save your efforts for a more worthwhile area.
Avoid Cul-de-Sacs Like the Plague
“If your job is a Cul-de-Sac, you have to quit or accept the fact that your career is over.” (63)
A couple of years ago, a guy showed up at my door trying to sell me a print subscription to a local newspaper. I was irritated that he had interrupted my day to solicit me, but my frustration turned to pity when I discovered he was trying to sell me something obsolete.
I don’t know if this guy realized it or not, but he was in a Cul-de-Sac. Selling a couple of print subscriptions to the paper he worked for might slow its decline, but its failure was still inevitable. As long as he clung to the dream of saving print newspapers, he was wasting precious time he could have used to find a job in an industry with better prospects.
Don’t be like this guy — learn to recognize Cul-de-Sacs and get out of them ASAP. How do you know if you’re in a Cul-de-Sac? Godin offers a simple technique. Just ask, “What sort of measurable progress am I making?”
You don’t have to be making rapid or dramatic progress, necessarily, but you should have progress that you can quantify. If you’re not making measurable progress despite your best efforts, then you’re likely in a Cul-de-Sac.
Never Quit Out of Short-Term Emotion
I’ve been pretty gung-ho about the value of quitting so far, but don’t take this advice as a blanket statement. Strategic quitting is wise, but quitting on a whim is foolish. Particularly if you’re in the middle of the Dip.
“When people quit,” Godin points out, “they are often focused on the short-term benefits. In other words, ‘If it hurts, stop!’”
But this is the worst time to quit, as you’re letting a fleeting emotion dictate your long-term decisions.
If you’re afraid and panicking, then you’re not in the right frame of mind to decide if you should quit. Instead, you should wait until the painful feelings have passed. Go for a walk, get a good night’s sleep, or pet a dog. Then, once you’ve relaxed, you can decide if you should quit.
Typically, your clear-headed self will realize that instead of quitting, you need to find a different strategy that will help you get through the Dip (more on this below).
If It’s Worth Doing, Embrace the Dip
“Dips don’t last so long when you whittle at them” (19)
So far, I’ve discussed how if you want to achieve mastery, you need to make it through the Dip. However, it’s not enough to know that you’re in the Dip. That is the first step, but you can’t stop there.
To escape the slog of the Dip, you need to do more than just not quit. You need to lean into the Dip and push even harder to get out of it.
This doesn’t mean beating your head against a wall trying a tactic that doesn’t work. Instead, Godin suggests that you rededicate yourself, finding “an invigorated new strategy designed to break the problem apart.”
What does this look like in practice? Let’s examine a case that Godin discusses in the book: being a premed student. As Godin says, and as many of my premed friends back in college confirmed, the Dip for premed students tends to be organic chemistry. Everything up to that point was fun and probably fairly easy. But that happy optimism turns to despair when organic chemistry begins.
Many students never make it past this point, opting for a different major and career path. To make it through, you need to both rededicate yourself and find a new strategy for breaking the problem apart.
To rededicate yourself to the pursuit, you should remember why you’re on the premed track. Envision the satisfaction of helping sick patients, the fulfilling challenge of solving medical problems, and the high income and prestige that accompany this career path.
From there, you need a new approach to studying the subject that’s giving you trouble. This could mean going to tutoring sessions, getting help from a friend who’s made it through the course, or scouring the internet for an explanation that makes it click.
And this is just one example. The point is that if you want to get through the Dip, you must take action. It’s not enough to keep doing what you’re doing in the hope that the Dip will disappear if you wait long enough.
Beware Sunk Costs
Much of Godin’s book focuses on quitting before you start or when it’s clear you can’t make progress.
However, he brings up an interesting third case near the end of the book: quitting after you’ve already succeeded.
Godin cites the example of Michael Crichton, author of Jurassic Park and other works of science fiction. Before he was an author, Crichton was on his way to a successful career in medicine. By all measures, he had made it through the Dip, graduating med school and completing a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship.
At this point, Crichton was basically guaranteed a lucrative, prestigious career as either a doctor or researcher. But then, he decided that he hated cutting people open and didn’t want to continue.
So he quit. After all those years of education and hard work, he gave it all up for an uncertain career as an author. This decision sounds crazy, and it could have failed spectacularly. But Crichton knew that he wouldn’t enjoy a career in medicine, so he moved onto something else.
The fact that Crichton succeeded in his new career makes for a happy ending, but it’s not the point. The point is that Crichton didn’t let something called the sunk cost fallacy control his decisions. He knew he didn’t want a career in medicine, and he knew what he wanted to do instead. So he made the difficult decision to quit.
Even if you’ve made it through the Dip, then, sometimes quitting still makes sense. This isn’t a decision to make lightly. But don’t let the effort you’ve invested in something you no longer want to do prevent you from moving on to something more fulfilling.
Quit or Continue: The Choice Is Yours
“Are you avoiding the remarkable as a way of quitting without quitting?” (78)
At this point, you might be thinking that all of this advice sounds pretty obvious. Obviously, it takes persistence and hard work to be successful. Obviously, you should get out of a job, relationship, or educational track where you’re making no progress.
However, there’s a difference between knowing and doing. It’s one thing to know this advice in theory; it’s quite another to act on it.
Why is this? As The Dip explains, “It’s easier to be mediocre than it is to confront reality and quit.” Quitting, after all, “requires you to acknowledge that you’re never going to be #1 in the world. At least not at this. So it’s easier just to put it off, not admit it, settle for mediocre.”
Now that you’ve read this article, I hope you won’t settle for mediocre. I hope you’ll go out there, find an area where you want to be the best, and embrace the Dip. I can’t wait to see what you accomplish once you’ve made it to the other side.
Image Credits: woman rock climbing