Small Business

In Praise of Quitters


Seth Godin says the key to being a good quitter is knowing when you've reached a dead end, not just a rough patch

Seth Godin, blogger and author of Unleashing the Ideavirus (Simon & Schuster, 2002) and Purple Cow (Penguin Books, 2005), thinks that contrary to popular opinion, quitting is a good thing. For instance, Bill Gates quit Harvard and founded Microsoft (MSFT). IBM (IBM) quit making PCs. Both ended up with positive results.

Godin founded Yoyodyne, an interactive direct-marketing company, in 1995 and got out of the direct-marketing business by selling it three years later to Yahoo! (YHOO). In his latest book, The Dip (Portfolio, 2007), Godin has devised a new theory that's founded on the notion that quitters can and do win. BusinessWeek staff writer Stacy Perman recently spoke with Godin. Edited excerpts of their conservation follow.

First off, what is "the dip"?

The dip is the spot everyone trying to master something new reaches but that few get through. It's quitting organic chemistry on the way to becoming a doctor. It's the hard part that wipes most out.

Conventionally speaking, quitting isn't considered a positive attribute in society, but you take a different approach. Explain.

I think people quit all the time, but at the wrong time. Most quit in the dip, when the new thing they're trying is hard and when they're in pain. In fact, the best time to quit is when you're at a dead end and you aren't going to get any better. The worst time to quit is when you're in the dip. The dip is your friend. If you can get through it, it's worth the journey.

How did you come to theorize in opposition to the old cliché that "quitters never win and winners never quit"

With my blog and work, I hear people from all lines of work—from churches to big companies to small businesses. I look for the trends that separate the winners from the losers. From kindergarten on we teach people to be well rounded, but people who do the opposite are the most successful.

For example, when we're going to hire an accountant, we don't ask her about her golf game, we want a great accountant. Today, everything is one click away. Being the best or most extreme is way more valuable then ever before.

How do you know when you've reached the dip and it's time to move on? How do you know that this isn't just a rough patch that will pass?

If you're running a business but aren't seeing more satisfied customers, or you aren't getting more referrals, or you aren't opening new doors, it's clear you're in a dead end. You can keep doing it, but life isn't going to get better.

Too often people go to work and say that they've got to support their family—it's the best job they could get. They sell themselves short and settle for being average, when it's less than they deserve.

You say that most of the successful people in the world are all quitters. What characteristic do they have in common that allows them to know how to get out of a bad situation and re-focus on something better?

In the 1940s, Enzo Ferrari was in charge of the racing program at Alfa Romeo when he realized he wasn't going to get any further. Rather than saying, "I'm 48," and staying on, he quit his job and started Ferrari.

What I see is that people who aren't willing to settle and have passion are more likely to push through the hardest of all dips. They know what it's like to have mastery. If you teach a kid to learn what it's like be the best in world, they get hooked. Too many of us never experienced that win in the chess tournament or starred in the school play. It's not surprising that Ferrari quit his job or that Steve Jobs got through the dip and came up with the iPod.

What about quitters that just quit?

On the other hand, if you're taught to be average and to stick it out and to be a person that keeps his head down and do what you're told, you're doing your best. But when the pain is too great, you quit. You can't get beyond that. Nobody quits the Boston marathon when there's a mile to go. What distinguishes those who quit at the wrong time from those who don't is that the latter group gets through the dip because they can visualize the other side.

You talk a lot about how this works with major companies. How would you say this applies to the entrepreneur and small businesses?

The first challenge is that you don't want to take on a dip that you can't get through. A lot of people do. If you have a couple million dollars and you want to build a search engine to challenge Google (GOOG), that's too big a dip. Pick a dip that's attainable. Have the necessary assets to put behind it.

Will everyone that quits hit the top?

If you get into the habit of getting good at quitting before you reach the dead end, you will find there are far more resources to focus on future dips.

Perman is a staff writer for BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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