Excerpt: Seth Godin's "The Dip," on the benefit of "strategic quitting"

In "The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick)" (Portfolio), popular business blogger Seth Godin says just about everything you learned in school about life is wrong, including the secrets to success.

Read an except below, and watch Tony Dokoupil's interview with Godin on "CBS Sunday Morning" May 5!


The Biggest Mistake They Made in School

Just about everything you learned in school about life is wrong, but the wrongest thing might very well be this: Being well rounded is the secret to success.

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When you came home from school with two As, a B+, and three Bs, you were doing just fine. Imagine the poor kid who had an A+ and four Cs. Boy, was he in trouble.

Fast-forward a few decades from those school days, and think about the decisions you make today – about which doctor to pick, which restaurant to visit, or which accountant to hire. How often do you look for someone who is actually quite good at the things you don't need her to do? How often do you hope that your accountant is a safe driver and a decent golfer?

In a free market, we reward the exceptional.

In school, we tell kids that once something gets too hard, move on and focus on the next thing. The low-hanging fruit is there to be taken; no sense wasting time climbing the tree.

From a test-taking book: "Skim through the questions and answer the easiest ones first, skipping ones you don't know immediately." Bad advice. Superstars can't skip the ones they don't know. In fact, the people who are the best in the world specialize at getting really good at the questions they don't know. The people who skip the hard questions are in the majority, but they are not in demand.

Many organizations make sure they've dotted all their i's – they have customer service, a receptionist, a convenient location, a brochure, and on and on – and all of it is mediocre. More often than not, prospects choose someone else – their competition. Those competitors can't perform in some areas, but they're exceptional in the ones that matter.

The Magic of Thinking Quit

Twenty years ago, I read a book that changed my life. It was called The Magic of Thinking Big. I actually don't remember anything about the book at all. What I do remember is that in one quick moment, it changed the way I thought about success.

My hope is that the next page or two might do the same for you. I want to change the way you think about success (and quitting).

Most people will tell you that you need to persevere – to try harder, put in more hours, get more training, and work hard. "Don't quit!" they implore. But if all you need to do to succeed is not quit, then why do organizations less motivated than yours succeed? Why do individuals less talented than you win?

It involves understanding the architecture of quitting, and, believe it or not, it means quitting a lot more than you do now.

Strategic quitting is the secret of successful organizations. Reactive quitting and serial quitting are the bane of those that strive (and fail) to get what they want. And most people do just that. They quit when it's painful and stick when they can't be bothered to quit.

There are two curves that define almost any type of situation facing you as you try to accomplish something. (A couple of minor curves cover the rest.) Understanding the different types of situations that lead you to quit – or that should cause you to quit – is the first step toward getting what you want.

CURVE 1: THE DIP

Almost everything in life worth doing is controlled by the Dip.

It looks like this:

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At the beginning, when you first start something, it's fun. You could be taking up golf or acupuncture or piloting a plane or doing chemistry – doesn't matter; it's interesting, and you get plenty of good feedback from the people around you.

Over the next few days and weeks, the rapid learning you experience keeps you going. Whatever your new thing is, it's easy to stay engaged in it.

And then the Dip happens.

The Dip is the long slog between starting and mastery. A long slog that's actually a shortcut, because it gets you where you want to go faster than any other path.

The Dip is the combination of bureaucracy and busywork you must deal with in order to get certified in scuba diving.

The Dip is the difference between the easy "beginner" technique and the more useful "expert" approach in skiing or fashion design.

The Dip is the long stretch between beginner's luck and real accomplishment.

The Dip is the set of artificial screens set up to keep people like you out.

If you took organic chemistry in college, you've experienced the Dip. Academia doesn't want too many unmotivated people to attempt medical school, so they set up a screen. Organic chemistry is the killer class, the screen that separates the doctors from the psychologists. If you can't handle organic chemistry, well, then, you can't go to med school.

At the beginning, when you announce that you're premed, you get all sorts of positive feedback and support. Your grandmother can't believe her good fortune! But soon, the incredible grind of organic chemistry kicks in, and you realize you're doomed.

At trade shows, you see dozens of companies trying to break into an industry. They've invested time and money to build a product, to create a marketing organization and rent booth space – all in an attempt to break into a lucrative market. A year later, most of them don't return. They're gone, unable to get through the Dip.

The same thing happens to people who dream of the untold riches and power that accrue to the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Private jets, fancy country clubs, unchecked decision-making power. Who wouldn't want to live like modern-day royalty? Of course, if you look at the résumé of a typical CEO, you'll see that he endured a twenty-five-year Dip before landing the job. For a quarter of a century, he needed to suck it up, keep his head down, and do what he was told. He needed to hit his numbers, work longer hours than everyone else, and kiss up to his boss of the moment. Day in and day out, year after year.

It's easy to be a CEO. What's hard is getting there. There's a huge Dip along the way. If it was easy, there'd be too many people vying for the job and the CEOs couldn't get paid as much, could they? Scarcity, as we've seen, is the secret to value. If there wasn't a Dip, there'd be no scarcity.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Successful people don't just ride out the Dip. They don't just buckle down and survive it. No, they lean into the Dip. They push harder, changing the rules as they go. Just because you know you're in the Dip doesn't mean you have to live happily with it. Dips don't last quite as long when you whittle at them.

CURVE 2: THE CUL-DE-SAC

The Cul-de-Sac (French for "dead end") is so simple it doesn't even need a chart. It's a situation where you work and you work and you work and nothing much changes. It doesn't get a lot better, it doesn't get a lot worse. It just is.

That's why they call those jobs dead-end jobs.

There's not a lot to say about the Cul-de-Sac except to realize that it exists and to embrace the fact that when you find one, you need to get off it, fast. That's because a dead end is keeping you from doing something else. The opportunity cost of investing your life in something that's not going to get better is just too high.

That's it. Two big curves (a bonus, the Cliff, follows). Stick with the Dips that are likely to pan out, and quit the Cul-de-Sacs to focus your resources. That's it.

CURVE 3: THE CLIFF (RARE BUT SCARY)

Cigarettes, it turns out, were redesigned by scientists to be particularly addictive. If you were going to draw a chart of the pleasure of smoking over time, it would look like this:

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Except for that nasty drop-off at the end (otherwise known as emphysema), smoking is a marketer's dream come true. Because smoking is designed to be almost impossible to quit, the longer you do it, the better it feels to continue smoking. The pain of quitting just gets bigger and bigger over time. I call this curve a Cliff – it's a situation where you can't quit until you fall off, and the whole thing falls apart.

It's no wonder that people have trouble stopping.

The thing is, a profession in selling isn't like smoking cigarettes. Neither is making it as a singer or building a long-term relationship with someone you care about. Most of the time, the other two curves are in force. The Dip and the Cul-de-Sac aren't linear. They don't spoon feed you with little bits of improvement every day. And they're just waiting to trip you up.

If It Is Worth Doing, There's Probably a Dip

Tennis has a Dip. The difference between a mediocre club player and a regional champion isn't inborn talent – it's the ability to push through the moments where it's just easier to quit. Politics has a Dip as well – it's way more fun to win an election than to lose one, and the entire process is built around many people starting while most people quit.

The Dip creates scarcity; scarcity creates value.

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The Cul-de-Sac and the Cliff Are the Curves That Lead to Failure

If you find yourself facing either of these two curves, you need to quit. Not soon, but right now. The biggest obstacle to success in life, as far as I can tell, is our inability to quit these curves soon enough.

It's easy to complain that the advice in this little book is brain-dead obvious. I mean, who doesn't already know that the secret to success is to be successful, that providing a great product or service is the right thing to do, and that you shouldn't quit in the face of adversity?

You don't. That's the bad news. The good news is that your boss and your competitors don't know either.

I mean, you know it, but my guess is that you're not doing anything about it. When it comes right down to it, right down to the hard decisions, are you quitting any project that isn't a Dip? Or is it just easier not to rock the boat, to hang in there, to avoid the short-term hassle of changing paths? What's the point of sticking it out if you're not going to get the benefits of being the best in the world? Are you overinvesting (really significantly overinvesting) time and money so that you have a much greater chance of dominating a market? And if you don't have enough time and money, do you have the guts to pick a different, smaller market to conquer?

Once you're doing those things, then you get it.

The Dip Is Where Success Happens

If you haven't already realized it, the Dip is the secret to your success. The people who set out to make it through the Dip – the people who invest the time and the energy and the effort to power through the Dip – those are the ones who become the best in the world. They are breaking the system because, instead of moving on to the next thing, instead of doing slightly above average and settling for what they've got, they embrace the challenge. For whatever reason, they refuse to abandon the quest and they push through the Dip all the way to the next level.

Snowboarding is a hip sport. It's fast, exciting, and reasonably priced; and it makes you look very cool. So why are there so few snowboarders? Because learning the basic skills constitutes a painful Dip. It takes a few days to get the hang of it, and, during those few days, you'll get pretty banged up. It's easier to quit than it is to keep going.

The brave thing to do is to tough it out and end up on the other side – getting all the benefits that come from scarcity. The mature thing is not even to bother starting to snowboard because you're probably not going to make it through the Dip. And the stupid thing to do is to start, give it your best shot, waste a lot of time and money, and quit right in the middle of the Dip.

A few people will choose to do the brave thing and end up the best in the world. Informed people will probably choose to do the mature thing and save their resources for a project they're truly passionate about. Both are fine choices. It's the last choice, the common choice, the choice to give it a shot and then quit that you must avoid if you want to succeed.

Excerpted from "The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick)" by Seth Godin, in agreement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Do You Zoom, Inc., 2007.

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