If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging
Years ago, I overheard interesting conversation between two friends of mine, one of whom is a lawyer. Basically, the first guy say his company hadn't paid him for over a month, even though he was supposed to get salary money weekly. He'd kept working because he liked the job and his boss had promised to get him his money. He was asking the lawyer what to do.
The lawyer said he'd seen a few such cases, and the thing to do was to stop turning up to work until the payments started coming through again.
"My general advice to clients in these sorts of cases," he said, "is that the first thing you should do when you find yourself in a hole, is stop digging."
This excellent suggestion applies to so many fields, that it's worth committing to memory. One of the core weaknesses many people have in modern culture is their refusal to cut their losses. Source after source - from Hollywood, to teachers, to self-help gurus - tell us how abhorrent it is to be a "quitter".
In many cases it's true that you shouldn't give up too early. But at the same time, it's a wise person who realizes when their efforts are futile.
The idea that those who keep sailing ahead despite all odds and "damn the torpedoes" are the most successful is a seductive one, and it has a certain element of truth to it. But at the same time, successful people also know when the best path is to quit. It's simply not true that being a "quitter" is synonymous with being a "loser" in every single case. It's time that myth was shattered.
A few years back, I had a friend who'd put a lot of effort into building up a small tech business. He'd invested over $100,000 and two years of his life into the business. The product sounded compelling and he was clearly dedicated.
Yet despite having a working version of his software, and a small and talented sales team, he'd failed to sell even a single copy. Regardless of the cleverness of his product, it was clear that the market wasn't ready for it. Yet my friend kept driving forward, spending money and time on trying to build his company.
Eventually, financial necessity caused him to close the business down. By that stage he was in a lot of debt and had blown his life savings. Yet, the writing was on the wall at least 12 months before this occurred. He just couldn't face the fact that he'd failed, and drove himself onward even though it seemed highly unlikely he would succeed.
Many relationships also follow this pattern. Despite the fact that the love is clearly gone, both parties push on in the futile hope that something will revive it. They do this despite the fact that they are clearly wasting time and energy and would be better off just looking for someone else.
Investors are another group who often must learn this lesson the hard way. When the prospects for their investment seem bleak, and it's clear that putting in more money is just throwing good after bad, they are reluctant to crystalize their losses.
In each case, people know they're in a hole from which escape will be hard, yet they continue frantically digging as if their life depended on it.
At the same time, truly successful people quit all the time. Big successful companies drop products that aren’t selling; smart investors sell investments they’ve lost money on; and happy people know when to give up on a destructive relationship.
It's a myth that stubborn determination is the only path to success. It is shrewd use of resources that often makes the difference. And it's not always clear up front where those resources should be put.
There's a fine line between pursuing the love of your life, and becoming a stalker. And another fine line between not giving up on a business, and running fast into bankruptcy.
There's no shame in quitting when it's clearly the best path to take. Even if that quitting means taking a loss, it can be preferable to continuing on and taking larger losses later or missing out on other opportunities.
Have the strength to continue even when the obstacles are difficult, much as our culture urges. But at the same time, have the wisdom to realize when you're in a hole and it's time to stop digging.
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