Five Ways to Overcome the Folly of Perseverance
Bad ideas were good once but nothing always works.
Quitters never win. At least that’s what we think.
The danger of perseverance is
it’s virtuous but not always wise.
Thomas Edison famously said, “Many of life’s failures are men who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”
Don’t let Edison’s statement drive you along a losing course.
Why we persevere when we should quit:
- Self-confidence. Leaders persist when they should adapt because of perceived competence. “I can make it work.”
- Progress. A little progress is a dangerous thing.
- Hope. “Hope is the worst of evils, for it prolongs the torment of man.” Friedrich Nietzsche.
- Success in the past.
- Fear of failure.
Bonus: The value of past effort drives people to commit more effort in the present, sunk cost.
How to quit:
- Adapting isn’t giving up. Stay focused on big goals while adjusting methods.
- Define failure, as well as success, before beginning.
- Ask, “What would new leaders do?” Then, do it.
- Invite feedback from outsiders. You don’t see what others see.
- Believe self-confidence may lead you astray.
Bonus: Never let the fear of failure and losing face make you foolish. Humble yourself.
Why do leaders hang on too long?
How can leaders learn to let go of things that aren’t working?
This one is so tricky. I agree with you… and it’s tough to know. Am I quitting or am i making space to do something magnificent?
Yes indeed. That’s why I brought it up.. 🙂 It’s a tough one.
Dan, I appreciate your post. “Judgment” comes into play here, knowing when to stop is difficult… Asking “What would new leaders do?” may not be adequate! There is an upside to the experience component that says that there are things worth hanging on for. Judgment provides a pathway that may answer “Is this me centered, or mission centered?”
Thanks for adding the me vs. mission centered idea. I find it helpful.
Neitzshe was wrong on a lot of things! Hope is the one thing that moves people forward! You missed on this one.
Frankly if Hewlett and Packard had taken your advice we would not have a number of advancements in technical fields. Start-ups start on the basis of hope.
That’s what makes this so hard.
Hope can make us persist where we should quit. I think everyone agrees that not everything works out. Sometimes we should cut our loses.
I love the quote. “A leader is a dealer in hope.”
I find the topic devilishly challenging.
“Hope is the one thing that moves people forward.” Really, sounds like a recent campaign slogan to me.
Lauren, I have had the pleasure of working for and with inventors, scientists, and entrepreneurs throughout my career and I cannot recall any of them counting on or relying upon “Hope” as an ingredient in their quest for success. All of them embraced failure as the inspiration for their success, not hope.
Regarding Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, I cannot imagine them working at their bench in their Palo Alto garage “Hoping” their first product, the audio oscillator, would work.
I am not a fan of Friedrich Nietzsche, but on this one, we would have to agree to disagree. Nietzsche nailed “Hope” in this quote.
For me, “Hope” is a paralyzing emotion that leads to complete inaction and intense frustration followed by anger. In short, “Hope” becomes the emotional excuse for inaction.
This is a tough topic! I wrote on it awhile ago. (http://wp.me/p2P6Zt-jX). It would be interesting to hear stories about when our heroes, business or otherwise, chose to quit on something. With our focus on persevere, persevere, persevere, we don’t hear those stories and yet I find it hard to believe they never quite on anything, ever. Quitting does not mean giving up on hope, dreams, vision .. it means being willing to step back, evaluate and recognize when a different path is necessary.
Thanks Laurie. Love the idea that quitting isn’t giving up…its choosing a different path.
“How can leaders learn to let go of things that aren’t working?”
By not attaching their self-worth to what they’re doing and if something isn’t working it doesn’t mean anything about who they are.
By being humble enough to realize when it’s wise to change a strategy and even to change a destination!
By welcoming feedback because it’s an opportunity to broaden their point of view.
By understanding that they don’t have all the answers.
By admitting that this doesn’t happen only to “them”. It also happens with “us”. Me.
Thank you for reminding me Dan!
KaPow! Thanks man.
For me, your first observation is challenging. I tie self-worth to success so I must persist…if you know what I mean.
Reminds me of a book written by Seth Godin called *The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick)*. The title says it all.
Dan does it in 300 words or less, but for those who want more…
Thanks for mentioning Godin’s book, The Dip. Good resource.
I think leaders hold on too long for all the reasons that you have stated. What has worked in the past, most think should logically work now. Sadly, that it no longer true. The world continues to change at an increasingly rapid pace.
They hold on because of fear of failure. But I think worse than that, they are afraid of being seen as a failure or called a failure. We have all been vistims of the adage that “you are only as good as your last win.”
We move forward by surrounding ourselves with people who share the broader vision, can bring some fresh ideas to the table and can speak into our lives and remind us that it is time to let go.
Good post, as always.
I always appreciate your contribution. This one is a gem!
The changing world demands leaders change/adapt…shift direction.
It’s ALL about the people…fabulous
Perseverance is an important cognitive competency in the safety and health professions, but too often S&H pros invest so much emotional capital into a particular program that they cannot walk away from it. Reason, it took so much energy to gain approval for their program in the first place that they cannot afford to shut it down out of fear they won’t be able to secure approval for a replacement initiative or they will lose face.
I am working with a client that has bought hook, line and sinker into behavior-based safety that he cannot see the folly in his program. Injury rates have skyrocketed to include several fatalities, so in response management has ordered supervisors to do behavior-based observations twice a day versus once per week.
Reminds of when Russ Ackoff said to me regarding a similar project, “management is trapped in the paradigm of doing the wrong thing righter and thinking it is making a difference.”
Reminds me of Ben Bernanke and his “Quantitative Easing.”
Reminds me of the quote, “Hey, Charlie? Let me ask you something. What is it that’s not exactly water, and it ain’t exactly earth?” Leaders may be too busy on the ground level powering the two man cart before they missed the tracks sinking under the quicksand.
It’s the dance of maintaining the vision of the event horizon while still tending to the here and now and particularly noting that your path has gone and went.
Terrific Post…one of my favorites. You are so right about the need to have humility!
I call this the “Captain Ahab” syndrome of business owners..they “persevere” in something that is not working, just for the sake of perseverance. I actually wrote a BLOG about this called “Why You May be Running Your Business Like Captain Ahab” 🙂
Would also suggest that ‘timing’ and ‘pace’ are two elements often undervalued and even overlooked by leadership when perseveratively pushing with a sense of (false) urgency. And perseverative groupthink is just as dangerous–see Motorola Iridium.
Interesting that to ‘persevere’ is often a valued trait, yet being perseverative, not so much.
– Adapting isn’t giving up. Stay focused on big goals while adjusting methods. ( … goals encapsulate our hopes)
– Define failure, as well as success, before beginning.
– Ask, “What would new leaders do?” Then, do it. (and hope that they know something that you don’t)
– Invite feedback from outsiders. You don’t see what others see. (…again hope that others can see what you may have missed)
– Believe self-confidence may lead you astray…. and that your definition of failure in point#2 may need to be changed.
What I really wanted to say was … hope is an essential mark of a leader, without hope you cannot be a leader.
The first point you made about “how to quit” reminded me of the difference between a “plan” and “purpose”. Your purpose is your end goal, what you want to accomplish. A plan is how you get there. Once you have decided what your purpose is stick to that, but how you get there may and probably will change over time. Being adaptable to changing circumstances helps you to be a good leader.
This is enlightening but to me We need hope in everything that we do. Hope inspires.
As long as hope doesn’t keep people doing things they should stop, I’m in.
This post hit home for me. I think knowing when to quit applies as much to relationships as it does to tasks. Often, in our highest ‘hopes’ of making things work, we subject ourselves to anguish and pain that could have been avoided if we would have acknowledged at some point along the way, that paths diverge or we were simply incompatible.
In the process, we often fracture relationships beyond the point of repair, when we could have simply taken inventory and made a decision to move on for the greater good of all.
It takes a great deal of maturity and humility to admit things just didn’t work out as we initially intended.
Thanks for the conversation.
Nice post (yet again). I guess there is a world of difference between the leader who perseveres ‘blindly’ – in the face of obvious failure. (perhaps summed up by Einstein’s famous definition of Insanity -: “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.) – and one who believes that the end vision is still worth going for but recognises that he may need to ‘adapt’ the approach.
Ask, “What would new leaders do?” Then, do it. That says it all.
Great article. I see the balance. Many people fall on one of the extreme sides of this., in that they quit many things…often. At the first sign of difficulty or opposition, they close up shop and bolt. Others are always quitting for the greener grass. Then there are the people who never know when to cut their loses as you said, and move on. Either way, maybe we need to redefine quitting. If God would have you move on then maybe we should call that surrendering & obeying Him, instead of quitting. Regardless, we should never try to give life to something that God is trying to kill or kill something that He is trying to give life to.
Dan, the piece I think you missed is taking some time to clear your head and connect with your core, then ask your inner wisdom for input. Sometimes it is a huge relief to quit something that’s going nowhere; sometimes it’s equally clear that it’s not yet time to give up (but maybe it is time to let go — paradoxically waiting can sometimes move a stalled initiative forward in unexpected ways). But to me, what leaders do best is learn to tap their intuition and inner knowing, so they can bring to the situation the “magic” that only they can bring. If you’re busy trying to figure out what someone else would do, you’re trying to tap their “magic”, not your own, which in my books means you’re a follower, not a leader. (not that following is bad, but it’s important to know which you’re doing…)