The Tim Ferriss Show | When to Quit — Lessons from World-Class Entrepreneurs, Investors, Authors
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The Tim Ferriss Show | Episode 254 | When to Quit‚Ää‚Äî‚ÄäLessons from World-Class Entrepreneurs, Investors, Authors, and More
[00:03:55] Hello, boys and girls, ladies and germs, this is Tim Ferriss and welcome to another episode of the Tim Ferriss Show where it is my job to tease out the habits, tools, tactics, routines, favorite breakfasts of some of the world‚Äôs greatest performers whether they are leaders, athletes business icons, chess prodigies, military strategists, or fill in the blank your favorite category.
This particular episode is one I am very excited about. It is an experimental format. It does not focus on the lessons of one particular person; instead, it shares the tips and tricks of multiple people on one topic. So you consider this the first ever roundtable conversation on this podcast. Now, I would love your feedback so please let me know on Twitter @tFerriss, T-F-E-R-R-I-S-S, what do you think of this, 0 to 10 how much do you like it, what would you change, etc. And here‚Äôs how it came about. Some time ago, I prompted subscribers to my 5 Bullet Friday newsletter, which is free. Every Friday, I sent out a very short email with 5 bullets of things that I am reading or that I‚Äôve discovered experimenting with, etc. It could include supplements, articles, books, who knows? I find a lot of weird stuff that I end up enjoying and if you want check that out, you can sign up, it‚Äôs always free. It is just tim.blog/Friday, so check it out, tim.blog/Friday. And I solicited questions, these were up voted and one of the most up voted questions was one that I struggled with, and this is from JF Curns, here‚Äôs the question, ‚ÄúWhere‚Äôs the line between stubbornly pursuing an idea which isn‚Äôt working and the patience and persistence needed to actually make it work?‚Äù In other words, when should you give up versus when should you push on?
And I thought about how I would answer this and I realized I actually struggle with this, so rather than make up some bullshit and just play that off and give my own response, why don‚Äôt I reach out to a number of people I think would have better answers to this? And that‚Äôs exactly what I did. So I took that question and I sent it to a number of friends of mine and past guests on the podcast and they dug into it. So when should you quit? When should you persist? When do you know if an idea, or how do you know if an idea is a bad idea that just isn‚Äôt going to work versus a good idea that you haven‚Äôt made work yet? So, the first person we‚Äôre going to start off with is Scott Belsky, he is an investor and entrepreneur best known, perhaps, for co creating Behance, an online portfolio platform. In 2010, Belsky was included in Fast Company‚Äôs 100 most creative people in business list. Then, you‚Äôll learn from 17 time, I think it is, best-selling author Seth Godin and then we have hedge fund manager, author, entrepreneur James Altucher; Debbie Millman, who‚Äôs episode on this podcast is still one of the most downloaded of all time; Adam Robinson, the co-founder of the Princeton Review and adviser to some of the masters of the universe out there and then we have the incredible photographer and also CEO Chase Jarvis, and many more.
So, I am excited about this, I hope you enjoy it. Let me know what you think of this format @tFerriss, on Twitter. One quick house cleaning point, this is very, very important for any of you who receive 5 Bullet Friday or subscribe to any of my email. Here it is, I clean my email list every 6 months so that email service providers know I‚Äôm only emailing people who really want what I am sending because you gotta remember, it‚Äôs not the size of the list that counts, it‚Äôs how you use it. So, if you subscribe to any my email and you want to keep receiving them, please open a recent message from me and click on any of the links within, doesn‚Äôt matter which. I‚Äôm gonna be doing a big purge soon, getting rid of people who have been getting a lot of emails and not opening any of them because it‚Äôs just crowding up your inbox and it‚Äôs a waste of everyone‚Äôs time. So, I‚Äôll be doing a bitch, big, I‚Äôm doing a bitch purge. That‚Äôs not what I was gonna say. I‚Äôll be doing a big purge soon, getting rid of people who are not opening email and removing folks from the list. So, if you are interested in still getting those, please just open one of my email, doesn‚Äôt really matter, a recent one, and click on any link and that will keep you subscribed and if you‚Äôre interested in checking out what more than, uh, I suppose at this point around a million people get every Friday, check out 5 Bullet Friday at tim.blog/Friday.
Okay, back to the episode, this one covers a wide range of stories and lessons and will ultimately, I hope, help you determine when to keep pushing forward and separate that from when it is wise to quit. And I did this one for myself as well, so enjoy.
[00:08:41] Hey, Tim. It is Scott Belsky, entrepreneur and investor, responding to your question about when to keep going and when to call it quits. I‚Äôve been thinking about it, there are many times in the middle of any bold journey where the ambiguity and the self-doubt and endless iteration get you down and really make you question, uh, everything. It‚Äôs especially hard before you have any customers before anyone even knows what you‚Äôre building. I always like to say that, uh, anonymity is both a blessing and a bitch. It‚Äôs a blessing in that you can play and iterate as if nobody is watching, it is a bitch because nobody is watching because nobody cares. Every journey is like, to some extent. So you can‚Äôt quit because of it. Hardship means you may be doing something special and creating something defensible from competitors and copycats. The question, I think, is, is whether or not the difficulties are making you question your core assumptions and belief in the final vision or if they‚Äôre just getting you down.
I guess the trick is to separate the hardship in tough times from what you‚Äôre learning. If you‚Äôre learning that your assumptions were wrong, that customers don‚Äôt want your product and that you‚Äôre potentially building something, uh, you know, in the wrong space or just building the wrong thing, then you should ask yourself the classic question, knowing all you know now, would you pursue this, this project all over again? Would you invest the money and energy you have invested to get as far as you‚Äôve come in solving this problem? Or, knowing all you know now, would you just do something different? If you still believe in the vision, and well, impatient with progress and deflated by the process you still have conviction, then don‚Äôt quit; keep on trucking. You are just having some of those mid-journey blues. You know, society‚Äôs immune system is trying to squash you, don‚Äôt let it, keep going. But, uh, but if your answer is, ‚ÄúHell, no,‚Äù if you‚Äôre, if you‚Äôre, if you think, ‚ÄúJeez, you know, if I can go back before I got into this mess, there is no way I would head into this direction,‚Äù then ask yourself why are you still trying? Are there sunk costs keeping you from quitting? Are you overvaluing the plan you have only because of how much you‚Äôve invested in it so far? I have heard the human tendency behind this is referred to as divestiture aversion or, more simply, the endowment effect. You know, we have this tendency to disproportionately value things just because we own them, regardless of how you got them. And I think you‚Äôre liable to believe more in your vision and hold on dearly to the progress you‚Äôve made thus far because of all you‚Äôve invested in it.
I find the, uh, ‚Äúwinners never quit‚Äù mantra to be very elementary because I think it goes against what we‚Äôve learned from many successful startups that have pivoted from their original vision, you know, with great success‚Ää‚Äî‚ÄäTwitter, Pinterest, and Airbnb to name a few. If you‚Äôve lost conviction but refused to change because of past progress you‚Äôve made or past investments from others or just investments from yourself, then you‚Äôve become misaligned with your own vision. You‚Äôre officially doing things for the wrong reason.
So I guess to sum it up, if your conviction remains, if the vision is still something that gets you all giddy and teary eyed, don‚Äôt let the incremental obstacles and setbacks push you to quit. , you know, instead, use these periods to build muscle. Um, I remember and will never forget, even if I want to, uh, the bootstrapping years of Behance where I encountered this quite a bit. , you know, doing, uh, being just a, a few months away from running out of money and having tons of fits and starts because, honestly, didn‚Äôt have the right experience and expertise on our team to get it right the first time, we felt being done quite a bit. But the, the division of organizing the creative world‚Äôs work never got less interesting. You know, despite all these hardships, I don‚Äôt think we ever lost conviction in, you know, what that might look like, you know, and getting excited about it. So we just got tired and despondent a lot, uh, while trying to achieve it but we never, we never really lost that conviction. Um, so we didn‚Äôt quit, we just tried to learn how to become more resilient. You know, when we were low on cash, we tried to become more resourceful. We had a saying on our team, you know, whenever we wanted to hire new people, ‚ÄúRefactor, refactor, and then hire.‚Äù And we became super fucking resourceful as a small team and this definitely made us stronger. But, always keep asking yourself, ‚ÄúDo I still believe in the vision here?‚Äù Would you embark on the same journey if you knew everything, you know, that you know now? If the answer is no, save yourself the struggle by making an inflection sooner or quitting and trying something entirely new. Don‚Äôt just stick with it for the sake of it. Only put up and put in the hardship, uh, when you‚Äôve got enough conviction. Hope that‚Äôs helpful.
[00:13:24] Hey it‚Äôs Seth Godin and I might be the only person you know who‚Äôs written a bestselling book about quitting. It‚Äôs called The Dip and I‚Äôm gonna explain it to you now. There‚Äôre two big ideas and the first one is this, things that are scarce are more valuable and creating something that‚Äôs scarce is difficult because if it was easy, it wouldn‚Äôt be scarce. So, what we have is a situation where lots of people start a project and then, they hit the dip. The dip is the thing that makes that project worth doing in the first place. So, for example, consider the case of doctors. To be a doctor, you‚Äôve gotta go to the medical school and the dip in medical school is organic chemistry. Organic chemistry is designed to winnow out people who aren‚Äôt going to make it the rest of the way. If it weren‚Äôt for organic chemistry, there would be a lot more doctors and if there were a lot more doctors, being a doctor wouldn‚Äôt be as valuable. Or, consider the case of washboard abs. Many people aspire to have them, but they‚Äôre difficult to get. So lots and lots of people join the gym in January, to much glee and celebration, but by February, half of them have quit and by March, half of the rest have quit. Why? Because it‚Äôs hard. And the only people who get out at the end have made it through the dip because they didn‚Äôt quit.
So, the first lesson we take away from this is that it doesn‚Äôt make sense to repeatedly start projects and quit them in the dip because you‚Äôre wasting an enormous amount of time. If we think about it from the point of view of a company, a company like Amazon worth $7 trillion or whatever it is today, how many of you were their customer the first week or the first month or the first year or even the first decade? That what happens is, it‚Äôs fun to start a company because you‚Äôve got nothing but blue skies and then it gets difficult. In the case of Amazon, it got difficult when those headlines were Amazon.toast and it was never gonna work, but they persisted and they made it through the dip and came out on the other side. Their competitors didn‚Äôt have the temerity and the stamina to make it to the other side, that‚Äôs why it‚Äôs so valuable to be Amazon.
Okay, so I said that was the first thing. What‚Äôs the second thing? The second thing is that knowing the difference between a dip and a cul de sac or a dead end is critical because persistence alone doesn‚Äôt guarantee success. That persistence is one of the requirements, but so is a smart strategy and generosity [inaudible 00:16:10], so is doing something that might work. Too often, we find someone stuck in a cul de sac because they don‚Äôt have the guts to stop because they‚Äôre telling themselves the story that winners never quit and quitters never win, which is baloney. Everybody who‚Äôs a winner has also quit. You don‚Äôt see many high-powered, 50-year-old executives walking around in tutus. That‚Äôs because they took ballet when they were 4 but they quit. We don‚Äôt do everything forever; we have to give up some of those things to get the energy and the resources we need to get through to the other side of the dip.
So I think we can all agree that cigarette smoking is a dead end; that it leads to emphysema and death. It makes sense to quit, there is no dip when it comes to cigarette smoking. But it may also be said of your freelance career or it may also be said of this huge plan you have to change the world. And you‚Äôve gotten those emails as much as I have, Tim; those plans to change the world like a thresher through a wheat field, like a hot knife through butter, if only, if only, if only, if only and the poor person has been doing it for 7, 10, 12 years because they think they‚Äôre in a dip. They‚Äôre not; it‚Äôs a dead end. And how do you tell them apart?
Well, I am afraid I cannot give you a map, but I hope I can give you a compass. How do we tell them apart? We tell them apart by, first, understanding that someone else must‚Äôve gone down this road before us. The chances that you will be the first person, the first human to get through this particular dip are very, very low. So it makes sense to put your resources into projects where others, on similar projects, have gone through a dip. If there‚Äôs no one who has, then yes, go be a pioneer and I‚Äôm cheering for you, but it‚Äôs a low profile way to move forward.
The second thing is to ask yourself do you have more assets than you had a week ago or a year ago? Is it adding up? Is there forward motion? So back to the Amazon example, every day, Amazon had more customers than the day before, every single day. That‚Äôs forward motion. If, on the other hand, you‚Äôre living from paycheck to paycheck, from funding to funding, from short-term customer to short-term customer and it‚Äôs not adding up; then, you might be in a dead end not a dip.
So to summarize, and the book‚Äôs only 85 pages long, hope you‚Äôll check it out, but to summarize the book, it‚Äôs pretty simple. We know that Rogers adoption curve shows there is a big, fat middle if you can get to the chasm. That chasm feels like a dip, that chasm feels like that moment when you should quit because that‚Äôs when most people do quit, and the people push through it get to the other side where they are the best in the world. And being seen as being the best in the world, the best blogger, the best podcaster, the best, uh, online store, the best eyeglass maker, the best talent. Once you are seen as the best, you are rewarded by the search engines, you are rewarded by your customers, you are rewarded by the marketplace, but to get there, you must have the resources to make your way through the long and lonely dip. So, if you‚Äôre gonna start, understand it‚Äôs harder than you think. If you‚Äôre gonna start, commit to not quitting in the dip. And if you‚Äôre gonna start, practice understanding the difference between a dip and a dead end. Thanks for letting me chime in, Tim.
[00:19:53] Hey, this is James Altucher and you can find me, or at least the cyborg part of me, at JamesAltucher.com and then there‚Äôs links to me at Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and all sorts of other fun places. This is such a fascinating question, Tim, because it‚Äôs not as if people should quit or it‚Äôs not as if I have quit things that are going bad and stuck with things that are going good. There‚Äôs really 3 types of situations and 2 things that can happen in each situation. So, uh, there are things that are going bad that you should stick with, there are things that are going bad you should abandon, there are things that are going neutral which you should abandon and there are things that are going good, and even great, which you can either abandon or persist and step on the accelerator of. So I‚Äôm gonna give some examples and actually, I‚Äôm gonna start, I‚Äôm gonna start at the top.
So, I‚Äôve been in several situations that were going absolutely great and fantastic and those were important situations for me to abandon. And a classic example, before I get to me, a classic example is Jerry Seinfeld. So, GE, General Electric, offered Seinfeld $100 million bonus if he would just do another season of Seinfeld at the end of his run and he still said, ‚ÄúNo.‚Äù So Howard Stern asked him, ‚ÄúHow could you do that, Jerry? The entire country wanted you to do another season and you were offered $100 million. How can you say no to that?‚Äù And Jerry Seinfeld said, ‚ÄúUh, Howard, that‚Äôs why those people are not writing the best show on television and I am, because I know exactly when to quit.‚Äù Sometimes when things are going very well, every project in the world has a half-life, every brand, every personality, the sales of every book or movie or business, everything at some point has a half-life where it starts to decline after that and you could say, ‚ÄúOkay, well, I‚Äôm gonna diversify revenue sources or I‚Äôm gonna find other things to do.‚Äù But one thing is for sure, is that when things are going great, often at the peak, when things are, feel so good, you can‚Äôt imagine how they can possibly go bad, that‚Äôs the exact time you need to say, ‚ÄúYou know what? I need to diversify my life or I need to stop this at the top and pursue other creative or entrepreneurial pursuits or I need to expand my life in other ways instead of continuing, you know, this thing that I, that I‚Äôve built up and I feel so good about. Now is the time where I can be proud of what I‚Äôve done and it‚Äôs time to move on.‚Äù
So in my very first business that I sold, we were growing really fast, I was, I was building websites for mostly entertainment companies. So we did the websites for just about every record label, uh, Bad Boy Records, Loud records, Interscope, Jive and so on, we did, uh, HBO.com, Miramax.com, New Line, uh, tons of movie websites, band websites and so on. We were doing great, we were growing, you know, 100% or 200% year over year and yet, I had this sense that I didn‚Äôt really know what was going to happen in the next phase of the internet and we had, I, I didn‚Äôt know if I needed to build, uh, more software skills among my employees or more strategic skills among my employees and I felt the ability to make websites was gonna get commoditized. And we had such a great brand at that point and everybody was making an offer to acquire us. My own partners felt, ‚ÄúYou know what, maybe we should keep on hitting the accelerator and grow as much as we can,‚Äù but I felt, you know what, if they‚Äôre, if they‚Äôre learning how to build websites in junior high school, something‚Äôs going wrong. And so, we sold at the top of our game and I‚Äôm glad we did because two years later or a year and a half later, the, the internet bust happened. And there was no way to predict that, I could have sold maybe at the very last minute, there was no way to predict, but sometimes you want to just sell or change gears at the top. When you‚Äôve learned everything you feel, you, you could have learned at that phase, when you‚Äôve been through the steepest part of the learning curve and now it‚Äôs, the slope is very flat and it‚Äôs very difficult to learn new things, you can even say, ‚ÄúOkay, well, I‚Äôm gonna try really hard and pour all my energy into learning, getting incrementally better at something.‚Äù Or, ‚ÄúI could be proud of what I did, start a new project at the bottom of a learning curve and begin again.‚Äù And so that‚Äôs not always the best answer but it‚Äôs a perfectly valid answer to, to abandon something that‚Äôs doing great.
Now other times, you might say, ‚ÄúWell, we‚Äôre continuing to grow, we‚Äôre continuing to serve people, I have a very clear vision of what the future holds, I have so many ideas of what can happen next,‚Äù like with my own, with my own writing for instance. I always have ideas of directions I want my writing to continue, so even though I might not always write in the same genre, I always just love writing, this is a personal passion I feel, so that when I do it, I feel this nice feeling in my chest when, when I do it and I feel good about it. Doesn‚Äôt matter the genre, sometimes I switch that, but I always feel good and I always want to learn more and more about writing because I, I personally love it so much and I feel it delivers value not just to myself but to an audience. Because everything you do has to have an audience; you can‚Äôt think of just yourself, you have to determine also, ‚ÄúAm I delivering value for others?‚Äù And you get feedback on that and other people will tell you.
So, how does this apply, for instance, to the Seinfeld situation? Clearly, he was getting feedback that his show was great and he was at the top of his game, he was super creative but he had basically run out of ideas to continue his show about nothing and he had that sense then, he was hitting a wall that he had never experienced before so he decided to abandon it. Whereas for me, right now, with something like writing, I can see 10 different directions it can go, I can picture the future a little bit about what directions I can go on for the next one, two, three years so it‚Äôs something I continue.
Now, the other thing, what about if something is only going okay; it‚Äôs not bad and it‚Äôs not great? It feels like you should persist because it‚Äôs going well and you may, and let‚Äôs say you‚Äôre making money and you‚Äôre feeling creative and people are noticing. When do you persist and when you abandon? So here‚Äôs a small example, I was doing a podcast for a little over a year; we did 177 episodes; it was called Question of the Day. In fact, a young man by the name of Tim Ferriss was a guest host on the podcast. My co-host on the podcast was Stephen Dubner, who was the co-writer of, uh, a little-known book called Freakonomics, and we were having success; we were the number one podcast in iTunes when we launched and we were getting a good, we were always in the top 100 or so, we were getting a good amount of downloads per month, we were making, uh, very nice profit on advertising, we did some live events that were fun and were, were sold out and we were, and Steven and I are good friends, we were having just fun getting together and joking around for a few hours every day while being recorded.
So everything was going well but, the number of downloads that we were getting, and this is almost a meaningless metric in every other case, but the number of downloads was not going up. It wasn‚Äôt going down nor was it bad, it was enough to create a profitable business for everyone and to pay some employees and to take care of the people selling ads for us. So it was a great little business, it was a fun, creative podcast, it was with my friends, we had many great guest hosts including, uh, you know, of course Tim Ferriss, uh, Brian Koppelman, the director of, uh, or the writer and creator of Billions and Rounders and, and other movies; uh, Marina Franklin, who‚Äôs one of my favorite comedians; we had all these great guest host, AJ Jacobs. We had so much fun doing it and yet, it didn‚Äôt feel like something we should persist with because we knew the podcast audience, in general, was going up for, for the world and we were wondering why are our downloads were not going down but they weren‚Äôt going up either. So we felt like something was wrong. And after 177 episodes, we only had so many Questions of the Day left and meanwhile, it was taking a lot of creative effort away from our other projects, for instance our own individual podcasts, our writing, our other business endeavors. I miss doing the podcast, it was great, it was fun, it was successful in terms of, of profits, but it wasn‚Äôt going up. And sometimes, to feed that extra bit of creativity, you need to have a sense that you‚Äôre improving at what you do. And so even though there was no complaint and no criticism and everything was fine, we decided to give it up.
Now, sometimes when you are learning and you feel like, ‚ÄúOh, I‚Äôm learning really hard. I, I love playing golf but I‚Äôm stuck at a, uh, a 5 handicap,‚Äù sometimes, you‚Äôre at the top end of a learning curve where the subtleties of improvement are so nuanced that it becomes very difficult, every little millimeter of improvement that you have. And yet, because you‚Äôve learned, at this point, to appreciate those subtleties, that even though it feels like everything is going flat, it‚Äôs those moments when you should persist the most because every little improvement you have will feel so incredibly good. And I have felt this, not only in business and in writing but even in games like chess where I‚Äôm, uh, a, a tournament chess player and I constantly seek to improve and I‚Äôm already at a high ranking so every little improvement that I notice feels so pleasurable to me that I get to another level. That even though it‚Äôs not like I improve a lot, I, it just betters my life to see myself improve at that level. And there, there‚Äôs many areas that I, I feel the same way, that I persist with.
Now, what about when something is going poorly? There‚Äôs many reasons why something could be going poorly. It could be nobody likes what you do, it could be that your partners, uh, in something are no good or you don‚Äôt enjoy being around them, it could be that, financially, you can‚Äôt seem to figure it out, either you‚Äôre not, uh, making a profit or you‚Äôre not raising money or you‚Äôre not getting customers. So, this obviously, it seems like most of the time, you should abandon that situation and I would agree with that. If you‚Äôre, if you‚Äôre running a business and no customers like what you do, there‚Äôs a very big danger, uh, smoking your own crack. That because you, you think‚Ä¶ It‚Äôs a cognitive bias, that because you put so much time and effort and energy into thinking of the idea and building the idea or the product or the service, you think this must be good. Your brain tells would not have wasted that time on a bad idea, but the reality is you always have to take a step back, and this is really important, I, I‚Äôve had to do this on, on every business I‚Äôve ever been involved with, both good and bad, you always have to take a step back and say, ‚ÄúAm I smoking crack about my own idea?‚Äù Or, ‚ÄúShould I put this down and move on to the next idea?‚Äù And, and often, just asking that question every day and being very analytical about it, uh, and, and determining what metrics you‚Äôre gonna use to judge success in advance and seeing if you‚Äôre meeting those metrics, that will tell you very clearly whether you should abandon something.
So there was one period where I created several different websites at the same time, this is in the mid-‚Äô00s, to see if I should con-, if there‚Äôs a, a business in any of these. And 9 of the websites I created, no matter what I did, no matter what marketing I did, I just could not generate any traffic and even members of my own family were telling me, ‚ÄúYou know what? I would never use this website you‚Äôve created.‚Äù Finally, I created a website, stockpicker.com, which, it, it combined various levels of my, uh, my interests in finance, my interest in software, my interest in, uh, writing and combined them all together in one site, uh, and it was almost like this idea sex that created this one business idea. Within a month or so, I had millions of users, I had ads, everything. So I‚Äôm glad I very quickly abandoned, um, the first 9 ideas so I could focus on the tenth idea. So you have to recognize very quickly when something‚Äôs, A, not working out and, B, not worth persisting in.
Now, other times, something might not be working out. Uh, so a recent example is I have been involved in a great business, but it wasn‚Äôt working out for me. I was having a problem with one of my partners. No, nobody‚Äôs fault, it‚Äôs just sometimes two people don‚Äôt get along for various reasons or, uh, one person‚Äôs busy on other projects while the other person wants to remain focused on the project in front of them, and so it wasn‚Äôt working out for me this bus- and I really felt like this business is not working out, it‚Äôs going to cause a lot of problems for me, uh, personally and, and financially and so I, I did consider abandoning it. But what I did was I persisted just a little bit and I said, ‚ÄúYou know what? At the very least, let me explore buying this partner out.‚Äù And so, I pitched the business and all the numbers and everything to about five different people, uh, or companies. Three were interested, one did the deal and now I have a great partner, a thriving business more profitable than ever, and it was an example of where something was not working out, in fact, it was just a personal disaster in many ways, and it ended up, through a certain amount of persistence, and now I