Here in much of the US we’re encouraged to buy into the “Keep going” myth. We respect people who remain consistent and don’t change their minds.
In particular, let’s say you’re moving in a certain direction in your business or personal life. You’re not successful. You keep throwing money and energy at the problem and you’re not getting anywhere. But you’ve been advised, “Don’t quit. Hang in there.”
Psychological researcher Barry Staw has studied the phenomenon, known as “Escalation of Commitment.” For a good discussion, you can read this article.
You probably realize this is happening when you hear about people who are gambling in a casino. They place a bet. And they lose. They place three more bets. They get a win! Yay! Now they want to keep going.
It’s not as obvious when this sequence happens in a business or career. In their book, Quitting, Peg Streep and Alan Bernstein describe a woman who opens a small store. Each month she loses money. Every so often, customers come and she might even see a little profit. Celebration time! And then it’s back to the losing cycle.
Most people aren’t aware of this pattern and certainly don’t see it as a growth opportunity. One reason is, we just don’t hear many “pull the plug” stories.We’re more likely to hear stories like the one in Business Storytelling For Dummies, by Karen Dietz and Lori L. Silverman. We meet a woman who’s determined to pass the California driving test. She spends years and hundreds of dollars trying to pass the test and finally she does. That type of story gets presented as inspirational and, for many people, it should be.
But we don’t hear stories like this one:
“Jane tried to pass the California driving test. After the fourth try, she made a decision. She didn’t need to drive. She didn’t want to spend more time and energy fighting the system.
“She reviewed her options. She found a list of communities where she wouldn’t need a car, she could get things delivered and she could enjoy an occasional splurge by hiring a car service to go to a special event. Her car service for a year would be less than the cost of insurance alone.
“So Jane moved to San Francisco, where she rides Muni and BART. She’s found a way to work from home so her quality of life is better than it would be if she’d kept trying to pass that test.”
Of course Jane’s solution wouldn’t work for everyone … but that’s the point of using stories. They’re unique to the circumstances. They’re open to interpretation.
A second version of the pull-the-plug story might be called the “you can go home again” story. It goes like this:
“Jim decided to start a business. After six months, he realized he really, really missed corporate life.
“He negotiated with his former employer, who missed him equally. He returned to his company on very good terms.
“But a year later, Jim looked back on his business differently. From the vantage point of a year, he saw the mistakes he’d made. He started a new business as a side hustle, and a year later, resumed his entrepreneurial career. Today he’s expanded and has earned considerable success in his field.”
Stories like this are more common than many people realize. To take a strong example, The US military academies are notoriously competitive and hard to enter. Yet many cadets, despite the exhausting admission process, realize they’ve made a mistake. They resign and go home. Some just respond to the pressure of the environment, but others go through a genuine self-discovery process.
However, sometimes there’s another twist to the story. The cadet says, “Quitting was a mistake. I want to go back.” And depending on circumstances, some do return and finish with distinction. Recently I read about a cadet who quit after the first year, then finished college elsewhere. He returned to the service academy and went on to a celebrated career as a general in the US Army.
Frankly these stories surprised me. But when you think about it, they apply to many areas of business.
“Justine signed up for Marvin’s high-end training program. At first she was enthusiastic, but she began to believe she made a mistake. She applied for a refund. Although she didn’t quite meet the requirements for a refund, Marvin graciously returned all her money, with a nice friendly note wishing her well. “If you never need anything,” he wrote, “we’ll be here.”
“Marvin understood the story, “You can go home again.”
“Sure enough, a few months later, Justine came across some of Marvin’s training programs on a different topic, in a different venue. This time, her business was in a new place and so was her mindset. Justine ended up spending almost as much on Marvin’s other products as she’d gotten in the refund. She also became an affiliate and brought Marvin even more new customers.”
It’s important to note that Justine wasn’t in the business of gaining refunds by fraud. She bought and kept many, many products. But just as in the service academies – on a vastly different scale – you sometimes need to experience something to know whether you want it.
So…what about you? Do you have a “pull the plug” story or a “can go home again” story?
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