When I first started my business, a common piece of advice was, “Whatever you do, don’t quit. Often you find success right after you’re ready to throw in the towel.”
All too often, I kept hearing references to that iconic children’s story, “The Little Engine That Could?”
A little train that wants to deliver presents over a hill. But who will pull the train? A large, sleek engine turns down the job. Then this little engine agrees to pull the train. All the way up a steep hill, the engine keeps saying, “I think I can. I think I can.” And sure enough, the train gets over the hill and delivers toys, earning gratitude and cheers for persistence and determination.
Children who read this story are supposed to be inspired to be persistent and optimistic. They’re supposed to take on seemingly insurmountable challenges.
But sometimes it makes more sense to say, “No, thanks. Pulling that train is not something I choose to do right now.” After all, pulling a big load with a small engine can have disastrous consequences.
Mike, a keynote speaker told a story that was intended to be motivational. He hired a trainer to help him get back in shape. Soon afterward, his trainer encouraged him to go on a ten-mile hike, in the country, with some hills and valleys on the way.
Mike arrived wearing running shoes, not hiking boots. His feet began to hurt and he was soon sore all over. But, he said, he wouldn’t quit. He wouldn’t admit the challenge was too much for him.
And that, he said, is the lesson we should take away. Never quit, even if you’re feeling sore.
I told Mike’s story to Carl, a trainer at my gym.
Mike’s trainer is an idiot,” said Carl.”I wouldn’t take someone on a long hike. I’d start with smaller hikes. I’d wait till he had worked with me awhile and built up some leg strength. And for sure I’d be very clear on boots and equipment. This guy Mike could have been seriously hurt.”
We don’t hear “I choose not to” stories very often.
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 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.”
Angela Duckworth describes this ideal combination of passion and perseverance as grit – the notion that success comes from sticking with your future, day in and day out..sometimes for years. Grittier kids are more likely to graduate from schools, win spelling bees, and stick it out at the US Military Academy.
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. This woman is hooked on store ownership; every day she’s open she might as well be pulling the lever on a slot machine.
Where are the “Pull the Plug” stories?
There’s nothing wrong with grit, passion, perseverance or persistence. The challenge comes in deciding when to persist and when to pull the plug.
Most people aren’t aware of this pattern and certainly don’t see it as an opportunity for personal growth. 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,. We meet a woman who’s determined to pass the California driving test. Driving just isn’t her thing. 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 could apply her talents — not to mention her time and money — in more constructive directions.
“She reviewed her options. She made 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.
“You Can Go Home Again”
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 missed corporate life. He missed colleagues, coffee breaks, expense account travel…and yes, even his boss.
“Jim 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. Now he saw the mistakes he’d made. He started a new business as a side hustle. When the time was right, he left corporate life to resume his entrepreneurial career. Today he’s expanded and has earned considerable success in his field.”
“Going Home Again” stories are more common than most people realize.
The US military academies are notoriously competitive. 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 soon 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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