The Big Dip: Ten Questions with Seth Godin
Seth Godin provided me with a copy of his new book, The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick), and I think it will definitely get people to think about life. To give you a taste of what’s in the book, here’s an interview with Seth about the topics of perseverance and quitting.
Question: Other than hindsight, how does someone know when it’s time to quit?
Answer: It’s time to quit when you secretly realize you’ve been settling for mediocrity all along. It’s time to quit when the things you’re measuring aren’t improving, and you can’t find anything better to measure.
Smart quitters understand the idea of opportunity cost. The work you’re doing on project X right now is keeping you from pushing through the Dip on project Y. If you fire your worst clients, if you quit your deadest tactics, if you stop working with the people who return the least, then you free up an astounding number of resources. Direct those resources at a Dip worth conquering and your odds of success go way up.
What’s the worst time to quit? When the pain is the greatest. Decisions made during great pain are rarely good decisions.
Question: If I’m in the middle of a dip, how do I know if it’s worth gutting it out toget to the other side?
Answer: The best time to ask this question is before you hit the Dip. Smart people can see Dips in advance and plan for them. If you want to be a doctor, the time to decide is before you get to the organic chemistry midterm, not while you’re taking it.
In picking a Dip, you need to think about two things: First, do you have the resources to get through it; second, is it worth what it will take? If your goal is to build a top 50 blog, you need to consider what that will take in terms of time and effort and money and what you’ll get if you succeed. If your goal is to displace Microsoft Word as the industry-standard word processor, the Dip is a whole lot bigger. The reward might be too, but you need to figure it out before you invest.
Question: Is there a place for the intrinsic value of learning a skill—for example, playing hockey or the violin—even though you know you won’t be the best in the world?
Answer: Mastery is an addiction. Most people never master anything and never experience the thrill of being on the other side of the Dip. As a result, they don’t seek out new opportunities for mastery. I hope that as parents, we can do a better job of teaching kids this habit.
As for being “best in the world,” it doesn’t have to mean you play like Joshua Bell. The world can be whatever world your market chooses from. The best acupuncturist in town or the best $45 shoes ever made.
Of course there’s room for passion—for doing stuff because you love it. I hope that my book doesn’t dissuade a single person from playing the violin for love. But my book is about investment and effort, in doing things not just for the pleasure of doing them but because you expect something in return.
Question: What if the market is not established so there’s no way to know if it even exists and if it’s worth dedicating/rededicating to?
Answer: Here’s the art of being an entrepreneur. There are almost no established Dips that are available to a big-time visionary entrepreneur. Instead, this kind of entrepreneur creates a new one—a new market, a new challenge, a new mastery. Part of the work of the successful venture capitalist is to imagine life after the Dip. For example, to fund Google because inventing a search site that dominates the market creates a new Dip, not because Yahoo can be replaced.
Question: How can a company quit a product and not give the incorrect signal that it’s quitting the market?
Answer: Tactics change all the time. Losing organizations embrace tactics because they’re not flexible or brave enough to embrace strategy. Smart organizations are clear and loud and vivid about their strategies and the market forgives them—endorses them too—when they change their tactics on the path of getting there. Nokia stops making various phone models every year, but this didn’t change its strategy. In fact, when Nokia stopped getting aggressive about making the best phones in the world, we lost interest.
Question: What’s more powerful: a short-term pain or long-term gain?
Answer: The power of quitting is that it empowers you. Just like the Toyota assembly line that stops when a worker sees an inferior part, the willingness to quit when you get off track pushes you on the path to mastery. An organization that refuses to settle for average stuff is far more likely to make remarkable stuff. Stuff that powers through the Dip.
Too many organizations are willing to make a half-assed effort to try a new tactic, but require a writ from the Pope to quit a tactic. This not only dilutes their ability to execute—witness a9.com—but it also leads to an impotent organization that rarely breaks through, even when they’re on to something.
This means that the Dip isn’t pain; nor is it something to be avoided. The Dip is actually an ally. Because when the Dip shows up, you’re know you’re close to a breakthrough, to getting to the other side, to mastery, and to being the best in the world.
Question: Do most companies quit too early or try too long?
Answer: Lucky for us, it’s both. They quit when they should be sticking: when they hit the Dip. And they stick when they should be quitting: when they’re on a dead end, when they’re stuck, and when it feels safe. I say lucky for us because this behavior makes it easier for those of us who can see a better way.
Question: Should Microsoft quit the MP3 player market?
Answer: I thought they already did. They’re spending a lot of money, but they’re on a dead end. They always were. They saw the Dip, but instead of embracing it by completely reinventing what it meant to be an MP3 player, they just played it safe and made a piece of me-too.
When you copy something that’s already on the other side of the Dip, you’ve already lost. Microsoft “quit” the MP3 player market when they identified the wrong Dip. They picked the obvious, “safe” one—the one committees of people could live with, but one that is so big and so steep that even Microsoft doesn’t have the money to get through it.
Microsoft has a long history of sticking through Dips, and a long history of quitting dead ends. I have no idea what they’re thinking when it comes to the Zune, but it’s a dead end, through and through.
Question: Should Apple quit the personal computer market?
Answer: Apple has already crossed that Dip, big time. Not the “personal computer Dip” but the Dip of “style-conscious, designer’s, multimedia, student, family computer.” They’re the best in the world at that. They own it. They profit from it. Sure, if Steve hadn’t been arrogant, they could have been best in the world at a much bigger, much juicier market. But they’re not. Once they deal with that—and I think they mostly have—then they can erect a wall behind them, a bigger dip, one that prevents others from following. Over time, personal computers become a profitless commodity while Apple’s market just gets sexier, more fun, and more profitable.
Question: Should America quit the Iraq War?
Answer: My opinion doesn’t matter. But I hope my method matters a lot.
Here’s what we know: it’s easy to record and print a CD and hard to make a hit. Easy to write a book and hard to make it a bestseller. Easy to build a website and hard to create a viral success. We also know, and I hope Dick Cheney now knows, that it’s easy to invade a country and hard to be a successful invader and to dominate and change a culture.
So, the questions are simple: Are we in a Dip in Iraq? Everyone knows we’re in pain, but is it the pain that comes from being in a dead end—a cul-de-sac—situation that might very well get worse but probably won’t get better? Or is it a Dip, where sufficient effort can push us through and get us out the other side…we better know the answer.
The giant mistakes were made early. Cheney didn’t tell us what the Dip would look like, nor did he outline what we would do when we hit it. That’s a big difference between the current team and Churchill or Roosevelt. If you’re not ready for the Dip, it’s a lot harder to stick through it.
Addendum: Seth is going to make an appearance in Silicon Valley. Hope those of you in the area can make it.