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April 22, 2007

The Big Dip: Ten Questions with Seth Godin

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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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.


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I find that every new challenge comes with an alluring element of unpredictability (talent & ability set aside) where its outcome is largely determined by how I choose to react to it (per Question 3).

I strive to 'stay hungry' and I find that my "less than distinguished" pursuit of golf is a brilliant reality check...

cremes: "I like how he insinuates that Dick Cheney is the "real" president. Gee, I wonder what his politics are?"

He must be a Republican. Democrats have seen this footage from 1992, where Cheney says that it would be a bad idea to invade Iraq, for reasons that remained valid ten years later, so we know that he already knew what he was getting into. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pT7Ik_X1HU0)

Cheney's brain apparently rotted during 9/11, as did the traditional media's.

Thanks for sharing.

I often experience this, too… Should I quit and move on, or should I pump up more effort to boost it?

Quite an interesting article. I do believe it's contrary to human nature to quit when the pain is least, and push through to the other side. Most people quit right before they become really successful, which is why most people aren't successful, financially or otherwise.

Once you develop the attitude that you WILL succeed no matter what, and not simply uttering affirmations to yourself when you get up in the morning, but truly believing it in your core, amazing things can happen.

Unfortunately, most people today expect things to happen immediately and aren't willing to stick it out for the long haul. I always get a kick out of watching new businesses start-up online, typically with a modest budget, interface and offering, then slowly grow over time. It's exciting to watch, and reaffirms my belief that anything is possible.

Truth be told, if more people focused on the "why" they want to do something, rather than the "how", more people would pursue their passions, realize their dreams and stay focused during the journey. Develop a strong enough why, and the how manifests itself.

All in all, good article, and thanks for the great work!

This is a good book.
I really enjoyed this book when I read it.

I'd buy his concepts a bit more if he hadn't used the Zune analogy. Microsoft has shown time and time again how they actually do better when they're "hungry" and after watching the XBox, which everyone wrote off in exactly the same way, I think it's way too early to write off the Zune. He also losses some credibility with me because he's obviously missing the bigger Microsoft/Zune/XBox/Marketplace picture.

While there are some great bits of advice and some interesting perspectives I have to say they aren't all that much different than what you'd see on Operah. In fact this book is a lot like "The Secret" except for the business-class.

I reached a dip back in 1997 and decided to quit gracefully and start over again. I quitted when the pain was the lowest(bit odd) but realised there are infinite opportunities and as an entrepreneur, you will find your new mastery or passion again.

The key here is to recognise that starting successful businesses is like a playground swing, you get on, have fun and fall. After the fall, you pull yourself together and get on again.

I really enjoyed this book when I read it. It was very interesting and had a lot of ideas I had never thought of before.

Saving up for a wedding

I've always found Seth Godin's books interesting. Permission marketing was important but I have found his later work to be less insightful - I was especially disappointed by 'All MArketers Are Liars' which seem to concentrate on 'low hanging fruit'. That said I enjoy his style and the way he can turn an obvious concept into a narrative that he can 'own' (which I guess confirms his own hypothesis in the Liar book). I guess there is a great deal of pressure on celebrity business writers to leverage their franchise. I felt the ideas in the 'Dip' book conveyed in this interview fell well short of suggesting essential reading.

This is a good book, I'll definitley look into it. In hindsight, it's easy to write about this...but what's Godin's real-life record on "saving" companies from themselves?

great ideas, interesting insights!
thanks for sharing...

Two quick comments:

(1) I can see how Godin's book applies to decision making regarding projects, ROI, and whether continuing with a project makes sense. But, it does not sound like Godin's book is applicable to trying to master something like hockey or the violin. That topic is covered VERY well by the excellent book "Mastery" by George Leonard (recommended in the past by Tom Peters, BTW).

(2) I wish to compliment Godin for his sagacious response to the question "Should America quit the Iraq war?" By referring to Dick Cheney instead of Bush, he is making a clear between the lines comment that Cheney is the de facto puppet master, while Bush is merely the dummy on the other end of the strings. And no, Cheney and the fellow Dip-s**ts in the White House are clueless on how to 'work through the Dip' of the Iraq bottomless Dip/cul de sac/quagmire...choose your metaphor.

I believe that Microsoft should exit the MP3 market as they have been beat to the punch and they should stick to their core competency.

I think knowing when to quit is a virtue not many people have. The "opportunity cost" is a great financial concept that people should master in order to get a better understanding of when to quit.

Great interview, however after reading it, I am not sure if I need to read the book as well.

About the question of Iraq, how many tragedies should a country experience in order to understand that even before knowing when to quit, you should know when "not to enter".

Baris Ozaydinli
Brand It


I always thought the best time to quit was when you were at the apex of your success.
And that is the moment nobody wants to quit.
When you reach the top what comes after is just the downhill.
And anyway, the best time in every enterpreise is when you dream about the future.
There are two terrible things in life: one is not being able to achieve what you want and the second, even worse, is when you do.

I've always believed there to be an incredibly fine line between "determination" (to make something work) and "denial" (that it is never going to). My current "dip" has lasted 5 years...and I still haven't worked it out. Seth has only added to the conundrum...
determination, dip or denial?

Two points:
1)Chris Rako, I think you may be channeling the success of the XBox 360 in your comment. But I believe that was due largely not to MS's marketing and technological prowess, but to Sony's strategic and managerial missteps. I doubt MS will be lucky enough to see Jobs stumble similarly, though.
2)I'm an entrepreneur and have recently quit my full-time job to launch a real estate startup. The pain of the dip can at times make you lose sight of the possibilities on the other side. I've been able to stay strong by surrounding myself with a partner and other people that believe in me and my vision.

Great summary...can't wait to read the book!

"It’s time to quit when you secretly realize you’ve been settling for mediocrity all along."

This statement hits all the right buttons for me. Perfect distillation.

I thought Seth didn't answer the question on Iraq. How politically correct. The truth is, sometimes regardless of how hard or difficult, we need to pay the price. People from a previous generation seems to get that and unfortunately, our generation does not. Iraq is a difficult situation but not impossible. The Palestinian/Israeli conflict in my mind is an impossible situation. The war in Iraq is not. If the World community would raly around the US, we can bring peace and stability to Iraq. Unfortunately, politics out rank common sense in this case.

"Pain is the touchstone of all spiritual growth." Bill Wilson 12X12

Have you taken a look at Amar Bhide's Origin & Evolution of New Enterprize? www.bhide.net

The publisher of Inc. Magazine has called it the most important book ever written about start-up. Bhide's has sent his students to take a look at how successful businesses actually got started.

What he has found is that they don't spend resources trying to figure out the future.

Looking back, we can see the dip in almost every startup. If we could plot it in advance, we would have a planned economy rather than a free-market economy.

Seems to me the dip is descriptive, not prescriptive. And just as most boxers come from the gutter, most new enterprises start from pain.

Smart quitters huh? That's an interesting notion. I've always been taught to never quit. And it's been killing me (financially).

I have contrarian views - most of the time, but usually agreed with Guy on almost everything. Until now. I'll rant on my blog, but really, the essential question (when do you quit?) has been answered by a statement that begets even more questions: When you have suffered enough? When is the pain the greatest and how do you know that pain won't get more (or less) soonish? But it is OK Guy, I will keep reading your stuff, but on this one Seth is fishing at the shallow end of the 'achievement' pool...

I am convinced. Guy Kawasaki is an accomplished blogger, anchor and then a vc - in that order.

I have read Guy's review of Bob Sutton's book. If that was hilarious, this one's really insightful.

Guy, you can quit being a vc and stick with the other two - if you haven't already !

Comment author Helen said:

"'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.'

"Does anybody know what Seth is really saying here?"

My guess Seth is talking about mastery in the context of a love of improving, of learning, and of pushing through a challenge or problem in order to do as well as is humanly possible -- not be perfect -- but to strive for excellence without being necessarily derailed by obstacles, disappointment, and so on. The earlier we learn this (preferably as children) the better.

Really effective people are highly focused on mastery for mastery's sake; that's why it's an addiction, a reason unto itself.

Unfortunately, Seth then proceeds to kind of, sort of just breeze by the role of passion in mastery. Passion, or love of a job, mission, challenge, etc., is crucial to mastery.

Guy delivers again on another outstanding interview and interesting post. Thanks for pointing out another book for my must-read list.

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