When should you give up?

Yesterday I wrote an article titled "Why getting things wrong is the best way to learn". In the article, I explained how we learn very little when things are going well, and how we learn a lot - a real lot - when things go wrong. One of the responses I got to the article was from Jordan Gross on Medium. He asked:

"Do you believe that there is a "wrong threshold"? A point in which you have gotten it wrong so many times that maybe it is just not for you?"

In other words, when do you decide to give up, throw in the towel and do something else? Well, the answer is not quite simple, so rather than a short answer to Jordan, here's some guidance.

There's always something we struggle to get right

About 10 years ago I first came across the idea of forex trading. The idea is that you can effectively "bet" that a particular currency pair would go up or down, and if you were right you could make "easy" money.

The concept was very attractive to me. You could be "working" for a couple of hours a day, let the markets do its thing and come back to profit - or a loss, as the case may be. You could be spending most of your time doing other stuff, fun stuff, knowing that you had a steady stream of income, or perhaps just some extra spending money. I was living in the UK at the time, and one of the attractive things about forex trading was that it was regarded as gambling and therefore tax free. (I don't know if this is still the case.)


It turns out that forex trading is a hellishly hard thing to get right. There are tons of courses, an incredible amount of hype and hundreds of "trading systems" and indicators that you can buy that are supposed to help you get things right.

They don't work. In fact, a very small percentage of traders - especially at the retail level - make money from forex trading. I tried, and for a while I was doing really well. But the psychology that affects your trading is so powerful that success very easily turns into failure.

I had to give it up - not just because I wasn't consistently making the money I was hoping to make, but also because I had moved to Canada and forex trading is not tax free here, so I would have had to jump through many more hoops to get things done.

But the point is, I gave up.

There are two fundamental reasons we don't get it right

When you're struggling to get something right, there are only two primary, underlying reasons why. They are:

  • mindset; and
  • skillset.

When we do a "root cause analysis" of why something is not working, we can always trace it back to one of those two things. We're thinking about it wrong, or we're assessing the market conditions wrong, or we're so in love with the solution that we don't see there's nobody out there that actually has a problem to be solved. We believe something, but that belief is based on a false premise and therefore nobody's buying what we're selling. Or some people are, but not nearly enough.

Or we just don't have the skills to get it right. We may believe we're making the best widget in the world but actually the quality is not where it needs to be. Or we don't know how to market and sell. Or we don't know how to manage our cashflow. For some reason, there's something we're not doing right and we don't have the money to hire someone to do it for us - so what we're doing just isn't getting the market traction we need.

Let's look at these two fundamental reasons in a little more depth.

Mindset part 1 - how we look at the outside world

Mindset is just that - a way of thinking about something. Sometimes our mindset helps us get something done, sometimes it blinds us to something we should actually know. But there's more to it than that.

The most common reason startups fail is because they build something people don't want.

This is no big secret - startups fail because they build stuff people don't want. One of the things you will see startups do is pivot; change their business model based on what they've learnt from the market so they target a different market segment or present what they're selling in a different way.

These startups started out with a particular mindset - they believed there was a problem and what they were building was a much-needed solution to said problem. Sometimes this "belief" was based on extensive market research, sometimes it was just a hunch.

But the point is this: the entrepreneurs' mindset forces them to interpret what they're seeing in a particular way. Sometimes their interpretation is correct, sometimes it's not. And if their interpretation is off far enough, chances are people are not going to buy what they're selling.

We all have different world views, and that is a really good thing. But if our view of the world is so far off reality that we believe something that is not true - or not true enough - we won't be able to make a living from our dreams.

Mindset part 2 - what we believe about ourselves

Henry Ford is famously quoted as saying:

Whether you think you can…or whether you think you can't…you're right.

In other words, what we believe about ourselves determines what we're able to do. But does that mean that we can do everything we believe we can? Or that we just have to believe hard enough to become an expert in something?

Of course not. To become good at something - however you measure what "good" is, requires more than just belief. It will require learning, perseverance, adjusting to feedback, staying humble (so you can recognise lessons for what they are), and sticking with it.

But here's what is true: if you believe you can't do something, you almost certainly will never be able to do it. It's a bit like buying a lottery ticket. Your chances of winning are infinitesimally small, but you are guaranteed to not win if you don't buy a ticket.

So believing that you're capable of doing something is table stakes - you have to believe you can do something, or learn how to do something, to get in the game. Then you have to learn - skillset and mindset - to get it right. And then you have to keep doing it, because expertise is not born overnight, and you don't know all the things that can go wrong when you start out.

Skillset - the other part of getting things right

On the face of it, learning a skill is easier than learning a new mindset, right? Skills are more "how" things are done, and if you follow a decent recipe you should be able to bake a decent cake.

In some ways this is true. You can learn to do things that you were not able to do before. But a skill is very much supported by a mindset. Even if you learnt everything there is to know about marketing, for example, you will never be very good at it if you believe that you hate doing marketing.

You've probably heard that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. Whether this is accurate or not is debatable - but what is undeniable is that it takes time - and deliberate practice - to achieve a high level of skill in something.

I've been writing articles for just over a year now. I am far from describing myself as being even half-way decent at it, but I can see that I'm a lot better than I was when I started out. It helps that I enjoy it, and doing it every weekday is not that difficult for me, so I will get even better. But I know it will take time.

So when do you give up?

So far I've only talked about the two fundamental reasons why we don't get things right - and I haven't answered Jordan's original question:

"Do you believe that there is a "wrong threshold"? A point in which you have gotten it wrong so many times that maybe it is just not for you?"

Here's my answer, and why we had to digress to understand the role that mindset and skillset play:

When the cost of failure becomes too high, we have to do something else.

When you have to make a living, care for your family and put food on the table - and what you're doing is interfering with your ability to do that - you have to stop it and do something else. This is a plain and practical reason to give up on something - either permanently or just for a while. And it's not a difficult decision to make. Either you make an income or you're on the street.

But I suspect that Jordan is not in that situation - like many of us he's been trying to get something right and it's just not working.

Here's the good news:

The more you get something wrong the more experienced you become at that thing. Edison didn't invent the light bulb on the first try; he (famously) learnt 9,000+ ways in which it didn't work. You're learning how things don't work, and that experience is invaluable.

And here's what you need to do:

You're failing because of either mindset or skillset issues - or a combination of both. Now that you know that it is either of those two, you need to go and find out which one. And then you need to fix it.

Finding it and fixing it is not easy - and it is particularly hard when it comes to recognising when your mindset is holding you back. Chances are you will find it difficult to find and fix mindset issues yourself - you will have to ask someone you trust, someone who respects you enough to tell you the truth.

When you start breaking a big problem (it just ain't working) into smaller problems (my marketing sucks) it becomes easier to fix.

So again: when do you give up?

It would be so easy to say "don't ever give up" or "follow your dreams". This is what you usually hear, interspersed with "make a living" and "care for your family".

The best advice I've heard - and experienced - came from the people that love me. It goes something like this:

When other people can't bear your complaints any more, it's time to give up.

You see this most often when someone is stuck in a job they hate. Just about the only thing you hear from them is how their job sucks, how their boss sucks, how they hate what they're doing. If you're this person's partner, you get the brunt of it - every day they come home and complain.

I've been there and I've done that. I was the complainer, the moaner, the one who could never stop bitching. Until one day she said "you need to get out of there - I'm sick of your complaining".

That's when you need to get out, give up and run away. Because you're no good to yourself, and you're definitely no good to people around you. You've turned from being a positive force to being a drag. You're a pain. Get out.

If you're happy chasing your dream, never give up.

Why should you? You're happy, you bring happiness to the people around you, you're taking care of your family and you're a pleasure to be around. Keep doing what makes you happy - don't give up on it. Sure it's going to be frustrating, painful and sometimes you will want to give up because its been going on for freaking ever and you just don't seem to be able to break through…

But you're not the first one to do what you're doing, you're not unique and if others can make it so can you. You just have to find the right mix of mindset and skillset to make it work. Surround yourself with honest friends, people who don't have any vested interest in whether you succeed or not, and listen to them.

Then do what makes you happy. If you're happy chasing your dream, and you're taking care of the ones you need to take care of, including yourself, don't give up on what makes you happy.

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