Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Dip: Why it's good to quit

This is how I became a writer:

Originally I wasn't even in JP's band. He was being lead singer of The Wake (the band he'd set up during our first year at university), and I was struggling through my uni studies, trying to figure out how to write short stories and doodling around on my guitar.

The two of us started hanging out at my flat, showing each other the songs we'd been writing, and trying to figure out how to make them better. Eventually we had enough material to make a set list, and we realised that this was more than just jamming: we actually wanted to start a side-project from JP's band.

And thus Trash Dallas was born. JP and I decided to audition for a drummer and a bass-player, to take our show on the road. The auditions for our side-project were ridiculously hard, and eventually JP invited me to just start jamming with The Wake.(*) After a while, I became part of the band, and a whole bunch of plot twists ensued ...

(*) And thus Trash Dallas was dissolved, after about three months of auditions and no gigs.

About two years later, JP left - frustrated (I think) for various reasons. In the meantime I'd become increasingly integral to the band.(*) Another friend - Margo - joined as lead singer, and we recorded an album and did a few more gigs. Then Margo left, and we started working on a second album, scrabbling for gigs, and trying to audition a lead singer.

(*) Writing it down like that, I hope the two things weren't related!

All through this soap opera with the band, I was studying for my Honours degree, holding down a part-time job, being in a deteriorating relationship, and still working on my writing (I had a bunch of short stories at this point and a decidedly crappy novel). The pressure on me - the pressure of living my life in four different directions - felt enormous. And there was a single moment when it all reached a crisis point.

Greg the drummer came up to me in the quad at university, asked me if I had enough time to come to a rehearsal in a couple of days.

I remember looking up, staring at the roof of the quad, thinking about my Honours exams, about all the extra-curriculars I'd tried to cram into this year. But most importantly I thought about writing - about how I didn't seem to have any time for it, about how writing was something I could control, how it was something I enjoyed and wanted to get better at.

In that moment, it was clear to me that I had to choose; effectively, I had to choose between two possible lives: music or writing.

I looked up at the roof of the quad, and when I looked down I quit the band.

I chose writing. I'd written lots of stuff before this, but it was that moment that focused me. And a lot of great and painful things have come out of that.

I thought of this moment while reading The Dip. Seth Godin believes it's a good idea to quit stuff that you find unrewarding. When you quit unrewarding stuff, what you gain is time. You can use that extra time (and mental capacity) to focus on getting through the Dip on stuff that matters, the stuff that you can be great at.

Let's break that down a bit more:
  • Quitting stuff that ISN'T worth it = good for you
  • Quitting stuff that IS worth it = self-destructive for you.
If you keep quitting things that are worth it, then you'll never achieve anything. Instead, you'll just waste weeks (or years) of your time and never do anything worthwhile. So, that's bad quitting.

What's so special about this book is that it's remorseless. Quit any project that doesn't have a Dip, it says. Don't stick something out if you're not going to get the benefits of being the best in the world. Quit stuff that you don't want to be exceptional at; quit stuff that you're not really enjoying. If you don't, you'll end up below-average or miserable.

Thinking about it, this answers one of the questions my Inner Critic has been yelling at me while writing these articles. If you quit stuff all the time how can you ever get good at anything? How can you ever do anything worthwhile?

The answer: quit stuff that's not worthwhile. That gives you more time and energy to focus on the things that are.

What Seth Godin is saying here reminds me of something I read about 5 years ago and really took to heart - that quitting can become a habit, a bad habit. The essay I read went on to say that instead of quitting, you should only start things you intend to get all the way through.

Now, this is slightly opposed to what Godin is talking about ('Quit stuff that isn't adding to your life' vs. 'Only start stuff you intend to finish'). And I guess that's been the source of my confusion.

I think the way to reconcile the two is that sometimes you have to start something in order to figure out whether it's worthwhile or not. I'll talk about more about that in a couple of days, but Godin's basic approach is to decide - before you start something - when exactly you will quit it.

What about you: have you ever quit something and been happy you did?

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As always, The Dip is available at Wellington Library.
Seth's blog dedicated to the Dip is here.
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