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.


debbie said...

I guess I unintentionally quit a lot of things when I had a baby. I stopped working (even though I enjoyed my job and intend to return to it), I stopped roleplaying regularly (I think I've played in two one-off games since Dom was born but this is a huge drop-off) and I also stopped a large number of social activities (from after work drinks at the pub every week to going out for dinner/movies etc).

I don't feel like I've permanently left these thing so much as taken an extended maternity leave from my job, social life and hobbies. However, the last year has been the most productive and fulfilling year in terms of writing of my life. I've finished three novels and heaps short stories in about fourteen months and I only managed to actually complete one extremely rough novel manuscript in all of my twenties.

Being forced to focus on only one area has certainly been benefical in terms of productivity. I really only have a couple of hours a day of 'me' time when I can do what I want but I get more done then than I ever did in all my free evenings, weekends and holidays when I was working.

I don't know if it really counts as quitting but giving up my job and hobbies (even if it is only for a short period of my life) has not been the devastating lost I feared it would be, largely I expect because I still feel that I am progressing and moving towards one goal instead of my previous shuffling vaguely around dozens of different activities.

It would be a hard call though to ruthlessly cut out every activity that you didn't feel totally satified you without a baby for an excuse though. I don't know if I would have managed it.

matt said...

Moving to Japan forced Debbie and I to quit a lot of stuff. It was nice in some ways, though hard.

If I had to boil down 14 months of hard work into one thing we jointly focussed on it would be 'working toward a goal'. We'd been doing a lot of that in NZ but we were incredibly specific about it in Japan and conscious of it on a daily basis.

Goal focus was the grist for our endurance mills.

Mashugenah said...

Did I ever tell you how I got out of Trampoline?

I was competitive from about '93-'97. I've got a 3rd place medal from the '94 nats. When I moved to CHCH in '98 they were gearing up for the bi-annual world champs.

I went along and tried out, and the coach said (no joke!) that I was one of the most talented people he'd come across in his 20 years or so of coaching.

We had a chat, and he told me that I could only join the CHCH club if I'd commit to training 3 times a week and commit to trying out for Worlds.

I didn't do that. This was a less intense training regime than I'd been on previously; but I'd reached a point where I'd mastered all the fun stuff, and going forward was just nailing down the absolute minutae that's good for your score, but not necessariyl rewarding you with new tricks.

Was it a dip? It was certainly a moment where I realized that to carry on was to decide to be really serious, and that was not appealing.

With Ultimate there's a niche below "worlds competitor" that I more comfortably occupy - cruising, gently improving, enjoying the experience for what it is without letting worries about the future interfere with the enjoyment of the past. I realize that this was where I was with Trampolining before CHCH, and I think I'd still be doing that if someone else hadn't tried to sharply define why I should pursue a hobby on my behalf.

Mashugenah said...

"without letting worries about the future interfere with the enjoyment of the" PRESENT. Not past. :)

billy said...

seemed relevant in spirit to your dip posts

hix said...

That is a lovely post, Billy. Thank you for linking to it.

Debbie, Matt, Mash, thanks for sharing your stories.

I found the trampoline story, especially, quite amazing. I don't whether that was a dip either - from what you've said, it feels like a moment where you could clearly see what trampolining would involve. Did you make the decision instantly, at the moment you realised that?

Mashugenah said...

It kinda was a dip - because it was a moment when I could see a decrease in the enjoyment factors for the sport - a substantial one. Training for the Worlds would have been less time per week, but it would have been a really different kind of experience - much much more focused, and focused away from the things that really attracted me to the sport.

Of course, eventually, once my technique was pitch-perfect, there would have been some benefit in tricks. I topped out at triplets, whereas world-class guys were into quads at the time - but for a competition routine I would have been firmly in multiple-twisting doubles; so that's where my training would have focused. I mean, when Trampolining made it to the Olympics the time before last, I was capable of doing the Women's title-winning routine (though would not have looked so good doing it. :) )

So it was a dip because for a continuing and sustaining effort, the rewards would have at best plataeuxed, and at worst dropped. Probaby dropped in real terms.

In hindsight, what I really really should have done, was drop out of engineering and taken up the offer of a place at Christchurch's Circus school and become a professional acrobat - those guys basically focus exclusively on the fun and flashy stuff I loved. But it didn't occur to me as a serious thing until about 5 years too late.