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The Real Meaning of Persistence: Getting Better At Quitting

You have to fail to succeed, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be

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A businesswoman climbing into the sky on a staircase made of puzzle pieces

Most of the puzzle pieces aren’t going to fit, but the ones that do can take you to amazing heights — Midjourney

I was recently talking to my friend Vicki, who owns a yoga studio, about the difficulties of being an entrepreneur running a small business. I said, “Vicki, successful entrepreneurs are just the ones who stay alive long enough to get lucky.”

I pointed to the balance bars she had installed in one of her studio rooms. “You told me about those balance bars, right? And how you installed them, but the ballet students you hoped would show up never did? That’s what I’m talking about. You keep trying things, and most of the time you’re going to fail, but when — ”

“Wait Sanjay, stop right there!” Vicki interrupted me. “You just blew my mind. You’re telling me I’m supposed to fail?”

“Yes, you’re going to fail most of the time,” I answered. “But the failures disappear and you forget about them. And the few successes, the 5% of things you try that actually work, they stack on top of each other and stay with you for the long term.”

I didn’t think I was saying anything profound. I’ve been around failure my whole life, and I’ve been the cause of nearly all of it. Failure is a comfortable friend.

Vicki though, said, “Oh my god, Sanjay, you’ve just lifted a huge weight off my back. For the last 12 years I’ve been thinking I’m a failure because I keep trying things that don’t work out. But you’re telling me that’s how it’s supposed to go?”

Yes. That’s exactly how it’s supposed to go.

I call this the Persistence Principle — 95% of things you try will yield no advantage, but the 5% that do have a benefit, will stack. That means you can and must quit repeatedly in order to have the best results over time. 

This principle is what created life on Earth, through the process of evolution. Most random changes in species attributes don’t give an evolutionary advantage. But a very small percentage of changes do confer some advantage, and once that advantage is gained, it is rarely given back.

Evidence of the Persistence Principle is all around us, but it is hard to master because it goes against one of the most often quoted pieces of garbage advice we hear from our parents, our teachers, and our business mentors.

Quitters never win, and winners never quit

(Bullshit)

We’re taught that winners are those who make better decisions. Winners have great intuition, they make better investments, and they hire better people. Winners stick to their guns and don’t back down.

Wrong. 

Winners are the ones who know when to quit. 

I’ve had three entrepreneurial ventures that were great successes, but I also shut down twenty others before they destroyed me. Each time, people told me I might be quitting too soon. But better too soon than too late. Better to quit, and survive to try again.

How do you know when to quit? 

I quit reading the first book of Game of Thrones on page 77. I gave the book back to the friend who gave it to me, telling him, “There are too many characters, it’s confusing.”

“Read it to page 100, I really think you’ll like it,” said my friend, and he handed the book right back to me.

He was right. By page 100 I was hooked. It was a great example of quitting too early, then taking trusted advice and modifying my opinion. But I also had a clear milestone for quitting. If you’re going to continue with a job, a relationship, a business, or a book — set clear milestones for quitting. 

With my very first entrepreneurial venture, Videodrive, there came a time when my partner and I sat down to discuss the future. We had burned through $100,000 in a few months with little to show for it. He was willing to put in more money and continue trying. I wasn’t. We hadn’t seen any growth at all, and we were grasping at straws. Quitting was the right call, and we discovered afterwards that many other people had tried the same idea (delivering video cassettes to people’s homes) and had all failed.

Knowing that you’ll be wrong 95% of the time makes it easier to recognize your own fallibility, makes you more humble, and makes you more open to both criticism and ideas from other people. Every idea then becomes an experiment, not an attack on your competence or credibility.

Experiments give you information. 

Hire on probation, work remotely before moving to a new city, travel with your partner before living together. You can leverage the information you gather from these trials before taking a much larger and more significant action. This is asymmetric risk — a small downside for a big upside.

But to take advantage of the Persistence Principle, you have to quit

You have to fire people at the end of probation and break up when you fight too much with your partner. I see all too often people who never quit. Everybody passes probation. Every fight is the last fight, it’ll be better next time. No, it won’t be better next time.

You have to get good at quitting, at cutting your losses. Nobody is better than 50% at hiring well, but you can be correct 100% of the time when you fire someone.

You’re going to fail. You’re supposed to fail. 

You’re going to trust the wrong person and invest in the wrong company. You’re going to put cinnamon in that recipe and you’re going to think you look good in a beret. 

But failures teach you things. And you’ll keep trying and experimenting and hoping and quitting. 

And every once in a while, you’ll gain a lifelong friend, you’ll make a 30x return, or you’ll discover that you look terrible in hats, but you rock scarves. 

Quitting isn’t just ok, it’s necessary. Quit fast, quit often, and get to the win that lets you add another step on your staircase to success. How do you know when to quit? Talk to people you trust. Look for early signs of potential success. Set a milestone — if you don’t hit it, quit it. 

You’re going to fail 95% of the time, but the 5% successes will stack and create a staircase to an amazing future. Success isn’t about never quitting. 

Success is about getting better at quitting. 

Keep trying and keep quitting, Vicki; you’ll eventually figure out what works. Maybe a new scent for the studio?

I suggest cinnamon. 

A man climbing a staircase int the sky

Building that beautiful staircase of success — Midjourney

  1. I quit driving my Lucid Air after only 3 months

  2. Yes, I just returned from a weekend psychedelic retreat and feel great. I’ll write about it soon!

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