Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Dip

I just finished a book called, The dip: a little book that teaches you when to quit (and when to stick) by Seth Godin. His main point seems to be that you should pick one thing to focus all of your attention on -- something that you have a reasonably good chance of becoming exceptionally good at -- and you should quit everything else that is taking your attention and energy away from that main focus. This main thing you decide to focus on must be something you can stick with through "the dip", the difficult time you will face before you become successful, "the long slog between starting and mastery". You must decide you will persevere until you become the best in the world.

He says, "Quit the wrong stuff. Stick with the right stuff. Have the guts to do one or the other."

He says that we make a mistake in thinking "being well rounded is the secret to success." He says, "in a free market, we reward the exceptional", "...the real success goes to those who obsess." And, "the next time you catch yourself being average when you feel like quitting, realize that you have only two good choices: Quit or be exceptional. Average is for losers."

The wrong time to quit something is when you are in "the dip", so it's best to figure out if you think you can survive "the dip" before you begin. Some reasons you might end up quitting (because you didn't think ahead) are because "you run out of time... you run out of money... you get scared... you're not serious about it... you lose interest or enthusiasm or settle for being mediocre... you focus on the short term instead of the long... you pick the wrong thing at which to be the best in the world (because you don't have the talent)."

"Is it possible that you're just not good enough? That you (or your team) just don't have enough talent to be the best in the world? Sure it's possible. In fact, if your chosen area is the cello, or speed skating, then I might even say it's probable. But in just about every relevant area I can think of, no, it's not likely. You are good enough."

So, I picked up this little 80 page book because a friend had recommended it and also because there was an article in the NY Times about it the other day. I was hoping it would help me to sort out some things about my life and career focus. I have to say I found that it was making a lot of sense to me until I got to the line, "if your chosen area is the cello"... There I was reading along, deciding to make some major changes in my life, when I realized suddenly that maybe he didn't intend his advice to apply to me after all...

I had a little trouble figuring out where to take him totally literally and where to assume he was exaggerating to make a point. I know I will never be the best soprano in the world, because my voice isn't big/loud enough or high enough to compete for that coveted spot (which is obviously totally subjective anyway). But, if I re-defined what "the world" and "soprano" mean and tried to be the best singer of Handel arias or something that fits me better, it seems more feasible.

What else would I have a reasonable chance of becoming the "best in the world" at if I quit everything else and focused only on it? I think it's an interesting question. But, I'm not sure I think someone who advocates obsessing is someone I want to take advice from. I think it's probably good to streamline your life's focus and not waste your time and energy on dead-end projects, but to what end? And, what happens when you finally become the best in the world? Will you be happy?


Scott said...

On a contrasting note, I've always been of the opposite school: it's always better to move in a direction, ANY direction, than to stand still and ponder what your one and only true calling might be. As an analogy, dating. You can't seek out your perfect mate, refusing to date anyone else in the meanwhile, and be successful at that venture. You have to keep trying, trying ANYthing, and eventually something will win out and your direction will take hold. Or it won't, and you'll have an excellent life dating all kinds of people. But the just WAITING, hoping, thinking... not going to work.

I feel the same about careers. I have a lot of friends who have just been doing little terrible jobs since college, waiting to find their calling. If they suggest interest in something to me, I tell them to pursue it, go to grad school, or do whatever it is that'll make that career happen. But they're paralyzed by the fear of choosing the wrong path, so they choose no path at all. Seems silly to me. I don't know what my career will end up being. I got my DMA, but I might end up just freelancing for a living and then it'd be a "waste." Except it wasn't a waste, because I kept moving, learning things...

Anyway, big rant. But still. I don't like the idea of obsession with your one path very much, because it puts way too much pressure on. Life shouldn't be about pressure, it should be about finding ways of spending your time doing things you like. I liked grad school. I like cooking. I like taking slow walks with my daughter. Most of those things are completely unrelated to what my career is right now, but I don't care. I'm spending time that I enjoy, doing things I enjoy.

(On a side note, as someone applying to jobs at small colleges, being a generalist and having broad knowledge is a huge asset in some situations.)

Jake said...

Thanks, Scott, you said what I was thinking in a much calmer, more focused manner. :)

After reading the NYTimes article, I had thought this guy might be on to something worthwhile, but frankly, I am horrified by his obsession with the fantasy of "the best in the world". I am a firm believer that our peculiarly American mythology in exceptionalism is the greatest weakness we have as a culture, and it will be our downfall.

Where, in that book, is there room for joy? For laughter? For love? For happiness? For the little moments that we all can share with a butterfly, with a stranger on the street? Life is not about being the best at anything. That's what cancer is, and cancer is death.

Celeste Winant said...

I am not a fan of this guys thesis, either, but perhaps I could benefit from a taste of it. I have been balancing my scientific career with my pursuit of music for many years now. I am often frustrated at how I am only _so_good_ at either; my publications list is small, I often leave work by 5 or 6 to go to rehearsal, and dont spend much time outside of work thinking about it... and with singing, well, I can only be so good if I dont have timeto practice more than 1-2 a week, and if I can't say yes to every gig.

but I am mostly glad that I do it all. I certainly have no aspirations to be "the best in the world". I would rather be "happy enough". My bi-professional lifestyle is certainly too stressful, and I need to find more balance between my time and expectations.

But, yeah- a path towards being "the best" seems like a recipe for unhappiness for all but the few.

Steph said...

I think Jake was right on when he criticized the American mythology of exceptionalism. As a nation, we seem to just revere single-mindedness. You can see it everywhere, from the sort of cultural heroes we elevate to the way we think about poverty to the way we start wars.

I'm probably over-simplifying, but it seems to me that this way of thinking has everything to do with capitalism and not much to do with art. This guy obviously doesn't understand how useless this "best in the world" nonsense is in a field like music. It's like pitting Dawn Upshaw against, say, Deborah Voigt. What on earth is the point?

I cringe at his dissing of well-roundedness. There are dead-end projects, and then there are non-lucrative pursuits that just make your life more interesting and pleasurable--and may feed back into our principle pursuits in ways we can't foresee.

Trying to be the best in the world at something is a fool's errand. The world is a big place with a hell of a lot of people in it. Don't buy into mythologies that tell you that if you're not hellbent on kicking the ass of everyone else in your field then you must be definition be some sort of dithering, unfocused amateur. I used to think that way, and as you might imagine, I was miserable.

tkempton said...

This kind of thinking is exactly why so many kids give up on their creative side before they even understand how wonderful it is. As a classical musician, I felt that pressure to be "good enough" to devote time to playing music. As an adult, I've come to really treasure just jammin with people who play half-heartedly, or shyly, or not at all - musicians who bring surprisingly rich ideas and enthusiasm and (dare I say it?) fun to the art of making music. So first off, I hate his idea that there's this elite few who have the "right" to play cello, or speedskate or whatever.

Secondly, I object to his suggestion to become obsessed. People like Philippe Petit (wire walked between the Twin Towers) are just obsessive by nature, and sure, that type of beautiful insanity requires a certain obsession to even try it. But I've known friends and family who turn their world upside down to attempt things, singlemindedly pursuing a small avenue of science or the madness of trying to "make it" as a youtube hero... I'm not convinced it's a happy, healthy way to live life. I think if you really love something, your focus will develop naturally, and that's what we should be encouraging. I would love to encourage people to explore their lives and interests, and when they discover something that lights them up inside, they should pursue it to the degree that makes them happy and will bring them to their goals.

That's my take. Oh, and Pam, you *do* have an amazing singing voice, and there's no question you could "make it" as a musician.

Suze said...

Well, I would agree that focus is a good thing, though obsession is not. I've always known that I would never be the best in the world (or even in my program at school) at what I do, but it took me a long, long, loooong time to really truly be okay with that. As long as I worked hard and had focus and was the best *I* could be while maintaining some balance in my life, I considered myself...I'm not sure if "successful" is the right word, but I was more or less satisfied with the work I did.

Notice the past tense there. I am taking a necessary break from the professional world to do the mom thing (and believe me, there's no point in trying to be the "best" at that - it's just basic survival most days), but someday I hope to get back into it. I just hope I haven't forgotten anything and that I can remember how to focus like I used to!