Staying the Course vs. Throwing in the Towel


stay the course photo: stay the course staythecourse.gif
You’ve probably heard many of the following expressions:

  • “No one likes a quitter”
  • “Winners never quit, and quitters never win”
  • “Winning is about getting up as many times as you’re knocked down”
  • “Stay the course”

Each expression highlights the need for persistence if we ever want to achieve success. Napoleon Hill describes this as definiteness of purpose, which I discussed in a previous post. It’s clear that a successful business person and/or entrepreneur developed this quality prior to becoming a success. You can’t imagine a person like that ever giving up!

If that’s so, then why did many people we regard as successful have failed business ventures (see this article by Melissa Venable for an impressive list of such persons)? Since they didn’t continue with those projects, isn’t it correct to say they gave up on those projects? Wouldn’t that truth negate all the statements above?

Let’s take a look at staying the course vs. throwing in the towel to see where the differences lie.

Is That a Quack I Heard?

Here’s another expression you’ve likely heard: “If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck then it’s a duck.” That highlights the underlying truth that people and situations prove what they are. I agree with that. Yet are you sure that you’re really seeing things correctly? Is that a honk you hear, or an animal with a hoarse voice? Is that a waddle you see, or a chubby bird with a limp? The bottom line is being sure you frame what you see properly, using insight and knowledge to support your conclusion.

Let’s take an example from the Ms. Venable’s list mentioned above. She notes that Henry Ford’s early businesses failed and left him broke before he established the wildly successful Ford Motor Company. Take one of those companies, the Detroit Automobile Company (DAC). When sales lagged he, his partners, and investors faced the tough decision of pouring more money into DAC or closing the doors. They decided to close. Was that throwing in the towel? Or was it simply acknowledging that a particular venture failed? Obviously, it was the latter. He closed the door on DAC, but never lost sight of his dream. He knew he wanted to mass produce well-made vehicles that most could afford. Eventually he did so in such a powerful way that people coined the term “Fordism” to describe mass production of inexpensive goods coupled with high wages for workers.

What’s my point? Sometimes you may think you see a duck, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. So, while people and situations do prove what they are, be careful not to jump to a conclusion simply because you classify a result as being a particular thing. The failure of Ford’s DAC was not a failure of Henry Ford, the man. Similarly, the closing of the doors of a business venture isn’t automatically synonymous with throwing in the towel.

Let’s take a look at the flip-side for a moment. Suppose Ford decided to stick with DAC. Of course, we can’t be certain of the end result of that decision. What we do know is the sales didn’t justify continuing in the minds of the stake holders. It made good business sense to cut their losses. If Ford continued pouring time, effort, and money into DAC, would that have been staying the course, or just throwing good money after bad? My point is you often have to go below the surface to really see what’s happening. This is like a duck who is busily kicking under the water, yet all we see is him demurely moving across the surface of the water. What you see doesn’t convey the whole story.

How to Quit Without Quitting

In business, you’re not going to get everything right all the time. Sometimes an idea just won’t work. You may not have the expertise or resources to make a success of an idea. A particular course may do nothing to promote your core business, regardless of it’s other merits. Or there may simply be other factors that make an idea unworkable. The end result is the same: your efforts fail. Now you’re faced with a decision: Do you continue working the idea, or do you drop it and focus your efforts elsewhere?

Tony Featherstone shared an insightful article that discusses this very topic. In it he lists 10 things that will help any entrepreneur know when to quit a venture and how to do so ethically and with dignity. His suggestions cover things such as having the right mindset, setting clear goals for return on capital, and setting benchmarks. He discusses the need to examine the matter logically, free of passion (basically, to decide based on the numbers). He also made this profound statement: “Know that quitting at the right time – in the right way – can play a critical role in your next big success.” Much like Henry Ford and many others, quitting a venture when warranted lays the groundwork for your next breakthrough. Yes, you can quit (on a venture) without quitting (on your dream)!

Have you ever faced a pivotal moment when you had to decide whether or not to quit a project or even close a business venture? What did you decide, and what factors influenced your decision? Post your answers in the Comments below.

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One thought on “Staying the Course vs. Throwing in the Towel

  1. Pingback: Fifth Time’s the Charm: Lessons from Diana Nyad | Back-Office Bulletin

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