In his book Finish, Jon Acuff tells the story of a guy who’s trying to lose the weight. The man is quite discouraged because the pounds are not coming off. Now that he’s in his forties, he bemoans that it’s just harder to lose weight than it once was.
Acuff is skeptical. Memories are slippery things, and we humans like to give ourselves every excuse possible for not achieving our goals. I have to agree. I have known some folks for more than twenty years, and they’ll talk about that wonderful time in the past when weight loss was easy. And I don’t say anything (because, generally, I don’t like getting punched), but I’m thinking when was this mystical time? When you were a fetus?
Acuff’s answer. Use data. Now don’t tune out here. He’s not saying that we need to do complicated statistical analyses every time we set a goal. But we do need to use the information available to us.
If we want to lose weight, then let’s track how many calories we’re eating per day and the amount of exercise we’re doing. We’re probably going to find that our weight has more to do with those two things than with our age.
If we want to retire with enough money to go on a trip around the world, we need to check how much money we’re spending and how much we’re contributing to a retirement fund. And based on that information, we need to make changes or decide that a trip is not in our future.
It’s not hard to use data. But be forewarned. Data can be a bit of a buzz kill. It makes you live in the real world.
One of the reasons for the wild success of Silicon Valley companies is their willingness to try new things, to provide their employees with time and support to experiment. But according to Eric Barker, another reason is their belief in failing fast and failing cheap. Basically, when an experiment fails, they don’t spend a lot of time wringing their hands or trying to convince themselves they can make it work. They don’t throw good money after bad. They cut the cord, take what they’ve learned, and put resources into another project.
I’ve heard this story about Silicon Valley many times, and every time it’s told, people are all enthused and say things like they wished their own companies were more like Silicon Valley. But like many things, the enthusiasm is more theoretical than practical. In reality, we become attached to things pretty quickly.
It’s not just giant corporations or bureaucracies that have trouble letting things go. It can happen to any of us. I know students who have failed tests due to ineffective study habits. So what do they do? Double down on those same ineffective study habits. And then they’re surprised when the results don’t improve.
But we all do it. I once started a graduate degree in education. I knew immediately that the program wasn’t for me. Still, I didn’t want to be known as a quitter. I took another three classes before I finally acknowledged that I had no interest in that particular program. I started over in an English master’s program, and I was much happier.
No one wants to be a failure. But a lot depends on how you define it. Quitting something can be a failure. But failure can also be holding onto something when you should have moved on long ago.