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Newsletter “Never Give Up”: Popular– And Problematic — Advice

Better Guidance is Out There, But It Won’t Fit on a Refrigerator Magnet
Tuesday, September 14, 2022 Newsletter

I recently read a tweet from Darren Marble, a serial entrepreneur and executive producer of a streaming series that follows founders on their capital-raising journeys, with advice about the importance of grit from his own experience:

“It took us 14 months to raise our Seed round. Don’t give up.” (Emphasis added.)

Darren Marble, of course, is not alone among successful people sharing the message that you should never give up. It’s practically universal advice among legendary inventors, business leaders, champion athletes, and coaches like Thomas Edison, Conrad Hilton, Ted Turner, Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, Vince Lombardi, and Mike Ditka – just to name a few.

Despite its popularity, “don’t give up” is absurd as a general plan – or even as a presumption.

Should you say that to someone getting close to the summit of Everest when a storm is rolls in? Should you say that to a football player with a concussion who doesn’t want to come out of the game?

It would be incredibly harmful if people in those situations were to follow that advice. 

Part of the misleading persuasiveness of the “Never give up” message is its retrospective pull: To have succeeded at something, you must have stuck to it, almost by definition. Anyone who has raised a seed round in venture has stuck to it. Anyone who has won an Olympic gold medal has stuck to it. Anyone who has gotten to the summit of Everest has stuck to it.

But what’s true in retrospect is not necessarily true prospectively. Just because you stick to something doesn’t mean that you will succeed at it. Believing so would be as silly as reading about billionaires who get up at 4 a.m. and thinking, “If I get up at 4 a.m., I will become a billionaire.”

When you’re dealing with 14 months of skepticism and rejection in trying to raise your seed round, you might be correct to stick to it. You might see something that others do not see.

But it is also true that the investors may be seeing the world clearly while you are stubbornly sticking to something that is not worthwhile.

If you’re an entrepreneur getting negative signals from the market, the market may be wrong. But some of the time the market is correct.

The key skill is to know the difference.

That’s not always easy, but you’re going to do an especially poor job if your north star is “Never give up.”

In the case of advice like, “Never give up,” we make that kind of error all the time. We view grit and quitting as opposing forces where grit is a virtue and quitting is a vice. That causes a lot of people to stick to things which, based on the value of whether it’s worthwhile to continue, they ought to be abandoning.

The shame of it all is that when we keep devoting resources to a course of action that’s no longer worthwhile, we’re depriving ourselves of the opportunity to put those resources to better use.

If you’re smart enough and gritty enough to have started a venture in the first place, given those market signals, you might want to consider putting your time and energy into a different idea. Whether your goal is changing the world or building a personal fortune, you owe it to yourself (and the world) to pick the best means of achieving your goals.

Rather than giving blanket advice like, “Never give up,” the advice we ought to be giving is more nuanced and harder to fit on a coffee mug or a refrigerator magnet:

Give up when what you’re pursuing is no longer worthwhile, so you can turn your time and attention to something better. 

Ultimately, heuristics like, “Winners never quit and quitters never win,” and “Never give up,” are easier. But that doesn’t mean it’s better to continue up a mountain in a blinding snowstorm.

Far from it.