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Focusing

The Merits of Giving Up on Your Ideas

Don't judge your ideas through a lens filled with beat-tired late nights, sacrificed paychecks, and all the other trademarks of building something from scratch. Instead, view them as investments, so you can better gauge when to move on from a loser.


Growing up, I had a Winston Churchill quote on my desk: “Never, never, never give up.” It served as a daily reminder to continue pushing forward, especially when things were rough.

Persevering against all odds certainly helps in the creative industry where you have to convince art directors and brand managers to buy your abstract and experimental ideas and bring them to life in the real world. However, looking back, I realize that the mentality to keep going at all costs can be an inefficient approach to work. In other words, there are merits to giving up.

The mentality to keep going at all costs can be an inefficient approach to work.

I’m not saying give in at the first sign of a struggle. But what if we thought of our ideas less as precious commodities (and battles to be won) and more like stocks we can invest in and cut loose depending on how the market –project managers, clients – feel about them at given times? Things we like and feel are promising, but aren’t married to, should our position become weak or we find a more favorable opportunity.

Ideas, though, are treated with far more care. We often apply a “buy and hold” strategy to them, especially the bigger ones, like building a company or developing a new product. I think it’s because our ideas are often tied to our dreams, and what we’re really unwilling to give up on is the dream itself.

We don’t solely judge the idea – we judge it through a lens filled with beat-tired late nights, sacrificed paychecks, and all the other trademarks of building something from scratch. And the stories of humans and companies overcoming their struggles are wonderful and inspirational. But, when you back out the emotional pull, what are the opportunity costs? Once those are factored in, does soldiering on always make the most sense? It’s like sticking with a slumping stock in a beaten down industry – it might be worth it to wait months or years for it to bounce back, but in the meantime you’re missing the chance to put your capital to better use.

There was one particular Shark Tank episode where a woman from New York presented an online dating app called Cheek’d and asked for $100,000 in exchange for a 10 percent stake in her company. Over the previous three years, she had invested $120,000 in the idea. In return, she took in $56,000 in revenue from 1,125 paid members. She ultimately didn’t get any backers, due in part because the investors found her to be delusional in the words of Mark Cuban, about the potential of her idea. While there is nothing wrong with failed ideas—Silicon Valley celebrates them after all! – there is something misguided about spending your time on one that has been sufficiently put out into the marketplace and isn’t getting any traction.

It’s understandable why it’s tough to let our ideas go. We believe someone will buy them or they will change the world or, let’s be honest, that one of them will make us rich! We also tightly grip our ideas because from an early age we’re conditioned to never give up. If Winston Churchill isn’t telling us that, then Nicky Minaj is. “Your victory is right around the corner,” she advises struggling artists. “Never give up.” But of course that is what Churchill and Minaj would say. They have the benefit of hindsight, of standing on their respective mountaintops and looking down at where they came from. They know how their story ends – with them winning – and it’s easier to tell someone not to give up when you yourself have made it. The reality is that most people need to view their decision to give up through another, far less glamorous perspective – that in which they have no clue if their idea will work out in the end.

It’s easier to tell someone not to give up when you yourself have made it.

But what if we didn’t think of success and failure as our only two outcomes of any idea? Instead, we would view quitting as making better use of our time elsewhere. It’s a subtle but crucial difference for your psyche – one that gives you the chance to learn by doing, rather than making you feel like you will either end up a success or failure. 

In a recent 99U interview, Google Ventures design partner Jake Knapp extolled the merits of giving up on an idea after you’ve given it a good, honest test drive. To reach a conclusion quickly, Knapp has developed a five-day program called a “sprint” that encourages users to focus less on the idea – and more on reaching a conclusion of if the idea will work. “This way you don’t end up spending months on a hunch that could be wrong,” says Knapp.  

The argument against giving up is that successful people don’t give up. However, that is simply not true. If you want to get technical about it, you could call Mark Zuckerberg a quitter.

Back in 2004, when Facebook was still known as The Facebook and had about 500,000 users, Zuckerberg was supposedly devoting as much of his time to building Wirehog, a peer-to-peer file sharing platform he felt had tremendous potential, as he was to The Facebook. “I think Wirehog will probably spread in the same way that thefacebook did,” he told The Harvard Crimson at the time. Well, not exactly. Facebook currently has more than 1.5 billion users, while Zuckerberg gave up on Wirehog circa 2006. By no longer devoting his energy to an ill-conceived, borderline-illegal idea Zuckerberg was able to increase Facebook’s user base from 12 million people in 2006 to 845 million in 2011.

Today, no one introduces Zuckerberg as the “failed Wirehog guy.” They applaud him for the way he has been able to grow and develop multiple, leading social platforms.

So how do you know when it’s time to move on from an idea? There is obviously no one-size-fits-all answer or magic equation to make this determination because all ideas, and artist objectives, aren’t created equally. What makes someone good at knowing when to let an idea go – or sell a stock, for that matter – is by generating thousands of ideas (or, in the stock’s case: making lots of deals). The more ideas you bring to market, the more you will see how they are evaluated, learn why some are chosen, and understand why others are rejected. And, while you’ll still absolutely love some of your ideas, you won’t view each and every one of them as the most precious commodity. Most importantly, you will grow more confident in knowing which ideas have run their course, so when you do ditch an idea, you’ll know that was the right decision.

Don’t worry if you give up on a bright idea. If you’re constantly producing ideas, you’ll have plenty more and you want to spend quality minutes on the that click  not the ones that don’t.

Matt McCue

Matt McCue is the Editor-in-Chief of 99U. He lives in New York City, but he is willing to travel long distances for a good meal. Find him @mattmccuewriter or email him at mccue@adobe.com. 

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