When to Quit: Guidelines

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Hillary Clinton is bowing out of her 2008 race for the Presidency. She can’t seem to make her departure, so she is making moves toward making her departure.

I vowed 15 years ago not to write much about her, and I haven’t. I thought she got a bum steer from a bum husband, who treated her about as badly as any man can treat his wife without physically brutalizing her. So, I did my best to ignore her. She is not easy to ignore.

Her plight is a case study of a problem that faces most people at some point, and faces internally driven people repeatedly: when to quit.

It’s more than bowing out gracefully. It’s bowing out at all.

We teach our children to adopt perseverance. It’s a good quality. Given the fact that most problems that a person has the courage to take on will eventually be solved, perseverance pays off. But not always.

I have a friend from my early teens who has a vision for a software product he has been working on. He thinks it will save the world. I do not exaggerate. This is what he thinks. He has worked on it for at least a decade. He has spent all of his retirement money to develop it. I still don’t know what it is. He won’t say, exactly. I have seen bits and pieces of it. My view is that if I can’t figure out what it is supposed to do, let alone how, it probably won’t save the world. The last time I spoke with him, he was ready to mortgage his home to fund further development. He is in his seventies.

He should quit. He should have quit before he spent his retirement money. He isn’t in this just for the money. He has a much larger goal. He is not so foolish as to think it’s a good bargain to gain the whole world and lose your soul. But he thinks he can save his soul — or at least guarantee it — by having his program gain the whole world. I think he’s wrong.

I had another friend, Otto Scott. Otto was a great writer. He coined the phrase “the silent majority,” and put it into the mouth of the chairman of Ashland Oil. About sixty years ago, he and a group of entrepreneurs had an idea for a credit card that a person could use instead of cash at restaurants. They took this idea to a number of venture capitalists. Every one of them said the idea would not fly. Scott’s group dropped the project.

Within two years, the first Diners Club card was issued.

Scott turned a lemon into lemonade. The experience taught him a lesson: smart men can be very foolish. Over 25 years later, he began a book-writing project. In private, he called it the Sacred Fools project. He wrote three books based on the theme of smart men who do incomparably foolish things: (1) The Secret Six, the story of the Unitarian activists who financed John Brown; (2) James I, the debauched but brilliant king, after whom the King James Bible is named; (3) Robespierre, the so-called voice of virtue who established France’s reign of terror in 1794. The fourth volume was never completed: a biography of Woodrow Wilson, who surely was America’s most influential sacred fool. For my assessment of Wilson’s legacy, click here.

In the case of each of these sacred fools, the world would have been much better off if they had quit . . . a lot earlier. But they persevered. Their success was our loss.


Seek counsel. It may be bad, as the counsel Scott and his associates received was bad, but seeking counsel is wise.
Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety (Proverbs 11:14)
If they tell you
to quit, compare their reasons. If the reasons are similar, and all
of the counsellors have had successes in the field, take them seriously.
Think through their reasons. Do they make sense?

Most projects fail. Forecasting failure isn’t a good enough reason. Identifying the roadblocks to success and pointing to a lack of resources to overcome them is a good reason to stop the project early.
For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? Lest haply, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him, Saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish (Luke 14:28—30).
The Diners Club
story is worth recounting. The creator had an experience that convinced
him to move forward. He had been at a restaurant, and he had almost
been unable to pay. He realized that he needed a back-up source of
funds. He made the mental leap from gasoline service stations to the
restaurant. Service stations had been issuing cards for three decades.
But the cards were good only in one brand of station. So, he moved
from a real-world problem to a solution based on a real-world solution
in a completely different market. The gasoline credit card was convenient
for the buyer, but it was vital for the retailer, who locked in a
customer. The Diners Club developer saw a way to sell the idea to
retailers: more customers. Visa and MasterCard did not arrive for
another 16 years. The opportunity was in front of them, but they did
not perceive it. When they finally did, Diners Club was a victim.
So was the solvency of millions of buy now-pay later consumers.

Here are some rough rules of thumb to consider before committing too much to a project.
Is a problem worth solving if no one but you ever recognizes that it has been solved? If not, limit your commitment.

If you have to fund it yourself, why do you think anyone will pay you back? Who, How Much?

If you were to be remembered for only one thing, is this project the thing you would choose? Will they remember your failure? If so, it’s a very big project. Be prepared.

If it isn’t completed, will anyone’s life be significantly worse off, other than yours?

If you don’t do it, who can? Will he? If he doesn’t, would this be bad for the world?

Has it been attempted before? If so, what killed it?

Is it so important that if your worst enemy pulled it off, would you still be glad the project was completed?

Would you still do it if there were no monetary payoff? I have a project like this.

When you adopt a project like this, limit your commitment, either financially or in terms of a time schedule. My main project, my economic commentary on the Bible, has a time limit: age 70. The trouble is, that will complete only stage one. Then I have at least four major book projects that will flow out of it. Plus video. Plus audio. Plus a curriculum. Maybe two.


There comes a time to quit. If you stay on the project too long, it will keep you from completing any other project. That is a very high cost.

I think Hillary Clinton stayed in to the bitter end because she has no fall-back lifetime project. Being a dutiful wife to Bill surely isn’t high on her list. She poured her book royalty money into the bottomless pit of her now-dead campaign. What is next?

Nothing much.

When your life is defined as one major project vs. nothing much, you need a fall-back project. Your vision is too narrow. Your risks are too great. You won’t quit in time.

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit http://www.garynorth.com. He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

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