Not long ago, I read Shoe Dog, the memoir of Nike founder Phil Knight. Toward the end of the book, Knight makes a point that I found to be compelling; I’m paraphrasing here, but essentially he says that this notion that good entrepreneurs never quit is simply foolish. Part of being a successful entrepreneur is knowing when to walk away, when to throw in the towel, when to cut your losses; to recognize those occasions when it’s smartest to call it quits is actually an immense strategic asset.
I found myself agreeing with this point, but a few days later I was scrolling through social media and found a familiar quote from another legendary entrepreneur—Steve Jobs. You’ve probably heard it before: “I’m convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance.”
At first, I thought this was contrary to what Phil Knight says—but I went back to Shoe Dog to explore his argument further, and I actually think that these two different statements are complementary, not contradictory.
To be sure, the ability to know when you need to walk away is a tremendous asset for any entrepreneur. As I’ve said before, entrepreneurship is not a mountaintop experience. Throughout the journey, you’ll have low points. You’ll have failures. You’ll have ideas that won’t quite pan out. It is invaluable that you recognize them, diagnose them accurately, and unemotionally walk away—on to the next challenge, the next idea.
That’s what Knight is talking about, I believe. However, here’s the other side of the coin: Really thriving as an entrepreneur requires not just the ability to diagnose failure, but the will to keep going—to push through those valleys until you make it to the next mountaintop. That’s where Jobs’ emphasis on perseverance comes into play.
There’s one more quote I want to offer, and it’s one that I think ties all this together. This one comes from Thomas Edison. Edison says: “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”
But of course, it was only by isolating those 10,000 misfires that Edison was able to come at last to the light bulb. Phil Knight is right: You’ve got to know when to declare something a failure. But Steve Jobs is right, too: Once you hit a failure, you’ve got to have the will to keep going.
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