Review: Seth Godin, “The Dip”

I first encountered Seth Godin’s writing in November 2005. His free e-book “Who’s There?” was excellent, though in a way a failure. It concerned blogging and was rightly excited about trackbacks. If you created blog content others cared about, content that responded or expanded upon others on the web, you could find yourself with quite an audience simply by continuing a conversation. Godin didn’t quite say that, of course, but it was a very powerful idea that animated the book. You’ll note trackbacks fell apart via the Tragedy of the Commons. For a brief time, solid voices could be found through the trackback links at more popular blogs. Splogs/spammers annihilated what might have made the web a very interesting and powerful social experiment.

I say “failure” not because I expect Godin to predict the future or even point exactly to where success is. In fact, I say failure in what I think is a good way. An idea was put forth that had a serious chance of working for a lot of people. For some, it did work. But its potential only existed for a brief period, and one has to wonder about the reasoning underlying the insight.

Which brings us to “The Dip” (saw it in the library, read it). Godin thinks “strategic quitting” an important concept for anyone who wants success. To strategically quit, one has to know why one would quit something well before one undertakes it. That knowledge centers around identifying a “dip,” where if we chart effort vs. results, for a time effort produces frustration and maybe even setbacks as opposed to strictly forward progress. One wants to know the cost of the “dip” and ask oneself if it’s worth paying. If worth paying, spectacular results can be had. If not, there can be equally spectacular results, as energies are devoted fully to another enterprise.

Godin reasons something like this:

  1. The reward for being first is far and away bigger than being a runner-up. The name/brand recognition brings people who aren’t too knowledgeable about what you do to you. You want to be “best in the world,” meaning an outstanding, remarkable choice in a given consumer’s vision. “Best in the world” can mean “best fried rice in Anchorage” as far as Godin is concerned.
  2. There are lots of things people do distracting them from being “best in the world.” Mostly, they aren’t identifying conventional obstacles, oftentimes obstacles created by competitors to make market entry and success more difficult. The trick is to do some kind of cost-benefit analysis for yourself, keeping in mind that no matter what you do, things will get hard (“the dip”). Godin’s whole point is that you need adequate resources and planning to weather “the dip” and build your brand.
  3. Serial quitting and an intolerance for short term pain should be avoided at all costs. This is self-explanatory, but important to state because it almost makes failure immoral. I know Godin’s not going there. I’ll be clearer what I mean below.

Look, I should be celebrating “The Dip.” Every time Godin asks the reader questions for self-reflection, I come out with straight A’s. This blog has almost consistently had forward progress, reaching people years ago who only now are contacting me. And I can’t say enough about how awesome my audience is. I’d like to say I’ve gotten better as a writer, but it’s probably the case that there are a lot of open-minded, patient people willing to read a lot of stupid things I say to get to one or two things that might be worthwhile.

And yet, I’m a bit skeptical about Godin’s message. It isn’t that I don’t think more people should quit trying to do too much. On campus, there are so many who think in terms of double majors, playing a sport, being part of every club, running for student government all at once. Some of the people like this are 22.

No, it’s more that the knowledge you need to assess costs to yourself doesn’t come from anywhere in particular. One thing those of us passionate about “making it” do is a lot of things. Godin briefly and negatively critiques diversification, but later in his short book he talks about changing tactics. Granted, the latter advice has to do with quitting when knowing one’s ambitions are limited for good. But how do you know where you want a clean slate? How do you know what it is you really want to achieve?

You get why I’m writing this. I’d like to recommend this book to others who are doing too much and nothing well in particular. I can, but with a qualification. Some things, considered only in terms of “dips” and effort v. results, are “dead-ends” ultimately. I know people who will mock others for fighting for peace and justice. It is true to some that those things are impractical. I think a better approach to finding happiness is to aim high and not go it alone. The more successful people I know are conquering “dips” and reaping the rewards for specializing. Some of them are very lonely and their specialization only does so much. Yeah, you’ll be useful to a degree, you’ll still run into a bunch of obstacles that make a compelling story. But the highest friendships unite people in virtue. Godin talks about “dips” being something an organization or business can plan for. There’s a cooperation of a higher order that’s at stake. Any serious cost-benefit analysis has to take into account explicitly the good you want to do.

2 Comments

  1. > But how do you know where you want a clean slate? How do you know what it is you really want to achieve?

    To quote William Blake, ‘if the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise’ or ‘You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough’.

    If you don’t engage in sunk costs, you’ll never learn.

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