“Never Give Up” is Terrible Advice

Bad advice?

A good friend of mine started a business almost five years ago. He is one of the smartest, most charismatic people I know. His business has generated $100k+ in revenues. But it has never been profitable. And with the way he runs the business, it never will be. Even if he hired the best CEO in the world, it would never be a huge winner.

It’s hugely stressful and has taken a toll on him: mentally, physically, financially and emotionally. Over the past five years, he’s missed out on other life opportunities and wrecked friendships and business relationships. His friends have advised him to close up shop, take stock of his life and start fresh. He is smart enough that he could get a job pretty much anywhere or get a high paying consulting gig to get himself back on his feet. Or even start another business himself.

But he doesn’t. He bangs his head against the wall every day, digging himself deeper and deeper into a hole. He gets angry when friends try to give him advice. To a point where most of us don’t hear from him very often anymore. To a rational outsider, it’s time to cut losses and move on. But he wont. Why?

First rule of holes: when you're in one, stop digging
First rule of holes: when you’re in one, stop digging

Because he can’t bring himself to “give up.” He’s not curing cancer. He’s not stopping a war or saving the planet. He’s not going to the moon. He’s not stuck in a canyon with his arm crushed by rock. He’s working on a business that doesn’t solve a big enough problem that people are willing to pay for it. I’ve seen similar stories many times over the past ten years and it makes me sad every time I see it.

Some entrepreneurs are motivated by the problem they’re trying to solve. Others don’t want to “give up” because they see it as a character flaw or personal failure. Others because they don’t want to tell their friends, family or investors that their company isn’t going to work.

These entrepreneurs are smart people. They have options. They could start a different business. They could do consulting for awhile. They could get a job for six months or a year and get back on their feet. But they don’t.

Why? We’re inundated with well meaning motivational quotes, memes and success stories posted by the successful and those longing to be successful every day. They preach that if you just worked harder and banged your head against the wall longer, you would find success. The simple act of not “giving up” will make you successful, they seem to suggest.

While well meaning, in practice, it’s terrible advice that does more harm that good. Short of life or death scenarios, nearly everything has a point where it doesn’t make sense to continue. But we’ve been indoctrinated by hearing stories of successful people who kept at it and found success. Nearly all successful entrepreneurs have stories about not giving up. But it’s really easy to look back once you’re already successful and pat yourself on the back and tell others to keep banging their head against the wall.

Sure, these entrepreneurs wouldn’t have gotten to where they are today if they had “give up” before they found success. But they also wouldn’t have gotten to where they are today if they didn’t have the right makeup to be a CEO. Or the right timing. Or the right product market fit. Etc. Etc.  Sometimes more effort and not giving up is not the solution. Many entrepreneurs act like “never giving up” is the magic bullet to finding success. It’s not. It’s survivorship bias.

Remember the guy who never gave up and still didn't find success? Neither does anybody else.
Survivorship bias: Remember the guy who never gave up and still didn’t find success? Neither does anybody else.

What about all the people who never gave up but didn’t become successful? Who decided to forego other amazing opportunities because they thought never giving up on their idea was the way forward? Sometimes adding more effort and time to a project will just prolong the inevitable.

I’ve been in the hole before. Deciding to stop digging is always one of the hardest decisions you have to make. But “giving up” has always led me to another, better path. My philosophy is to take many small, calculated risks and see if they pay off. I cut the ones that don’t pay off as quickly as possible. I give up on them. And I try something new. My goal is to find things that motivate me and try to turn them into winners. I “give up” on ideas all the time. Until I find a winner.Then I invest as much time, effort and energy into it as possible. I live my life that way: business, friends and relationships. Failure and “giving up” is an integral part of life.

You can’t have success if you give up before you find success. But you can have success if you “give up” on one path and go down another.  You should weigh the pros and cons of continuing to work on a business, staying friends with someone or continuing in a relationship by evaluating your options. One of those options should be giving up.

By “giving up” on your project, you may keep your big goal alive. If you never give up, you may find success. But just as likely, you’ll be miserable, having left plenty of other great options on the table. So when you’re in a hole, stop digging, take a step back and evaluate your options. Giving up just might be the best one.

What do you think?


  • Absolutely, totally agree with you!

    Having being an entrepreneur for almost half of my life, i have come up with really exciting concepts (well, exciting to me, at least), some of them have been successful and some i have ‘given up’ for a lot of reasons; viability check failure, crashed market tests, effort versus profit imbalance, or just because i got bored.

    Recently, i closed down our Startup Chile project after 2 years, because we had lost the confidence in the product – market fit. Maybe, we would have got a investor or applied for further grants etc, but it probably would have made the hole more deeper and more difficult to get out.

    Looking back after 4 months, i feel it was a best decision of my life. We recovered some of the investment by selling the assets and also cleared up our time. This allows us to focus more on our own graphic design / illustration consultancy as well as work on 3 to 4 exciting new startup projects ideas!

    Along with hearing ‘success’ stories by not giving up, I think, we have also been indoctrinated into the concept of creating permanent identities and glory of life long work achievement. This stops most people from modifying their lives / lifestyles, according to changing situations. It seems that people tend to confuse, quality of life and profession or work, giving more importance to the latter and in the process sacrificing the earlier!

    • Thanks for the comment. If you haven’t already, it would be interesting to see some sort of an after action report on your lessons learned from your company that you closed up. Whether its for publication or just for yourself, taking stock and rereading when you have the same problems farther down the line has helped me a ton. I think you can generally learn more from failures than you can from successes.

      • Thats’ a great idea Nate…thanks! I have done this with one of my former companies, but not with the recent one. Will get on and also share it with you!

  • With most advice, the answer is depends. The old line of ‘Never Give Up’ is both the best advice and the worst advice depending on the context. Saying that it is bad advice is in my opinion really bad advice that goes against many of the greatest success stories while agreeing with some other great success stories. Learning how to measure the context is my general opinion on what to do……..

    • Agreed, context is key. The post is a bit dramatic, but I’ve seen many entrepreneurs who dogmatically believe that if only they kept trying, they would find success. At the end of the day, its not true for everyone. Just trying more/harder isn’t always the missing ingredient. Entrepreneurs need to be able to take a step back and dispassionately view their options.

  • Definitely agree it is important to keep this in mind. But as an entrepreneur myself, it is just as important to be courageous, a little crazy and take leaps of faith without having all the answers. If you’re always asking yourself if giving up is the best option, you probably will be too scared or unwilling to continue. Your mind will convince you to take the safe option. Instead, I allow (and force) myself to periodically assess the business progress against my original goals. If I decide it’s still on track during those check-ins, I keep going and don’t obsess about the option to walk away until my next personal assessment of my life and the business.

  • Very successful people tend to give this kind of advice. It’s called Survivorship Bias: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Survivorship_bias . For ever startup with a huge exit there are there are a hundreds that never got off the ground. Some even where the founders ended up with terrible debt and would have been a lot better off getting out sooner.

  • I think never give up means not to give up in the big picture or vision. Many people take the advice the wrong way such as in your friends scenario, he was pushing against a concrete wall, when he could of step back looked around and find another door way (another business, idea) to the goal. I think never give up means accepting failure of your methods, learning from them, then doing something different to reach your goals. That’s never give up. It doesn’t mean pursue one girl a hundred times, that’s just creepy… it means ask a hundred different girls for their numbers and get luck with a few of them.. same as in business.

    • Thanks for commenting, I think that you’re right, if your small goal doesn’t work, then don’t change your big vision yet, but after awhile if its still not working, I’d suggest giving up on the big vision and look for a different one.

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