When The Going Gets Tough, Smart People Change Direction. When Something Isn’t Working, Quit

Started out with the dreams and the plans of a wise man. Ended up with the heartaches of a fool.” — Willie Nelson.

Sep 21, 2017 · 6 min read

By David Grace (www.DavidGraceAuthor.com)

Abandon Failure, Please

You have to be smart enough to know that when something fundamentally isn’t working that you need to let it go.

If your marriage is one, big, constant, open wound, for God’s sake, let it go.

A fundamental rule of startups is “Quickly kill the failures in their cribs.” If your brilliant new company is unexpectedly hemorrhaging money and you don’t have a sure-fire fix, quickly cut your losses and move on.

If the ship is taking on water faster than the pumps can handle, don’t kill yourself looking for more pumps. Get the hell off the ship.

In one of the classic Seinfeld episodes George is lamenting that his life is a mess. Suddenly, it occurs to him that if everything he’s been doing turns out wrong, then the opposite of what he’s been doing would have to be right.

He then embarks on an odyssey of doing the opposite of what logic tells him he should do, and he reaps success at every turn.

In my own life, I’ve learned that when I try something and it doesn’t work, and then I do more of the same and it doesn’t work and then I do even more and it still doesn’t work that it’s time to go the other way. If Z then ZZ then ZZZ all fail then it’s time to abandon Z entirely and give Minus-Z a try.

The Pernicious Effects Of Emotion

Why am I harping on such a basic principle? Because people often make decisions based on emotion instead of logic, reason and common sense.

As a ship is driven onto the rocks by winds and waves, humans are driven into the jaws of disaster by emotion and ego.

It’s ego, pride and arrogance, bit-by-bit, piece-by-piece, day-by-day, that so often push people into terrible, awful, disastrous decisions.

The Vietnam War

I’ve been watching Ken Burns’ documentary on the Vietnam War, and for me the most striking lesson from that whole, terrible fiasco, is how that disaster sprang from the fatal, toxic influence of Pride.

White House tapes reveal that within weeks of JFK’s murder LBJ was already voicing misgivings about the Vietnam War. Again and again he told people that wars were easy to get into and difficult to get out of, that wars were traps. He openly and often worried that Vietnam was going to be a mess, that it held a great risk of loss and little promise of gain.

By 1966 Robert McNamara was writing LBJ secret memos openly stating that the war could never be won by force of arms.

Yet, LBJ and McNamara kept on keeping on.

General Westmorland would ask for 2X more troops and instead of saying, “No. To hell with this” LBJ would “compromise” and give him X more. The Joint Chiefs would urge 4X more bombing targets and LBJ would express his misgivings and then give them 2X more sorties. He knew the war was a disaster but he couldn’t let it go.

LBJ and McNamara weren’t stupid. They realized that the Vietnam War was a meat grinder, quicksand, a black hole that militarily couldn’t be won, but pride and ego overwhelmed their intelligence and decency.

“If only we send in more men, bomb more targets, eventually the enemy will tire and negotiate a treaty we can live with,” they deluded themselves into believing.

They knew that militarily the war could not be won, but they clung to the fantasy that eventually North Vietnam could be punished into suing for peace. They lived by the expression, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going,” refusing to admit that that homily is almost always the last refuge of the egomaniac and the fool.

It doesn’t take a genius to know that when an enterprise has been failing for a long time one of the dumbest things you can do is just keep on keeping on, yet that is exactly what Johnson and McNamara did.


The Toxic Nature Of Ego & Pride

The decision to throw good money after bad is almost always fueled by ego and pride.

  • “What will people think if we give up now?” is the fool’s constant refrain. They’ll think that you’re smart enough to know when to abandon a bad idea.
  • “I don’t want to look like a quitter,” the fool says, forgetting that it’s far better to look like a quitter than be proven a fool.

Pride is always a vice, never a virtue.

The Wages Of Pride

In hindsight we know that America would have been vastly better off if in 1965 LBJ had just said, “We’re done” and pulled out.

Vietnam would have been united under a Communist government, just like it is today.

What did pride get us?

Including veterans’ benefits, in 2003 dollars the Vietnam War cost the United States taxpayers over one Trillion dollars. It killed over 58,000 young Americans. It destroyed the trust of an entire generation in the government, a distrust that still exists today.

And by the time we finally quit we didn’t just lose. We lost gigantically.

Pride. Fear of failure. Fear of quitting. Ego.


In the months before we attacked Iraq we manufactured all kinds of excuses for the war:

  • Saddam is a terrible person. True, he was.
  • He will do bad things if we don’t stop him. He probably would, but would they be as bad as what Iran has done once Saddam was no longer there to contain it?
  • He has weapons of mass destruction. A lie.

Why did we really attack Iraq? My opinion is ego. Pride.

We had beaten Saddam once but he didn’t stay beaten. He thwarted us. He didn’t do what we wanted. He insulted us. How dare some little pipsqueak dictator in some nothing country that we had already beaten the shit out of dare defy the United States? We’ll show him!

Now, three Trillion dollars and counting later we’re far worse off than we were before. We sure showed him.

North Korea

Today, another pipsqueak, nut-job dictator is insulting us and not doing what we want and the war machine is cranking up again.

  • We didn’t want to go to war in Vietnam, but those little nobodies wouldn’t do what we wanted them to so we had to teach them a lesson. How did that turn out for us?
  • We didn’t want to go to war in Iraq but that loudmouth asshole wouldn’t do what we wanted him to do so we had to teach him a lesson. How did that turn out for us?

Now we’ve got another loudmouth, nut-job, asshole who’s calling us names so, of course, we’re going to have to teach him a lesson too. How do you suppose that’s going to turn out for us?

Will We Ever Learn?

Did we teach Vietnam a lesson or did it, or at least should it, have taught us one?

Did we teach Iraq a lesson or did it, or at least should it, have taught us one?

Now it’s North Korea. Apparently the lessons of Vietnam and Iraq are ones that we are incapable of learning, namely that Pride goeth before a fall.

– David Grace (www.DavidGraceAuthor.com)

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Graduate of Stanford University & U.C. Berkeley Law School. Author of 17 novels and over 200 Medium columns on Economics, Politics, Law, Humor & Satire.

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