photo credit: Jennifer Pallian

Part of Succeeding is Knowing When to Quit

How Ben & Jerry’s thrived by dropping other things first

Quitting has a negative association.

We describe it as giving up, being non-committal, or lacking perseverance. When someone quits, it’s easy to assume that the person simply didn’t give it their all.

To be sure, quitting prematurely happens too often. Whenever you try something, you’re going to have difficulties. You’re going to face obstacles. You’re going to battle doubts swimming in your head. Quitting may not be the best choice.

But other times, it doesn’t make sense to keep going. What if you attempt something, but never see any progress? What if you continue down a route, but just don’t feel passionate about where you’re headed?

How do you know when it’s time to buckle down, and when to let go?

Two Friends With a Shared Dream

In 1973 on Long Island, two seventh grade boys met in gym class and became friends. Over the years, their friendship continued until twelfth grade rolled around. Then, it was time for the two to go their separate ways for college.

Ben Cohen went off to Colgate University and then spent the following summer working at an ice cream truck. In his second year, he dropped out and moved back to Long Island, where he worked menial jobs while attending jewelry and pottery courses at various universities. Before the decade was over, he worked as a cashier, a deliverer, a floor cleaner, a taxi driver, a guard, and an assistant superintendent.

Jerry Greenfield, on the other hand, was a diligent student. After high school, he chose to study pre-med at Oberlin College. As a side job, he scooped ice cream for students at the cafeteria.

After graduation, Greenfield applied to medical school and was rejected twice. He then moved back to New York, where he shared an apartment with Cohen while working as a lab technician. For the third and final time, he applied to medical school.

After his rejection, he moved to North Carolina to continue as a lab technician. A couple years later, he decided to move up to Saratoga Springs, New York to room with Cohen again. This time, they considered doing something together.

Both of them had always wanted to run a business. So they turned to ice cream. After spending five dollars on an ice-cream making correspondence course (they split the tuition), and a $12,000 investment, they opened shop.

The Question At the Back of Our Minds

Ben & Jerry’s was a success. From that single shop in Burlington, Vermont, they’ve since expanded across the world. But how did they know that opening an ice cream shop was the right decision to make? How did they know to stick with it?

The answer: By quitting numerous things beforehand.

Now, that may sound overly simplistic. It sounds as if they just knew when to quit, and when to keep going. But what is simple should never be confused with what is easy.

Opening an ice cream shop with a correspondence course and start-up capital is simple enough. But knowing what they needed and didn’t need to focus on wasn’t. While they started their business venture, there were other options in their lives — options where they said “no”.

Whenever we start something, there’s always that question at the back of our minds: Should we keep going?

For instance, if your business is suffering losses, you may be at a crossroads on whether or not to call it a day. If you keep applying to grad school and get rejected, you start to second-guess your qualifications. If you fall behind people who started learning a skill at the same time, you wonder whether your talent lies somewhere else.

How to Know When It’s Time to Quit

If you’re not sure whether to keep going or pursue something else, consider these points. Do any of them resonate with you?

1. You don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel.

When you don’t see things getting better, or you stagnate despite multiple approaches, it might be time to consider quitting. For instance, you keep running in the same arguments with somebody, or you always seem to get skipped over for promotion.

An interesting part of the Ben & Jerry’s story is that Ben Cohen suffers from severe anosmia. He cannot taste or smell. To compensate for his lack of taste perception, he put large chunks into the ice cream to feel the texture. The large chunks have since become a trademark.

It doesn’t seem to make sense to start a food business if you can’t smell. But Cohen managed to turn his weakness into an advantage, which shows one of the biggest differences between a temporary setback and a permanent one.

A temporary setback involves hitting difficulties, but still having a pathway towards where you’re headed. Even if there are obstacles, they’re manageable and can be overcome. It may have helped that Cohen had a business partner who could taste and smell at his side.

A permanent setback happens when you’re faced with an insurmountable problem. The probability of progressing further is low and possibly decreasing with time. Maybe you want to pursue a career with age or physical restrictions and your chances of succeeding go down with time.

In Greenfield’s case, he was rejected from medical school three times. It’s hard to say whether he would have been accepted eventually. But in any case, he decided he’d had enough and moved on to other projects.

2. The pain is greater than the reward.

If doing something makes you feel physically or mentally ill, it’s time to take a step back and evaluate. Putting up with pain takes its toll in the long term to the point that it becomes unbearable.

How do you know whether your pain comes from doing something you dislike, or because you work too hard on something you want? After all, author Margaret Atwood developed spinal neurosis from writing too much. She worked on her craft to the point that she became physically ill.

I think the difference was that, for Atwood, the reward of writing was greater than its downside. She saw value in continuing to write, despite the injuries and discomforts. She was compelled to write, no matter what happened.

But if you dread doing something or going somewhere, you have to assess the value in continuing. Is the reward worth the pain? After all, by staying in one endeavor, there’s an opportunity cost. Trade-offs are involved.

We’re often hesitant to quit because of the “sunk cost fallacy”. The more time, energy, and resources we invest, the harder it becomes to walk away. This is why it makes sense to quickly test out an idea before spending too much on it. In Cohen and Greenfield’s case, they considered running a bagel shop, but learned from a bagel-making equipment supplier that the start-up costs were too high for their budget.

3. You stay because there’s nothing else out there.

There are many reasons why we stay in one place. Believing there are no other options is the wrong one. Still, it’s easy to close yourself to new ideas when you fall into a routine. After a while, daily habits become difficult to change.

Experiencing routine brings both comfort for sameness and an increasing discomfort for the unfamiliar. As time drags on, it may seem like the only set of options available are the ones put in front of us. For instance, when a restaurant hands you a menu with five choices, how often do you ask the server about a sixth choice?

We usually opt for what we see. It may not be what we want, but it’s convenient. This isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes, we just need to pick something and get on with our day.

But for more important choices, this scarcity mindset can lead to a dead end. It could mean staying in a job with no prospects, or pursuing an idea with little chance of taking off. We stay simply because we think that we have no choice.

If you’ve been stuck in this frame of mind, experiencing something different can widen your perspective. For Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, moving to a new town and teaming up gave them the courage to pursue an idea.

4. Your current path doesn’t align with your values.

Before Ben & Jerry’s was created, Ben Cohen was a cab driver and potter with no one who wanted to buy his pottery. Jerry Greenfield was working with animal brains in a research lab. Neither of them was particularly interested in what they were doing.

Once they got together, they brainstormed what they liked. It had always been a dream of theirs to start a business. Looking back, they realized that they wanted to incorporate their love of eating.

The two also shared a good sense of humor. The first time they met, the coach yelled that if they didn’t run a mile in under seven minutes, they would have to keep trying. Cohen retorted, “Gee coach, if I don’t do it under seven minutes the first time, I’m certainly not going to do it in under seven minutes the second time!”

With this in mind, they wanted their business to be fun and spirited. Later, the company became a platform for fair trade and environmental issues.

There are many reasons why we decide to do something. Sometimes, social pressure influences what we choose to pursue. Other times, we fulfill others’ expectations by stepping into a pre-determined path. Possibly, Greenfield had applied to medical school out of expectation rather than desire.

It takes time to find out what you value. You could value independence, creativity, or the outdoors, for instance. There are some values that you place higher than others. You may still be sorting out your values. But once you find them, like Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, it becomes obvious.

If Things Aren’t Working, Pivot

It’s not an easy decision to drop something and start afresh. It’s even harder to know what to quit and how to go about it.

Sometimes you don’t need to quit what you’re doing, but you need to quit your expectations. Ben & Jerry’s didn’t set out to become a global enterprise. They just started by selling ice cream out of a renovated gas station.

Sometimes, you don’t need to quit your expectations, but you do need to quit your approach. It’s not impossible to start an ice cream company if you have anosmia, but you need to find a way around it.

And other times, you might be headed in the wrong direction altogether. Like Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, you won’t get things right from the beginning. You’ll have to make things up as you go along.

But if you keep exploring and adjusting, quitting in one thing may be the necessary ingredient to succeeding in another.

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