5 Steps to Figure Out When to Give Up on a Dream

Can perseverance, a cherished success trait, be bad? Yes, as this article shows. Untethered from reason, perseverance can be disastrous. There is wisdom in knowing when to quit on a dream.

Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.

--Calvin Coolidge, 30th US President

Perseverance is universally held as the ultimate virtue, a sine qua non for success. This is as it should be. Without the ability to stick to a belief, a thought, a course of action, or a commitment, especially when it is not convenient, no great undertaking can be completed. If Thomas Edison had given up before discovering the tungsten filament, we may not have had the incandescent bulb. We praise visionaries like Edison for their grit, not necessarily for their genius.

Taken too far, however, perseverance shows its dark side: its singular ability to wreck not just a dream, but the dreamer. Without the wisdom to know when to give up on a dream, we risk losing greatly on an unprofitable endeavor. Knowing when to quit prevents us from being like the gambler who believes that one more throw of the dice will win him back his lost fortune…until he has nothing left.

I invite you to use the following steps as a guide for deciding when to quit your dreams.

Step #1: Know your stop-loss position.

Every security trader knows what a stop-loss is. This is the point at which they will close a losing trade. “Rather stop my loss now and survive to place the next trade than fritter away all my money on a wrong call.”

The best way to know when to quit a dream is to determine your stop-loss position before starting out. How much time and money are you are willing to spend on the dream? Are you willing to risk $10,000, and no more? Are you willing to spend 40 hours a week for two years, and no more? In short, at what point will you say, “I have done all I can do”? Learn from the professional trader: Pre-determine this point.

Step #2: Schedule a time and place to review your performance.

The question of whether to quit should be planned the same way a school plans exams (with a time and place) and a company plans performance reviews. You don’t want to be wrestling with the thought of “should I quit” every day; it dilutes your focus and poisons your enthusiasm. It doesn’t help to second-guess your every move. Set aside a date and a place for a review of your dream’s progress, or lack thereof, and potential paths forward. This doesn’t need to be a one-time event—they can be once a quarter or whatever works—but they should be planned for.

Step #3: Schedule the performance review as a team.

Even though this is your dream, it is best to review the progress with your trusted inner circle of friends, mentors, and/or advisers. You want the review to be as objective as possible, and one way to achieve that is to invite others to scrutinize the results as well. As wise King Solomon said, “In the multitude of counselors, there is safety.” This is your dream you are talking about, and it is very, very hard for you to be objective about it. Having others weigh in reduces the chance for self-delusion.

Step #4: Note lessons learned.

Nelson Mandela said, “I never lose; I either win or learn.” If you have a clear set of goals and have reviewed the progress of your dream with your team, striving for clear-eyed, objective feedback all along the way, then this step should be easy. Write down what you have learned so far. Can these lessons be used to improve your current project, or are they good general principles that you can apply in another initiative?

Step #5: Make the call to quit or continue.

There is no right or wrong answer here. The key is to know why you choose whichever course you decide upon. Don’t quit just because you are tired, or angry, or ashamed that it didn’t work out the first time. And don’t continue just out of stubbornness, either. Let your call be data-driven and backed by reason. (Again, this is why you need the performance review and lessons learned to make a team decision.) If you decide to continue, check my post on enlisting support for your dreams.

Giving up on your dream: Two key points to remember

First and most important, remember that this is not about you, in a way. You are not giving up on yourself: you are quitting this particular dream at this particular moment. You are focused on your overall goal (presumably, winning in life), and there are a thousand ways to get there. If this particular way doesn’t work out, fine. You will take all the lessons it taught you and move on.

Second, quitting on a dream is nothing to be ashamed of. The famed investor, Warren Buffet, sometimes places bad bets. Title-winning teams lose a game or two every now and then. Not all your dreams will be winners. Success requires learning, and learning is best ingrained by failure. Nothing in nature is 100% efficient. Not all ingested food is converted into energy. The lion’s success rate is less than 1 in 5; yet the lion doesn’t die of hunger. He goes out again and again until he catches his prey.

You are a lion. Failing in this or that doesn’t make you a loser, it makes you a learner. Eventually, one of your dreams will catch on. You will discover your tungsten filament and light the world with your ideas.

I, the author of the book DREAM, encourage you to ditch a dream that is not working, especially when you have given it your best, have received unbiased feedback, processed the feedback with a trusted team, and your stop-loss position is triggered. You will dream other dreams.

When to quit your dreams: A summary

Perseverance is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it is needed so that one doesn’t quit prematurely; on the other, if care is not taken, it can bankrupt the dreamer, enticing him to keep spending on a dream he can no longer afford. A dreamer should pre-set how much he is willing to risk on a dream, schedule a time and place for performance reviews, analyze progress with a team, record lessons learned, and then make the call on whether or not to quit on the dream. To protect this process from being clouded by emotions, it is necessary for the dreamer to note that all dreams aren’t destined to succeed. The key is to learn from the trying and try again (on another dream).  

I am going to ask something personal: What dreams have you let you go of?  Did you (mentally) go through these steps when deciding to give up on your dream? Please share your thoughts in the comments! 


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Break your fears today

For more insights on how to overcome your fears, check out the book Dream: A Little Reminder to Graduates and Anyone Beginning Anew by Michael Taiwo