Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Sometimes You Have to Know When To Quit

Many of us remember our younger days when we were immortal and untouchable, taking on the world at any cost while daring the world to try and stop us.

Back in the 80s, I was one of those rebellious types, having not learned the subtleties and nuances of tackling problems where the reward wasn’t worth the risk.

In one example, a friend of mine who was a tribal chief on a reserve in Canada happened to mention to me that much of the violence on the reserve was as a result of a certain well-known large union that was responsible for running guns, drugs and other contraband through the reserve, which straddled the US-Canada border.

Being young, untouchable and immortal, I set about researching this to bring an end to what I thought was an outrageous series of actions on the part of this union.  Everything was going great and in fact, I managed to prove that there was significant truth to the story.

It was going great until one day, a member of this union called me at my desk in a Government of Canada office, addressed me by name and indicated that he had all the evidence that I needed.  In fact, all I had to do was give him my home address and he would deliver it personally.

This event, being before the days of the web, online directories and such, was quite intimidating.  In addition, as a consultant, my name wasn’t associated with the phone and yet he managed to contact me anyway.  He knew that it probably wouldn’t take much to scare me off and he was right.

Some months later, having forgotten my lesson, I became aware of a large-scale disappearance that had occurred in Western Canada some years before and once again, I was off to the races, determined to figure out what had happened to these people.

I called the RCMP in Ottawa and started to explain the nature of the information I sought when the operator interrupted me and said “I know exactly who you need to speak to”.  A moment later, I was connected to the person in charge of federal investigations for this type of situation and as I started to explain my story, he interrupted me and told me he was quite familiar with it.  He asked for my contact information and promised to call me back with the information I sought.

A little later that day, he did indeed call me back and informed me that the story had turned out to be a hoax.  Ever the inquisitive person (but with less common sense then), I asked him if the file was still open with the RCMP.  When he indicated that it was, I reminded him that if it were a hoax, the RCMP would have closed the file and since the file was still open, it couldn’t be a hoax.  In fact, I went on, now feeling full of myself, I would use whatever it took to get access to the information.  His response was “I told you this is a hoax”.  With my heels dug in, I again repeated “I understand what you are saying but this is in contradiction to your policy of closing files that are known hoaxes”.  He angrily replied, “Look, I’m trying to tell you something. You are not to pursue this further.” and he hung up.

Once again, it took an implied threat to shut me down (or to shut me up). :-)

Truth is, it took a few threats before I smartened up enough to not put myself or my family at risk by doing something stupid that I had no expertise in and that truly offered no measurable return commensurate with the risk.

Returning to the present, when I think about some of the business proposals that people have presented to me in recent months, the scenarios remind me of me back then.  The overlaps are uncanny:

1. Diving into areas where the individual has no area of expertise (or any business to be poking around in).

2. People with so much ego present that they are unwilling to admit that they have no idea what they are doing.

3. Having no measurable, valuable end goals defined, with the hope that if enough noise and activity are generated, good things have to occur as a result.  “After all”, as one person told me, “Good things always happen to good people”.

4. Containing astronomical risks, with no limit to the disaster that can be created for many people while at the same time, containing minimal potential reward at best.

5. The belief that gut instinct alone supersedes all the other laws of nature, including strategic planning, tactical execution and collaboration with others.

6. The fact that it will take a disaster or to be seriously kicked around a few times before the person finally understands that the whole thing is a potentially dangerous waste of time, energy and resources.

That’s not to say that really wild ideas shouldn’t be followed through to explore the potential of real success.

But when such an opportunity arises, know the difference between a great idea containing measurable end goals, smart strategy, sharp tactics, collaboration and excellent execution (all backed up by relevant data and analysis) versus an idea that is backed up merely by the belief that this is the best idea and I am the only person smart enough and passionate enough to do something with it.

Sometimes you need to know when to quit … or better yet … when to not start at all.

Otherwise, someone may be showing up at your door to deliver the news personally … and it probably won’t be good news.

In service and servanthood,



  1. I recently made a risky career decision that didn't work out. Fortunately it was remedied, but looking back I had all the information and knew all the right people to talk to prior to making that decision to indicate that it was a mistake. I learned the consequences of being stubborn. Your advise above is important. The list at the end should be made into a wall hanging. :-)

  2. Thank you for your kind words, Nathan.

    As for the list at the end, I can say without fear of criticism that many of these were learned the hard way! :-)

    Take care and create a great day!