What Woodpeckers Know

September 6, 2022

A woodpecker can tap twenty times on a thousand trees and get nowhere, but stay busy.  Or he can tap twenty-thousand times on one tree and get dinner.

Seth Godin - The Dip

The quote above is from one of my favorite books The Dip - it's a fantastic thought provoking book about when to quit and when you should persevere.

Seth uses this metaphor to illustrate that "extraordinary benefits accrue to the tiny minority of people who are able to push just a tiny bit longer than most". You embark on a journey, it inevitably gets tough and the benefits lie on the other side of the chasm.  

Woodpeckers have an Unfair Advantage

I'd argue that woodpeckers have it easier than us, though...

At the point she's started tapping, she already knows that the reward is there, lurking beneath the bark, thanks to her incredible hearing.  She knows that if she works hard enough to making an opening she'll get to feast.

That's a privileged position to be in.

How many of us mere humans, at the start of a project, can be virtually guaranteed that the fruits of our labor will come to fruition?

Basically, never.

Virtually any endeavor is surrounded with varying degrees of uncertainty.

It raises some important questions:-

  • How do we know where to peck?
  • How do we know how much pecking will be required?
  • How do we know when to move to another tree and start pecking in a different spot?

If only there were cookie cutter answers to these questions.  There aren't.

There are never any guarantees. 

How to Thrive in Uncertainty and know when to Quit

If we're living in an uncertain world and everything we do has a risk of failure what's the next best skill to master?

Knowing when to quit and when to persevere.

Quitting gets a bad rap - "winners never quit and quitters never win".   

Seth argues that quitting or not is neither a good or bad thing by itself. The context matters.  Both strategies can be one of the best decisions you've ever made, or your worst.

Your reasons for quitting are what matters.  

Some people quit three feet from gold.  

Some never quit and waste a lifetime selling ice to eskimos.

Some get it just right: they quit the wrong stuff and stick with the right stuff.

Feelings are the Enemy of the Good

Bad reasons to are often from prioritizing the short term pain over long term gain...or, put in simpler terms, how bad you feel in the moment versus how much better off you'll be in the long run:-

  • I'm tired
  • I'm not motivated anymore
  • I'm bored
  • I'm struggling
  • It's hard
  • I'm not sure how to proceed
  • I don't know the answer

Seth perfectly sums this up:- "Your work is too important to be left to how you feel today".

Show me a person driven purely by emotion and I'll show you a person with a train wreck of a life.  

How to Make Decisions Objectively

Knowing when to move to a different tree means answering questions, like:-

  • Do people want what I'm offering?
  • Do I really have what it takes with the resources that I have?
  • Am I making progress or am I busy being busy?
  • What's not working?
  • Am I avoiding the inevitable?

These are difficult questions to answer and the part of your brain responsible for emotions and feelings is hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with such complicated issues.

So, in the middle of an emotional backlash, when feelings and emotions are running wild, what's the best thing to do?

Here's what I practice:-

  1. Become aware, in the moment, that you're not thinking rationally
  2. Sit down and write through everything logically

The writing part is key.  

I've found that merely thinking through isn't sufficient. It's too easy to gloss over details and it's easy to fall back into lower forms of emotional driven thinking.

The mere act of writing through i) why you're feeling the way that you do and ii) objectively what the next steps are allows your logical brain to interpret the situation in a way that your emotions and feelings can't.

It's a practice that I've used many times when I can feel that I'm "losing my mind" and am all over the place.  I've even used it to overcome hypochondria, overwhelm and investment decisions.  

Writing just seems to bring clarity in a way that thought alone cannot.

What Humans Know

Unlike woodpeckers, humans possess a remarkable ability to use one part of their brain to control another.  

Writing is the best way I know of doing this.

The next time your animal brain rudely interrupts your pecking and you feel like quitting, take a step back and remind yourself that emotions and feelings are all about the here and now and not the longer term benefits...And their kryptonite is awareness and logical introspection that can be accessed through the mere act of journaling.

Also, read The Dip - it's awesome and goes into the finer nuances of logically knowing when to quit and when to persevere.

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