What do you do with the dip?

As the old song goes, “You gotta know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ‘em.” While this may be a reference to playing poker, it’s also pretty good advice on how to get by in the business world or with any personal project – you have to know when to keep going and when to cut your losses.

No matter your calling in life, there’s a good chance you’ll hit a rough patch where things aren’t going as planned and progress is at a frustrating standstill. Many of us have watched as colleagues get promoted ahead of us, sales figures plateau, relationships grow cold or felt like our work is getting worse rather than better. In the words of author Seth Godin of the book, The Dip, this difficult time is known aptly as the Dip, and it can be found in just about every facet of life.

But don’t despair! Even though the Dip is virtually unavoidable, there is often light at the end of the tunnel. Those who show patience and determination will be rewarded when growing pains come to an end and promotions, customers and relationships take a turn for the better. As Godin points out, the Dip is just a natural progression for any endeavor and by being prepared for it, you’ll be better suited to succeed.

Let’s say you want to master figure skating. Learning how to gracefully glide across the ice, and even skate backward, can happen pretty quickly. But learning how to land a perfect quadruple jump will take a great deal of time and strenuous effort before you can perfect it. This is the time when you’re struggling – deep in the Dip.

The same experience can happen when you’re bringing a new business to life. At first it’ll be smooth sailing as you fall in love with your exciting and innovative ideas. But then there’s the inevitable mountains of paperwork to overcome and figuring out how to solve the many problems that will arise during the early stages. Chances are, it’ll be years before the Dip is over and you’re comfortably running a successful business.

Sometimes the Dip can be purposefully built-in to a process as a way of finding out who the most dedicated and hardworking people are.

Imagine you’re a student in the US, thinking of going to medical school. One of your mandatory classes in the first year will be Organic Chemistry – a fiendishly difficult subject that will eat up a great deal of your study time. While Organic Chemistry isn’t the most important class in the curriculum, it creates a Dip that causes many students to throw in the towel early on.

A lot of people entertain the idea of becoming a doctor, so creating a Dip early on is an easy way for universities to reduce the class size to only the most dedicated students.

A similar strategy is used in the hiring processes of companies around the world. In order to whittle down the applicant pool to only the best talents, many job applications require an excessive amount of documentation and include multiple rounds of stressful interviews.

The good news is, by recognizing these Dips for what they are, you can find comfort in the knowledge that they’re supposed to be difficult and that it will get easier if you just stick with it.

When you were growing up, there’s a very good chance you were taught to have modest, realistic goals rather than bold, grand ambitions.

The truth is that if you aim for being the best at what you do, the rewards can be phenomenal.

Take ice-cream flavors, for example: coming in at number one is vanilla, which accounts for 30 percent of all ice cream sales in the US. Meanwhile, chocolate comes in at second, but only accounts for 10 percent of the sales.

That’s a huge difference between the best and second-best – and this phenomenon applies to more than just snack foods. According to Zipf’s law, a significant gap between first and second place can be found everywhere, from record sales to the top colleges.

Naturally, Zipf’s law also means that being number one comes with huge profits, but there are also less obvious perks to being the very best at what you do.

One such advantage is the word-of-mouth boost known as the snowball effect. Imagine being in a foreign city and wanting to find a decent place to eat. If you ask a local, you’ll likely get pointed toward whatever restaurant is the number one local favorite. So, if you’re the owner of that establishment, you’re all but guaranteed to have those hungry travelers regularly showing up thanks to all that free word-of-mouth promotion.

Another perk is related to how much you can charge. Since being the best is such a rarefied thing that sets you far apart from anyone else, you’re free to charge more for your premium product or service. This applies to just about everything, whether it’s about popular actors, musicians, hotels, restaurants, food brands or manufacturers – it pays to be the best.

The average grade school experience is about getting an all-around general education, with rewards tending to go to the students who get good marks in every subject.

But in the post-school world, being good at everything isn’t as important as being at the top of your class in one important subject. In other words, success is about specializing in something.

Specificity has many advantages. For starters, some people aren’t sure about what career to pursue. But if you’re lucky enough to already have a specific skill that you excel at, this can make career decisions much easier.

Even if you’ve already begun a career, you should know that customers aren’t interested in average – they want exceptional, and providing world-class service is just another form of specialization.

If you’re an accountant, your customers aren’t going to care if you’re an amazing golfer or a virtuoso at playing the guitar. The only thing that matters is that you’re the best accountant they can get.

An important part of specializing is learning how to strategically quit the things that get in the way of you being the best at what you do. However, most people have been taught that quitting is wrong, and that they should stick with any project they’ve started and never give up.

Unfortunately, people can’t be truly exceptional and the best at a wide range of things. Instead, people need to make distinct choices, which means quitting intensive pursuits that aren’t related to your central focus.

For example, let’s say you have a passion to produce the world’s first flying car, but you also want to play trumpet in an innovative jazz band and start a non-profit that promotes the use of eco-friendly green energy.

All of your interests may be worthwhile, but it just isn’t feasible to do it all and be the best at everything. The better strategy is to make the clear choice of focusing on the one project that you’ve got the skills for and feel most passionate about.

As the saying goes, “knowing is half the battle.” And knowing that a Dip is on the way is an important insight that gives you time to plan ahead and to familiarize yourself with what your particular Dip will look like.

Since every type of business has its own Dip, let’s take a look at some of the most common ones, starting with manufacturing.

If you have a passion for manufacturing, you may have already enjoyed the thrill of building something in your garage. But if you’re hoping to take things to the next level, it’s going to require substantial investments in technology and tools. You may also need to invest in learning new skills, like how to create an integrated electric circuit.

So, in this case, the Dip is going to be the amount of time, effort and money it takes to transition from the garage to a professional production operation. It will involve the lengthy and unpleasant business of raising funds, finding partners, creating a production line and securing your first clients. And during each step of this slow and frustrating process, it will be tempting to call it quits, so it’s important to remember that the Dip will end as long as you persevere.

If your business is in sales, you’ll find that coming up with a good idea and getting investors on board might be the easy part. The Dip happens afterward, when you’re trying to expand your business and build an effective sales force. This is when the dreary business of recruiting and onboarding new employees begins, since it requires the tedious work of setting up everyday operational structures and ensuring legal compliance.

It’s also worth knowing when the Dip arrives in personal projects too.

Let’s say you want to learn Chinese. At first you’ll be intrigued by the unusual characters and their meanings and fascinated by the new sounds as they take on new meanings for you.

But it won’t take long before these initial pleasures give way to the Dip, which will take months or years of hard work to overcome and get to the point where you’re speaking the language fluently.

And then there’s the dreaded relationship Dip. It follows the honeymoon period, and is characterized by the new couple engaging in everyday squabbles as they try to cement their relationship and commitment while fighting off boredom.

If it wasn’t for the unpredictable nature of the wind, windsurfing would probably be pretty easy. In fact, many people are drawn to windsurfing and experience an initial thrill, but then end up cursing the wind and giving up what at first seems like a fun hobby.

But despite the difficulties it may occasionally bring, you obviously can’t windsurf without wind! In fact, the wind is the best part, which brings us to the key in withstanding the Dip: embracing the challenge.

Ultimately, whatever your project is, the sensible thing to do is to welcome the challenges it presents and be thankful for them rather than trying to resist them.

Indeed, finding ways to overcome challenges is what makes an activity stimulating and rewarding. Think about it: if windsurfing was so easy that anyone could do it, it would probably be boring.

The point of taking on any job is to meet and overcome challenges. For example, if you were to work at a retail store and only ring up the items being purchased, there would be little challenge and you would be easily replaceable. But if you also help the customers, especially the really difficult ones, and take care of their needs, you will show that you’ve got skills that are less easy to replace. Taking on challenges is the very essence of growth and development.

So if you really push yourself to your limits, you will not only survive, but thrive in the Dip.

Take exercise, for instance. If you wish to have a good physique, it will take entering the Dip purposefully and pushing yourself to the limits. However, many people will stop too early; they’ll reach a certain comfort level and not press any further.

If you hope to truly develop muscle, you’ll have to push to the point of exhaustion. Only those who push beyond their limits each and every time will be able to achieve a bodybuilder’s physique. The same is true of any endeavor, whether it’s mental or physical.

Check out my related post: Is there inspiration just in front of you?

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