Most projects come in one of two flavors: Dips and Cul de Sacs.
A Cul de Sac is a dead end, a hamster on a wheel. You work and you invest and you sweat and you never really get anywhere. If you work in a dying industry, you might be on a cul de sac. If you keep plugging away at your job and never notice any measurable improvement in your standing, you're almost certainly on a Cul de Sac.
A Dip, on the other hand, is the moment in the life of a project where most people quit. The Dip is organic chemistry, the killer course that separates the pre-meds from the real doctors. The Dip is the breakthrough of getting your product carried by Target or Bed, Bath and Beyond. The Dip is the dividing line between attempting something and mastering it. And the Dip creates scarcity. Starbucks went through a Dip when they built store #10.... most businesses never get farther than that, which is why there are so many mom-and-pop stores. Starbucks pushed through the Dip, though, and now they have 12,000 stores. If you travel, you're likely to stop at Starbucks precisely because you've been there before. The Dip at work.
While this approach works beautifully for businesses, it also works in government. Social Security is almost certainly a Cul de Sac. We can invest and spend and hope for the best, but it's hard to see any light at the end of the tunnel. The Endangered Species Act, on the other hand, is clearly a Dip. We pay a price in development now, doing the hard work in saving a species, but once we push through that critical stage, the growth of the species accelerates geometrically.
So, here's the question we need to ask Cheney and his team (regardless of your politics, the answer is an important one): Is the Iraq War a Cul de Sac or is it a Dip?
If it's a Dip, what sort of resources do we need to push through it? What will we measure to let us know we're getting somewhere? What does the light at the end of the tunnel look like? When does it get easier?
If it's a Cul de Sac, why don't we just quit? If it's going to never get better, is the only reason we're staying because we're not brave enough to stop now?
The expression winners never quit and quitters never win couldn't be more wrong. Winners quit all the time, and a sure way to lose is to never quit the dead ends.
I'm fascinated by two unrelated things here.
The first is that the conversation, a critical one about the world's future and people's lives, seems to be about the past, not about the future. This is quite common, but it's not acceptable. Having the shared vocabulary to talk about these issues is the only way to constructively evaluate how to invest moving forward.
And the second is that while most of us have little or no say in what happens next in Iraq, we all have complete control over the same issue in our own lives. In whether we quit a dead end job, or invest in a promising project at work. Yet people, just like politicians, seem to have a lot of trouble talking about quitting without getting all Vince Lombardi-macho about it.
Seth Godin is the author The Dip, along with nine other books that have been bestsellers around the world. Find out more at sethgodin.typepad.com.