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Is The Stonecutter Insane?

Q. I’ve often heard two widely accepted parables in business that seem to contradict each other. The first is the stonecutter who strikes the rock 99 times with no result, but on the 100thblow, the rock splits. Of course it wasn’t the 100th blow alone that split the stone, but the 99 that went before. The message is persist. Stick to it even when you see no results. The second is the oft quoted definition of insanity which is, continuing to do the same thing again and again and expecting different results. The message is, if what you are doing isn’t delivering results, change what you are doing. Which is correct and how do you know whether to persist or change direction?

A. The answer, of course, is that both are correct, depending on the circumstances. To be successful in business, or any other endeavor for that matter, you have to be willing to persist when times are tough. Like the stonecutter, you have to be willing to continue working hard through patches where there are no visible results. At the same time, success in business requires that you be willing to change course when the current path is not getting you where you want to go. The question is, when to persist and when to change course.

If you aren’t seeing the results you want, there are three situations where you should persist, otherwise it’s time to change course. The three times to persist are:

  • Too soon to quit – Have you given your current plan enough time to succeed? If not, keep working your plan. That doesn’t mean that you can’t make modifications and improvements as you learn, but don’t give up before your plan has had time to succeed.

  • You know it works – Don’t quit when you know that the thing you are doing will work. There are two ways that you might know this. First, in your personal experience, you have seen the plan you are currently executing succeed in the past. Consider the stonecutter again. Chances are, this isn’t the first rock he ever split. He knows through experience that, if you persist, the stone will eventually yield. Even if you don’t have personal experience, you may know something works because you have seen others succeed. The first time the stonecutter split a rock, he had no personal experience upon which to draw. However, there was likely an experienced stonecutter guiding him who told him to just keep swinging, the rock will eventually break.

  • You have clear line of sight to your plan working – There are times when it’s not too soon to quit. The plan you are executing might have worked by now. You don’t know from past experience that what you are trying will work, nor do you know of others who have succeeded this way. You are blazing a new trail. Nevertheless, you have clear line of sight to your plan working. When you explain your plan to unbiased third parties who are willing to be honest with you, they confirm your belief that the path you are on will lead to the success you seek. In those instances, keep your nose to the grind stone.

Soon after launching our consulting business, we had a clear plan for how we were going to make it succeed. Yet, after three years of very hard work, we still weren’t earning enough from the business to pay our bills. We were still dipping into savings each month to make ends meet. Revenue had been more or less flat for the last two years. It was a discouraging time.

However, we did have clear line of sight to success. While we weren’t certain, we were confident that the path we were on would take us where we wanted to go. We persevered. In our fourth year, the stone split. Revenue increased more than three fold. We were paying our bills from the proceeds of our business. We went from taking money out of savings to putting money into savings. We’ve now enjoyed more than four years with revenue at the new, higher levels.

Calvin Coolidge said, “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.” Coolidge was right. Nevertheless, there comes a time when it is best to cut your losses and change direction. The tips above will help you decide whether to change course or persist.

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