Navigating through the fog

How do we know when its time to give up on something?

At what point should we admit defeat and throw in the towel?

Albert Einstein once said, the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

But conversely, Benjamin Franklin’s advice that “energy and persistence conquer all things” also carries a wealth of merit. We have all heard and experienced the success stories and life changing discoveries that were achieved through sheer persistence.

Abraham Lincoln is the ultimate example of successful persistence. Born into poverty, Lincoln was faced with defeat continually throughout his life. He lost eight elections, failed twice in business and suffered a nervous breakdown. It would have been easy for him to quit, but he instead became one of the greatest Presidents in the history of the US.

But equally, there are cautionary tales of those who would not see the wood for the trees and blindly put their head in the sand without facing the cold hard truth, for all its beautiful harshness.

There have been occasions in my life when I have sat on both sides of this wisdom fence. At times, just when I am about to give up completely on an idea or a dream and “face reality”, something happens to give me faith that maybe, just maybe, I’m on the right track. “Keep going”, it says, “just one step in front of another and you will make progress”. And I do.

Likewise, now equipped with the bittersweet wisdom of hindsight, I count the opportunity cost of continuing to do something until the pendulum has swung too far.

As leaders, sometimes it feels like we are wandering around in the middle of a thick fog, relying on less than accurate maps of our ever changing terrain.  Complexity, volatility and the changing landscape we work in means we often don’t know if we are on the right track – or even if we are on the right journey.

Do you feel like this too?

What helps?

I don’t know the answers but vicarious experience as well as my own tells me different approaches work for different people. Different strokes for different folks. 

Here are some ideas that have helped me, when I don’t know which way is up or down, which way to turn, or whether to just give up.

1. Stop. Realise there is some wisdom in doing nothing. At least until you do know what to do.  I have often found that when I cannot determine the way forward, giving it the “overnight test” or simply pausing before responding provides answers.  Time and time again, I have found clarity comes with patience.

2. Challenge your perspective. When we are navigating our ship through dense fog, it can help to challenge our own perspective.  Like flying in ‘white out’ conditions, what we think is reality is often in fact, not. One way to challenge your own assumptions is to ask yourself, am I overly attached to my past decisions?  Am I reading too much into a scenario? Am I catastrophising or looking at this through rose tinted glasses? What are my unconscious biases that I am bringing to this situation?

3. Journal. Putting our thoughts onto paper with a good old fashioned “brain dump” can work wonders. Journaling is a highly effective tool for leaders, but the key is to trust in the process by journaling whatever comes into (or is lurking within the depths of) your mind.

4. Talking it out. Finally, talking it over with a third party can help to bounce ideas around and garner objective feedback. Often just voicing our situation to someone we trust can unveil all the answers we seek.

The reality is there is no magic compass for navigating our way through stormy waters or the thick fog of indecision – but being aware of various decision making models and tools can help us explore the possibilities before making the decision to plough forth or jump on the life boat.


1 Comment

  1. […] you’re wondering whether it’s wise to give up or continue to try, here for some food for […]

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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