Understanding The Dip
Why everything that's worth doing seems worthless and frustrating at some point
Everything that’s worth doing seems worthless and frustrating at some point. Learning about how to deal with this phase (called The Dip by Seth Godin) is something everyone should know about.
I’ve found myself using this concept over and over again in the last 15 years when giving advice to people struggling with “what to do” choices. This includes everyone from high-school students to PhD aspirants to professionals with mid-career midlife crises. I always wanted to point them to an article about the dip that they could read but never found one, so I finally decided to write one myself.
Whenever you start a non-trivial project that will take a lot of time and effort your progress follows a similar path. If you plot it as a graph with time on the x-axis and progress/results/fun/return-on-investment on the y-axis, the shape of the graph will look like the figure above.
First, there is rapid progress because everything is new and interesting. Then it peaks and you start seeing diminishing returns. After a while, you hit “The Dip” and your primary feelings are “this is stupid and pointless; nobody cares about this; I am wasting my time; I will never do anything useful this way”.
One of the most important things you must learn is to be able to get through this dip without giving up at this point. Once you cross the dip, things start looking up again and you finally achieve sustained progress and non-trivial returns.
Anything substantial that’s worth doing will have the dip. If it did not have a dip, everyone would be doing it easily and we wouldn’t call it a substantial achievement. A different way of saying it is that far too many people give up when they reach the dip and those who can cross the dip are the ones who taste success.
The standard life phases don’t really teach us to deal with the dip. I still remember Yannis Ioannidis explaining that a PhD primarily teaches you to take a difficult problem, stick through it over a reasonably long term across various phases and continue to make progress. Years later, when I encountered the concept of the dip, I that Yannis was talking about the same thing. School is carefully constructed so that most students can make regular, incremental progress over 16 years. In a typical job, for everyone other than CXOs, quarterly targets and yearly markers of progress try to abstract out any long-term goals or the associated travails.
Do you know anyone who keeps switching to new areas of interest every year or two? A child who takes up art, is very excited for 6 months, then gets “bored” and switches to guitar, after which comes the tennis phase? Or a junior employee who wants to switch from frontend to backend to DevOps to AI/ML? Or a mid-career professional who got frustrated with each company after 2 years? All of these are examples of people who gave up when they hit the dip. (Guess why recruiters don’t like candidates who have a series of job changes every 1.5 years. They might not be able to articulate the concept of the dip but they understand it instinctively. Also guess why angel investor Shrikant Patil says, “Any startup that has survived for 3 years or more is interesting to me.”)
For most people, everything “interesting” they want to do becomes frustrating/boring at the 1.5-to-2-year mark. Experts are people who were able to stick through the frustrating/boring parts and come out on the other side.
Your interest either dies young or lives long enough to become a chore.
A similar curve shows up in other places:
The Gartner Hype Cycle is the dip playing out at an industry level instead of at an individual level.
This curve, based on the Dunning-Kruger Effect explains a similar thing (for possibly similar reasons). (However, keep in mind that the popular conception of the Dunning-Kruger effect is inaccurate and this graph is more accurate if you interpret the y-axis as “increase in confidence” instead of “confidence”.)
All of this does not mean that you should never give up on anything. Some domains are indeed dead-ends and there is nothing on the other side of the dip (either because the domain itself is a dead-end or because your abilities are not a good fit). Knowing when to power through the dip and when to give up is one of the more difficult decisions in life. Seth Godin’s book “The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick)” which introduces the concept of the dip also claims to teach you how to make this decision. But I think it remains a difficult problem.
Far too many people give up as soon as they hit the dip, so the main message of this article is that you should at least try to persevere a little longer than you normally would, especially if you’re the kind of person who keeps switching from idea to idea.
Update: Check out the next post in this series: How To Become an Expert the Hard Way
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Nice ! For the "when to give up" problem, optimal stopping theory (wikipedia) provides a framework that may help (essentially 37% of total time you are willing to work on the problem - e.g. 2 years for a PhD).
Indeed a great article , I loved reading it.
We live in the era where only a final reward is celebrated. To reach a goal, there are various dips a person goes through, but the person is recognized for goal achieving and that specific moment, I feel even the process of ups and down should count. Celebrating dips, as dips are signals of us reaching closer to our goal should be introduced.