At age 30, Harrison Ford was a failed actor.
He’d discovered his interest in acting late, only taking one class during his senior year of college. When he graduated in 1964, he went to Los Angeles to try to make it, but languished in mediocre roles for years.
Between 1964 and 1970, Ford had minor parts in a few TV series and the occasional voice acting gig. But his career wasn’t progressing, so he put it on hold, and got into carpentry instead.
That divergence ended up changing his life.
Through his carpentry work, he connected with George Lucas who cast him in Star Wars, and Francis Ford Coppola who gave him a role in Apocalypse Now. Those roles lead to him being cast in Indiana Jones, Blade Runner, The Fugitive, and the many other movies that would define his extremely successful career.
No one in acting school would have said:
“If you’re stuck in a rut, quit and do something else. Maybe the other thing you do will create the acting success you’re looking for.”
But it seems that without doing that, Ford might not have gone anywhere. If he had kept gritting his teeth through roles as extras in TV shows, he wouldn’t have gotten his big break.
Steady progress is nice. We feel good about getting that 5% raise every year, seeing our readership grow, or selling a few more widgets each month. And losing that progress is terrifying. No one wants to be a quitter, and everyone knows success comes from sticking with something for a very long time. From suffering through the suck.
But progress is often only linear looking backwards. We smooth out the outliers, the peaks and troughs, and fit a nice line to it, tricking ourselves into thinking it was months or years of slow and steady growth.
We forget that every journey has long periods of nothing, short bursts of progress, perhaps even times when you go backwards. Ford was harming his acting career by putting it on hold to go into carpentry. But that ended up making all the difference.
Quitting can help us break out of a local maxima we might be stuck on. It helps us see where our limitations are, or it might just expose us to an opportunity we’re better suited to take advantage of.
And perhaps the magic doesn’t work if you go looking for it. Maybe you truly need to give up and set off in some new direction for the muse to pull you back in.
But if you’re feeling stuck, try something wildly different for a while.
Maybe quitting will change your life, too.
Thanks. I also recommend Seth Godin's book 'The Dip' for understanding when to stick and when to quit.
In a nutshell, mastering anything takes hard work (the dip) that most people fail to get through, making mastery scarce and valuable. Instead of quitting things in the dip, work out in advance whether mastery is valuable and whether you have the resources to get through the dip. If so, get started and don't quit. If not, quit before you start and save your resources for a valuable dip that you *can* get through.
Seth Godin also speaks elsewhere about the kind of situation that Harrison Ford was in - it was not enough to master acting to succeed, he also had to attract the attention of and be chosen by gatekeepers. Ford did well to try other things in the industry. Godin says that most of us would do well to avoid ambitions which are reliant on being chosen by gatekeepers.
I strongly suspect that of the actors who have struggled for 7 years, those who persist work acting have a much higher success rate than the one's who quit and become carpenters.
Of course, I'm sure both groups would have tiny probability of success. But the advice here sounds very flawed to me.