My eyes are still blurred from three days on the road and a “red eye” too short to sleep through, and one dilemma keeps resurfacing in my thoughts and in numerous conversations this week.

When should you believe and when should you pivot?

Seth Godin wrote about the “dip” – that long lull of seeming failure that almost always precedes a breakthrough. In my third book, The Way of Innovation, I pointed out innovations usually pass through a “wood” phase in which you invest a lot of energy and passion but see no tangible results yet. Silicon Valley guru Peter Thiel advises that you pursue compelling missions, not chase the latest trends.

There is much to say for persistence. History is filled with triumphant stories of those who, like Winston Churchill, never ever ever gave up.

But what about the pivot? Silicon Valley has embraced this idea that you have to be ready to give up “plan a” because it usually proves flawed and instead jump quickly to “plan b.” You should “fail fast” to maximize your learning. In other words, you should give up … as quickly as possible.

The question of whether to persist or give up is not academic. Your answer will have tangible consequences: the person you marry, the career you pursue, the sport you master, the level of schooling you attain.

Marc Andreessen, founder of Netscape and partner in the legendary venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, has one answer out of this dilemma: “You should have strong convictions, loosely held.” An agile programming expert I interviewed this morning offered the same piece of advice: “Planning is not wrong; getting stuck to the plan is.”

While true, such advice leaves you only trapped in the same dilemma.

But if you research how people who have sat with this persist-or-pivot question for a while attempt to unravel it, I think we can see a way out. You can uncover your answer in four steps:

  1. Clarify what is true v. imaginary. Sometimes we believe things simply because everyone else does. The social power of the crowd is strong, but too often wrong. Bertrand Russell wrote, “The fact than an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd; indeed … a widely spread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible.” Ask yourself – what does everyone believe is true? Then look for facts to evidence that belief is false. This will have to “pressure test” the truth.
  2. Clarify what you want v. what others want. I believe we can all have anything we want in life, but most of us stop ourselves from getting it because WE DO NOT KNOW WHAT WE WANT! Some time around 5 years old, we started noticing what others wanted and starting wanting that instead. We are so far removed by layers of others’ desires that we have difficulty connecting with what that thing is that drives us. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggested that when you find yourself in a “flow state,” when time seems to stop, that your mind is so fully engaged that you cannot process other information. That is a sign that you are doing what you love. Use that insight to identify what you really want.
  3. Distinguish your narrative and replace it. What we think will happen is always driven by the narrative we are living in. Your narrative is telling you either to persist (because you will break through) or pivot (because you are headed for failure). The narrative is not true. So to make an informed choice, try on a different narrative. Play out the story of persistence and of pivoting, and imagine where each may leave you.
  4. Only then – when you know what is real, and what you want, and you have thought through potential end-states – can you make an informed choice.

Every great venture that composes your life forces you to ask this question. Do you persist doing what you said you would do or is it time to rethink your plan?

I’ve been looking for answers this week. Andreessen says there is no rule to follow, that you must eye each pivot individually. Some of the companies he has seen at Andreessen Horowitz never give up. They spend years banging their heads against the same wall but get nowhere. Others pivot too often – every time he meets them they have abandoned the old and done something new. They pivot around in circles and similarly get nowhere.

It seems to me, however, that there is an answer and it lies in separate reality from un-reality. Here is how it could work:

  • Clarify the REAL signals. The world overwhelms you with signals – your client just left, your girlfriend broke up with you, it rained – and we don’t have the mental bandwidth to consider it all. So we filter. We focus on things that happened most recently and things that support the beliefs we already hold. So, you must challenge the signals by:
    • Looking at facts: “Ask what must you believe” to maintain your belief and see if you can find facts to support it. How many clients actually left? How much did it rain?
    • Looking back in time: Because we overweight the meaning of recent trends, you should force yourself to look further back. How many clients have left each year for the past 10 years? How much did it rain relative to the same month over the last 10 years?
  • Ask “So what?” Having tested the signals, identified which are real (validated) and which are imaginary, you want to now think dispassionately and logically about their implications. At McKinsey we trained to look for consulting candidates who could identify implications. It’s easy to say “this trend is so,” but to understand what the trend implies about the future requires more thinking. Change is rarely linear. It often moves like a pendulum. Change is rarely driven by one trend, but by a confluence of many trends. Research shows that successful prognosticators (stock pickers, for example) distinguish themselves by not focusing on one or a few trends, but rather stepping back, looking at a big bundle of trends, and asking what their confluence implies for the future.
  • Clarify what you want. Not everyone wants to be rich or tall or beautiful. These are aspirations forced on us by friends, movies, and culture. Write down what you say you want and ask, “Is this something I want, or something someone else wants for me, or something I think I SHOULD want because others do?” This will clarify for you what your goals are.
  • Make a choice. Having clarified the REAL trends, understood their implications, and clarified what you really want, you have the ammunition to make a powerful choice. Commit to that choice. Move forward boldly. Break through this wall and accelerate until you get to the next one. Then repeat the process.