“Quitters never win and winners never quit.”
~ Vince Lombardi
We believe that because we’ve heard all those stories of people who kept going despite failure after failure until they achieved great success. We never hear stories about the people who kept going despite failure after failure and never achieved anything. And we never hear about people like François Reichelt.
In 1911, Reichelt was one of several people vying for the 10,000 franc prize being offered by Aéro-Club de France for a parachute that could be used by aviators. He approached the club with his design and asked them to test it. They refused on technical grounds, including the fact that he did not have enough canopy to support the weight of an aviator. Reichelt was undeterred.
He tried several experimental drops with his design using dummies. They all failed. Reichelt was still undeterred.
He refined his design slightly and tried again with the dummies. Every trial failed. Even so, Reichelt was undeterred. He knew his design would work.
Reichelt tried using his own parachute and jumping from about 25 feet. The parachute didn’t work but a pile of straw broke his fall. On a later trial, the parachute still didn’t work, but this time there was no straw and he broke his leg. You guessed it, Reichelt was undeterred. He was sure his design would work.
He received permission to conduct an experiment from the first deck of the Eiffel Tower. When he arrived, on February 4, 1912, he let it be known that he would not use a test dummy the way others had done. He was going to jump himself.
Gaston Hervieu had experimented successfully with his own parachute design and a dummy the year before and he was present that day. He tried to dissuade Reichelt. Hervieu described technical details in Reichelt’s design that would create problems, including the same issues raised by Aéro-Club de France. As you might expect by now, Reichelt was undeterred.
He stalked away to the stairway to the first deck. “You will see how my parachute will prove all your arguments wrong!” he told Hervieu.
Reichelt climbed to the first deck of the Tower. He conferred with his assistants. Then he stood on a table and chair to get high enough to clear the railing and dived into space, sure that this time things would work. They didn’t. Reichelt went straight into the ground, killing himself and making a crater six inches deep.
Winners don’t act like that. Winners quit doing things that don’t work and move on to things that do. Winners don’t depend on confidence alone, they learn from things that don’t work so they can develop things that do work.
Reichelt didn’t believe the experts. Sometimes that’s the right choice if you want to make progress. But he also didn’t believe the results of his own experiments. As Richard Feynman reminded us: “Nature will not be fooled.”
The key trait of winners is that they figure out when to quit what they’re doing and try something different. Maybe we should forget Vince Lombardi’s words and listen to Kenny Rogers.
“Know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em.”
I only know of one book on this key skill of knowing when to quit and when to press on. It’s Seth Godin’s excellent book, The Dip.