The Power of No Exit

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no exit

Confession time…I occasionally keep the TV on in the background, while I work.

Which is why a little while back, I found myself drawn into an interview with Will Smith.

He was being asked how his marriage has stayed together for 10 years, which is the Hollywood equivalent of 50. And, his response was something like, “because we don’t give ourselves the option of NOT being together. We know at some point someone’s going to say something really offensive or stupid, but we know we are staying together, we don’t give ourselves the option of not being together, so we HAVE to work it out.”

It’s the power of no exit.

I also call it the desert island scenario. Imagine you are stuck on a desert island with someone you absolutely despise. The rest of the world does not exist and you have no hope, not even an inkling of rescue.

It’s just you and them…forever.

In the beginning, it’s pretty likely that you’d both go your own ways, but over time, with nobody else to be social with, to connect with and who knows what else, you’re pretty much guaranteed to end up friends. In fact, you’d likely end up very close. Because you HAD to be, the only other option was a lifetime of loneliness.

Now translate this to business.

One of the folks I interviewed for my book was a guy named David Riklan who founded a giant online personal development portal called Self Growth.

David wasn’t always in the business of personal development publishing, though. In fact, he’d had a long time career as a high-level technology sales exec. There came a time, though, when he was living a double career, sales by day and personal development by night.

And, he had to make a choice.

Roll with the latter in order to give it a shot at truly taking off or resign himself to life in high tech sales for decades to come. And, because he also had a family to support and a very modest financial cushion, living in austerity while his next venture grew simply wasn’t an option.

So, when he made the leap, in his mind, he HAD to succeed.

There was no exit.  He went “all in” and approaching the challenge in that manner was immensely powerful in fueling the steps and actions that pushed him to succeed. Because, in his mind, returning to life as a sales exec was simply not on the table.

When you have a fallback and you hold that regularly in your consciousness, it can become as much of a roadblock as it is a comfort. Because it stops you from pushing yourself that final step, from doing those thousand little extra things that propel you toward mega-success. The ones that take massive effort, yet yield even greater reward.  These are the actions you take when you perceive success to be your only palatable option.

As Goethe put it:

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to  draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative and creation, there  is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too.

All sorts of  things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of  events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen  incidents, meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.

Boldness has genius, power  and magic in it. Begin it now.

The challenge is, in this modern world of options, with exits at every turn, we sometimes allow ourselves the luxury of bailing on a quest that, endured just a bit longer, or pursued more zealously would have yielded life-altering triumph.

So, is it a bad thing to have knowledge, skills and abilities that you can fall back upon, should things not work out?

Of course not. Because those very qualities often give you the confidence to “initiate” a change in course. But, once that new path has begun, it is far better to put your fallback as far out of your mind as possible and get down to the business of working like you had no exit.

So, what do you think?

Is this powerful…or completely unrealistic?

What am I missing?

Let’s discuss…

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31 responses

31 responses to “The Power of No Exit”

  1. Vicky H says:


    It’s very powerful! I’ve experienced some, to put it nicely, serious reverse mentoring. Those situations have propelled me forward and made me take a closer look at where I am right now and why.

    Then throw some time and financial constraints in there and it makes me realize that if I’m going to do it, I’m going to make it count!

    Just my take.

    Vicky H

  2. Rick Wolff says:

    This is precisely what I need to do. Through most of my adult life, I’d come up with clever schemes, any one of which is viable in my mind, and for a while I’d pick one to pursue, and at the first sign of a brick wall, even an easily scaleable one, I’d stop, and after a few days be all hot and heavy about one of the others in my scheme portfolio, the previous one out of mind. Sometimes the feelers I’d manage to put out about scheme A yield a response that I don’t get until I’m on to scheme B, which then reminds me of the likelihood that scheme B will stall before long. I’ve picked one now, but I have no idea if I’m serious or not. My MO gives this another two or three weeks. I no longer feel sparks of enthusiasm from any of these things, because I know what’ll happen. When I have an even newer idea, I’m loath to tell anyone about it, for fear they’ll hold me to it.

  3. Dean says:

    The “burn the ships” method of forward movement can be quite effective. One fellow I work with calls this “going Apollo 13” in light of the part of the movie where they mention that failure is not an option. And it goes along the lines of Samuel Johnson who mentioned that knowing that you are going to be hanged in a fortnight concentrates the mind wonderfully. The loss of mind chatter can be truly liberating.

    The caution here in my judgment is that one can get so focused on the fruits of one labors when there is such much riding on the choice. Namely, can one keep one’s mind in line with the focus and actions required and not go into the “what ifs” that lead into a spiral downward and loss of focus … plus this may be even more important yet, can one still keep the flexibility to go with where the contours of life take us and allow the intent to mature and grow.

  4. Jonathan,

    “No Exit” is an interesting strategy… I’ve pretty much argued the opposite in my latest post on quitting over at Life Evolver. Every time I set a new goal, I write down “under what circumstances I will quit”… I think both of us come to a similar conclusion- to succeed at anything, you must be fully engage/on board. I’m just saying that there are many times when it’s very smart to quit, as there is an opportunity cost to not being the best at what you are doing and instead “coping” with your current activity.

  5. Robyn says:

    In a sense, I’ve done this: quit my job last November without having another one to go to. I took a leap to force myself to think about what I wanted out of myself and my life. I’ve still got some issues – staying on this road may have some unpleasant financial results, but when I think back to how I felt when I submitted my resignation, I don’t regret it.

  6. Carrie says:

    I must disagree with the success of the “All In” practice. Hoping your chances of success will be stronger because you have placed yourself in a situation where failure would be disasterous to yourself and your family is rash.

    Going back to your first example of Will Smith, before going “All in” they spent a signifigant time investment in getting to know each other, and working out their life together. Then they committed to marriage.

    As for your second example, It’s quite possible that two people on an island who hate each other might just end up committing murder. (Think “He Stole my coconuts again” rage)

    Developing an “All In” mind set to your endevour is benefical, but actually placing the responsibility of supporting your person on a young business could smother success.

  7. Paradox is an amazing thing. Limited choices=increased creativity.

  8. Jonathan Fields says:

    Hey gang, great comments as always. Some further thoughts…

    @ Vicky – yup, sometimes life throws us into a no exit scenario involuntarily and that is certainly the ultimate test of will.

    @ Dean & Derek – I have to confess to struggling with this issue. I do believe that you profoundly increase your likelihood of success in most endeavors when you adopt a mindset that fuels every last bit of action toward the attainment of a goal.

    But, I agree that whether you adopt this mindset or not also depends, to some extent, on the nature of the quest.

    How meaningful is it to you? Are there equally meaningful alternative paths that would be easier to pursue, yet yield a similar level of fulfillment and greater likelihood of success. How will you know you are making progress and succeeding? Or, is this the one thing, the fire that’s been burning inside you?

    These are questions to ask before beginning a quest, professional or personal. And, just how effective the no-exit mindset will be is largely a factor of how singly powerful the goal of the quest is and how unappealing the fall-backs are.

    If you’ve got plenty of alternatives that are equally viable, interesting and achievable, no doubt creating this mindset will be a far greater challenge. And, in fact, there may be other ways to make yourself equally happen.

    Still, by allowing for this possibility, you are less likely to do what you’d need to do to succeed at the original quest.

    So, what we’re really talking about here is the question of when “not” succeeding is the better net result?

    And, yes, I agree, that question is very worth considering. But, as long as the answer is that benefits of success in a specific quest outweigh the lost opportunity costs, then the all-in mindset is a powerful tool to pursue that quest.

    It’s a tough question, but I know that many of the greatest discoveries and accomplishments of our time came to happen, in no small part, because those who pursued them would not accept anything less that success as the answer.

    @ Carrie – thanks for your comments, though, you’ve made a couple of large assumptions. My post suggested cultivating the all-in “mindset,” it did not say to “place yourself in a situation where failure would be disasterous to yourself and your family.”

    No doubt Will and Jada spent a lot of time getting to know each other before making a commitment to go all-in, just like anyone else should do a lot of legwork before they go all-in.

    Not buying the simultaneous murder scenario as a likely outcome for the desert island scenario, either (though, depending on the person…)

    Your last sentence sums up what this post was all about…doing things that cultivate the MINDSET that is most likely to fuel success.

  9. Jonathan;

    You’d also have to understand Will and Jada had been down the road of failed relationships enough to know what will work. I applaud them for this mindset because far too many people haven’t thought things like this through enough to come to that understanding.

    And it is an understanding. This, whatever “this” is, needs to be taken seriously to marshal all of your efforts, thoughts, hard work, ingenuity, creativity, and will to seeing “this” through.

    But you also have to know yourself enough to know if “this” is it for *you*, the thing that you can and will commit too. If you flit from “this” thing to “that” thing, are you really ready to make that kind of commitment to “this” particular thing? I would advise against it.

    Some people “know” this is “it” for them and take steps early on to accomplish “it.”

    Some people run from their “thing” and settle for Plan B, C, or Z since those are more “realistic.”

    While others come to the realization they’ve never been happy, never will be happy until they follow through on “it”.

    Finding a source of income while you sincerely do all you can to bring “it” to pass isn’t a “fall back” plan. It may simply be part of what is necessary to bring “it” to pass. Not to mention putting food on the table and keeping a roof over your head.

    The real problem would be in giving “it” some arbitrary time frame, then going with a fall back plan. That’s where the problem would be.

    Then the fall back plan does become the obstacle to keep “it” from happening since your brain shifts into counting down the days or months for the fall back plan to kick in.

    “Well, I gave it 6 months and nothing happened.” Nonsense. You decided you’d *wait* six months for *something* to happen all the while you had that nice cushy Plan B in your mind.

    My thoughts anyway.

  10. Yoav says:

    The “No Exit” approach is a tricky concept. It works if you know what you are doing.

    If you use it to channel your know-how and energy into a new business then it’ll be highly effective.

    As was the case with Mr. Riklan.

    He already had extensive knowledge of marketing and sales on top of the passion and understanding of the self-growth niche. In his case it worked well.

    But, and this is a huge but…

    The market is stronger than anyone’s personal will. You can be friggin Jedi Master Yoda, if you don’t understand demand,competition,product development, marketing and sales you’ll fail. You’ll learn incredible lessons, but you’ll fail.

    Maybe that’s just the way of the entrepreneur-warrior.

    Peace 🙂

  11. I’ve got to agree, simply because that rule has played itself in my life.

    My marriage is “All in.” And it flourishes.

    My freelance career was not “All in.” It failed.

    Instead of just going for it, I spent a lot of my time (free time, not work time), trying to figure out if I should be doing something else, if I was really enjoying freelance work, etc.

    That doesn’t mean that the process of questioning my choice was a bad thing. I don’t think it was. But I also don’t think it can be argued it was the main reason why I didn’t make a real go of freelancing. The commitment simply wasn’t there–it was a trial period, and that made all the difference.

  12. Throwing your heart and soul all in is very powerful. When you fully commit, the universe conspires to bring to you everything you need to succeed.

    Anything less is hesitance and uncertainty. Even if we couldn’t see it within ourselves others could sense lack of commitment and would be uneasy about joining us in our endeavor.

    I think of following my passion as I think of giving birth to my children. I never thought about returning them to the hospital if parenting didn’t work out. Being a parent was a full-speed- ahead, fully committed endeavor that even with its bumps and knocks was fullfilling for me and my children. Our no-exit attitude gave comfort and assurance to my children throughout their childhood. They knew that my husband and I were always loving and supportive no matter what. How do I know? As adults, they tell me so.

    I’ve had several careers in my life and I threw myself fully into each one until I reached my goal and lost my enthusiasm. Now I’m throwing myself into my new passion of writing and speaking. It’s fantastic to be fully committed because the line between work and fun gets blurred.

    @Yoav, when you’re fully committed you will learn what you’re doing as you go. As Zig Ziglar said, “You can’t wait until all the lights turn green before you leave town.”

  13. Jonathan Fields says:

    Man, you guys really rock, always love the quality of the conversation here! In addition to shining a little on on who we all are and how we think, it helps me refine and sometimes even change my opinions and thought processes.

    A big thank you for that!

  14. I’ve found that when I’ve started something with the “all in” mindset, I’ve amazed myself at some of the solutions I’ve come up with. I’m certainly not always brilliant, far from it, but I’m more committed to focus on what I can do rather than thinking about what I can’t.

  15. Karen Putz says:

    This is a great discussion here. Attitude is the critical component of the “no exit” strategy, for if you face it with anything less than the “all in” attitude, you’ll end up with half-hearted attempts and even resentment at the feeling of being stuck with nothing else.

  16. Dean says:

    Fascinating discussion. To me the concept of commitment is something like the phrase “anything less than an unqualified yes is a no?” In other words, a commitment is binary: you are either committed or you are not and there nothing in between. And if you are not committed you lessen the likelihood of success. Various reasons apply … need to be able to stick it out when things don’t go as well as planned, need to be able to think you way around difficult scenarios, etc. and I have rarely seen it work otherwise.

    I have stuck it out in difficult, gut-wrenching situations because I had to, absolutely had to. Anything less than a full commitment to the enterprise would have meant failure. It was not fun – actually it was ultimately satisfying in many ways – and we got things done. I have just gone through a situation equally difficult, equally challenging, equally harrowing … but at the end of the day I was not fully committed to it. Never was totally for 7 years. Various reasons, but I was always looking for the potential exit door. Wasn’t able to crest the hill.

    There is all sort of work that has to be done before making a major commitment. Know thy self, know who you are getting in with, know the circumstances, check your plans, check your sanity, do what ever you need to get ready to sign on. Sure circumstances can do you in and you cannot control that no matter what kind of commitment or skill set you have. There is nothing that says that a commitment cannot be renegotiated but at some point you have to say I am in, all the way. It just seems to me that a commitment must be strong enough to give it a good go. It seems bleak to burn the ships and would indeed only be done where it truly counts. Maybe one of the difficulties is that commitments are made without the right prep work and without really understanding the all in principle.

    But once you are in, signed on … in my judgment to make it work you have to be all in. And it still is not without many perils, but what is the alternative?

  17. Yoav says:

    @Flora – You definitely will learn. But you must be open to the lessons that come to you.

    And often with a beginning entrepreneur, one of those lessons will be that the product he/she is trying to sell or the service they offer is wrong.

    It might be that there is no demand, or that the competition is too stiff or that dealing with the customers makes you miserable.

    In that case the entrepreneur must be smart enough to adapt and change his/her course – either develop a new product or a service.

    To sum up – I think that the “No exit” approach should be used in regards to your own success, but not to a specific product/service.

  18. @Yoav

    I agree with you. The “no exit” approach definitely means committing to your own success, but not being stuck on the idea that a given product or service is the way. Adapting and changing as we learn more about our market is absolutely essential.

  19. @Flora, @Yoav: Agreed- Seth Godin gives this same advice “Yes, you should (you must) quit a product or a feature or a design, but no, you mustn’t quit a market or a strategy or a niche.”

    What do you all think about “The Power of No Exit” in relation to “The Sex and Cash Theory”:

    This theory is quite different from the example Jonathan gives in his post about David Riklan of SelfGrowth being divided between jobs. It basically says that we need to accept that we will be divided between our “normal job” that pays the bills, and our “sexy, creative job”. The theory says that “This tense duality will always play center stage. It will never be transcended.”, and as soon as you accept it, your career will start to take off.

    Enjoying these commments!

  20. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Derek – Okay, so I generally love Hugh’s work, but here I strongly disagree with his sex and cash theory and the notion that, “This tense duality will always play center stage. It will never be transcended.”

    Let me give you a little more info on Dave. He did, in fact, live the double life that Hugh speaks of for a number of years. He did build his “sex” life on the side.

    Until he reached a point where it became crystal clear that to excel on a higher level in either his dull “cash” job or his “sexy” passion career, he’d need to put more energy into one. That would necessarily mean abandoning the other, there were only 24 hours in the day.

    Fate stepped in and offered him a choice, either a buy-out that would provide the money needed to live on for a handful of months or a change in titles with a renewed commitment to the company.

    He chose the buy-out and knew he had X days to turn “sex” into “cash” or, as Hugh put it, to “transcend the tense duality.” Hugh believes such transcendence to be impossible.

    Thank God Dave didn’t, because the moment he went all-in with the mindset that he “had” to succeed, before his buyout ran out, magic started to happen. He came up with ideas, paths to profit and solutions that would likely never have occurred to him with a lesser commitment of time and energy.

    He figured out a way to pursue his passion full-time and make even more money than he ever did juggling sex and cash. He handily transcended the tense duality in a way that never would’ve happened without going all-in.

    So, no, I do not agree, in the strongest terms with Hugh’s argument that the best path is simply to succumb to the false reality that sex and cash will never meet.

    In fact, my entire book argues exactly the opposite and it is packed with examples of regular people who disprove his point. Are they the exceptions? Decidedly so, but not because of any special talent, rather because they chose to acquire knowledge and commit fervently to doing something about it.

    Like I said, I generally am a huge fan of Hugh’s work, the man is really smart, funny and insightful, but here I really disagree.

  21. Jonathon,

    I have not read all the comments but my take is this.

    If you live on the fence you have the opportunity of ending up either side of it.

    If you live on one side of the fence you actually have a barrier keeping you in.

    So a strategy is to create fences for yourself.

    In relation to marriage, I have said to my wife, although our earthly vows are until death do us part. I have added further commitment of eternity.

    I do have a caveat. Sometimes even when you go all in, it does not workout. But once again this is a mental game.

    My idea is that I am all in at all times in my life. If the path I take does not workout in the result I am looking for I am still “all in” to the idea that I will dream again and dream again.

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  23. Eric says:

    It’s interesting how you move from a conversation on relationships to business because, really, any sort of business endeavor is about the same as a personal relationship. You put your time, energy, and personal sense of worth on the line to make the relationship work. If you do so with any sort of reservation or hesitation then the business relationship, like the personal one, is doomed to failure.

    I think you’re right, the idea of working like there is “no exit” is incredibly powerful. Without that idea, every discussion on the future of your project (or employment contract) can still be followed with, “well, if this doesn’t work out I can still …” By eliminating this option, even just in your mind, your level of personal investment skyrockets … along with your productivity.

  24. Justin says:

    I should have known you wouldn’t have stuck on that relationship stuff for long. I suppose this all boils down to perseverance and determination. As long as you stick with something for a long time and don’t give up, you will succeed. In some cases, though, you truly do need to quit, although most of time if you keep on going, you will eventually triumph.

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  28. sfk says:

    Ooh. Having no exit strategy seems like a bad idea. You’re telling the stories of people who succeeded, but not of people who risked everything and lost. There are far more of the latter.

  29. SFK,

    I do think it is good to offer a balance but I believe there is plenty of places to get the failure side of the story.

    We need people like Jonathon covering the success side.

    Not a stab at you just another idea.

    Brian Monahan

  30. Life coach says:

    A Personal Development Plan is always a work in progress. As you complete one task, you will need to add new growth and educational opportunities to your plan.