Guillermo* was 34 years old when his crisis hit. Since high school, he had dreamed of becoming an executive in the technology sector. He not only was fascinated by the emerging technologies of his youth, but also yearned for the status and power of such a position. So he gunned for it. He studied hard and got a scholarship at a top-notch university. Four years later, after similarly heroic efforts in college, he moved to a masters program in business administration. He succeeded there, too.
At 26, Guillermo was hired at the company of his dreams. His hard work paid off, leading to a meteoric rise. In just a few years, he took on an executive position, bought a new car, and acquired a closet full of expensive suits. He had everything that he ever wanted — or so he thought.
He was working nearly 16 hours a day, returning home exhausted and emotionally depleted. His supportive wife was beginning to feel lonely and abandoned. The pressure was getting to him. The last straw came when the couple was on vacation in the Caribbean. The first morning in their luxury hotel, Guillermo woke up early, ordered a cappuccino from room service, and sat on their balcony overlooking the ocean. Though it should have been a beautiful scene, all he could think about was work. He felt nauseated and noticed his hands shaking. At that moment, he realized that he had lost the ability to enjoy his life. In fact, he hadn't enjoyed almost anything five years. His high-school dream was eating him alive. He admitted to himself then and there that he wanted to quit.
But that would be giving up! And isn't giving up only for losers? he thought.
According to researchers Carsten Wrosch and Gregory Miller, “The notion that persistence is essential for success is deeply embedded within American culture.” As children, many of us were given the advice, “Never give up.” Having spent well over a decade investigating the effects of persistence versus giving up, however, Wrosch argues that this isn’t good advice. As Guillermo had discovered, doggedly pursuing a goal can sometimes backfire.
Technically referred to as “goal disengagement,” it turns out that giving up can sometimes be a healthier alternative. Although researchers still aren’t certain exactly why goal disengagement can sometimes be beneficial, one likely possibility is that it frees people to pursue other, previously overlooked goals. If we spend all our energy on goals that have outlived their usefulness, we're missing out on opportunities to do other, more meaningful things.
Dozens of studies show why giving up can be good. In one study, researchers surveyed women who had given up on the particularly personal goal of having children. Sometime around age 40, the goal of having children becomes blocked for many women. Knowing this, some women who have not yet had children increase their efforts to become pregnant, either by traditional or medical means, as this age approaches. The researchers surveyed a large sample of women either before or after this milestone. Before turning 40, most women in the sample said that having children was a major life goal for which many were actively striving. After turning 40, however, women tended to give a very different answer: Only a relatively small number said they still counted this among their most important goals. Realizing that they were passing the age at which this goal would be most easily achievable, many had given up trying. As sad as this might seem to the outside observer, this decision was related to greater emotional well-being for the women. Specifically, the post-40 women who disengaged from this goal felt less depressed than those who continued to actively pursue it.
But it’s not always obvious when giving up is the right choice. The danger is that we can give up too quickly, sabotaging ourselves in the process. How do we know when to give up on a goal and when to keep trying?
There’s no easy answer to this question, but there are at least two situations in which it’s worth considering disengaging from a goal.
When a goal is unattainable
Holding onto unachievable goals can be depressing. “When people find themselves in situations in which they are unlikely to realize a goal, the most adaptive response may be to disengage from it,” write Wrosch and Miller in the journal Psychological Science. “By withdrawing from a goal that is unattainable, a person can avoid repeated failure experiences and their consequences for mind and body.” It takes great courage to admit to ourselves that a goal just isn’t possible. But after multiple, earnest attempts to reach a goal, it may be worth considering whether there’s a different, equally satisfying goal that we could be spending time on. This doesn’t mean lowering our standards. Quite the contrary: It means valuing one’s time and energy enough to invest it wisely.
When a goal is no longer personally important
Another good reason to disengage from a goal is that it’s no longer personally important. The natural human tendency is to think we should continue to pursue a goal until it’s achieved. Sometimes, however, circumstances can change before we reach that point. When people have difficulty motivating themselves to pursue a goal, sometimes it’s because the goal isn’t as meaningful to them as it used to be. People change over time, and there’s no reason that their goals shouldn’t change, too. Of course, not every activity in our lives has to be meaningful. Most of us do things every day — like completing work assignments or doing the laundry — in order to avoid detrimental consequences, like getting fired or having no clean clothes to wear. There’s nothing necessarily unhealthy about that. But it’s worth considering whether there are any goals that, if you did withdraw from them, wouldn’t negatively impact you, but might free you up to engage in more meaningful activities.
And that’s the key to understanding when giving up might be good: There’s another, more personally meaningful or satisfying goal that one could be spending time on.
Only a few months after his crisis in the hotel, Guillermo fell into a deep depression. One evening, his wife gently cupped his hand and said, “You need to quit. We’ve saved enough money that we’ll be okay. This job isn't your dream anymore. It's just a job. And it’s keeping you from living your life.”
Following that advice, Guillermo did something he thought he never would: He gave up his executive job. Just because he disengaged from this goal, however, doesn't mean he gave up his hard-working personality or his drive to be successful. Though it was a struggle, he set his sights on a new dream. Today, he is a successful photographer. His photographs have been displayed in galleries all over the world. Although he makes much less money, he gets to travel, meet people, and produce art. Most important, however, he’s happy.
“When I was a kid, I really wanted that big executive job. That was my dream,” he told me over dinner one evening. “But goals change. Now photography is my dream, and I don't look back.”
* Guillermo's name and some story details changed to keep his identity confidential.
David B. Feldman is a Professor of Counseling Psychology at Santa Clara University. Listen to his podcast, “Psychology in 10 Minutes,” on any podcast app, through SoundCloud, iTunes, or by subscribing to the show’s RSS feed.
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