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When Giving Up Is Good

Sometimes you need to give up to really get what you want

Key points

  • When you find yourself trying too hard to stay on a path, maybe it's time to give up. Life is not always about sticking with a plan.
  • Consider giving up trying to meet expectations, trying to be successful, or caring about what others think.
  • Giving up can be liberating, freeing you of the shackles of expectations, a timeline, and what other people think and want.
  • Sometimes it is better to just see what the universe presents you and do what you find interesting and aligned with your values.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels
Something it's best for you to just give up.
Source: Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

When students ask me for advice, I often tell them to give up. Yes, you heard that correctly: I frequently feel that the best thing for them to do is to give the (insert your favorite expletive) up. At first glance, that may seem a bit counter to more traditional words of encouragement such as "you can do it", "keep trying", or "never give up, never surrender." But giving up turned out to be one of the best things that I have ever done.

It happened a while ago. Up till then, my career path had kept careening off course. Time and time again, I had tried to find and stick to a traditional career path, first in medicine, then in management consulting, then in finance, then in the corporate pharmaceutical world, then in the medical device industry, and, well, you get the picture. Each time I had come up with a grand five-to-ten-year plan that seemed in line with what others around me were doing and all that standard career advice being offered by books and counselors. And each time that I charged through the starting gates of a new path saying, "this is the path," something completely unexpected happened, causing me to fall flat on my face.When I first started my MBA program at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, my initial plan was to get one of those management consulting jobs seemingly being handed out like Skittles to Stanford grads. My five-year plan was to do management consulting for several years and then either stay in the arena or move to an upper management position at a client company, a very standard MBA path. Surely, one of the big management consulting firms would be willing to make me one of the dozens of MBAs that they were hiring. After all, that's what the advisers at the business school career center had told me. But lo and behold, my grand plan hit a failure to launch. Even at the enter-the-profession stage, rejection after rejection came.

Why? Well, some top firms indicated that they were willing to hire me only if I were willing to work in China. But sending me to China would have been like sending Hulk Hogan to a particle physics conference. I wasn't from China, had never even set foot in the country, didn't speak the language, and really had no connection to the country. Since I was born and bred in America, was it too much to want to work in the U.S.?

Several other consulting firms emphasized that I was a medical doctor, which apparently didn't end up being a good thing in their eyes. For example, one interviewer told me that he had been pre-med in college until he realized that all doctors were stupid. Really? Every single one of them? Another interviewer spent the entire interview querying me about his back problems. When the firm sent me a rejection letter a few days later, I wondered whether I should respond with a bill for my medical services.

Most of the firms never told me directly why they had rejected me, choosing only to send form rejection letters. When I contacted some of their recruiters, they said things like, "it's just not a good fit." I felt like pulling a John Cusack from the movie Say Anything and standing outside their offices holding over my head a boombox playing the Peter Gabriel song "In Your Eyes."

One managing partner of a consulting firm, though, did offer a more concrete reason for their rejecting me. He admitted that I was certainly more than qualified enough to be hired...but...and here's a big but...they weren't going to give me an offer because, drum roll please, I would want to run the office in several years. And that, he said, wasn't going to happen. Umm, what? Who had told them that I wanted to run their office?

So I gave up trying to become a management consultant. Clearly, in their eyes, I and my background weren't good fits for the culture and the cadre of people that they had established. Maybe I was too "nontraditional" for them. Maybe I didn't fit their picture of what a colleague should look like. Regardless, rather than persisting, I gave up trying to convince them to hire me. All of this meant that yet another set of career plans had to go into the hopper, forcing me to put together yet another five-year plan.

Photo by Sebastian Voortman from Pexels.
When you try to establish a clear path for yourself, you may find yourself unexpectedly hitting a dead end.
Source: Photo by Sebastian Voortman from Pexels.

This had become the story of my life at the time: making five-to-ten-year plans, embarking on what I thought was a clear path, running smack into a wall, trying but failing to get around the wall, and then having to draw up new plans. Some of my friends, or at least people whom I thought were my friends, were telling me about how their lives were so great compared to mine.

My significant other told me about how her parents were worried about me "becoming a bum," which basically meant that she was worried that I would "become a bum." I was trying to right the ship but after multiple rounds of failing, didn't know what to do. The dozens of career advice books that I read and personality tests that I took didn't seem to have the answer. All of this didn't seem to be the life that I was expecting to live and that was expected of me. My life didn't seem to be following the "right" path, no matter how hard I tried to find and stay on a single traditional path.

So what did I do? I gave the bleep up. I gave up trying to find a traditional career path. I gave up trying to be successful. I gave up on caring what others thought about me. I gave up trying to show people that I would not "become a bum." I gave up on some of my friends too. I gave up on being on the timetable being followed by everyone around me. I gave up on practically all of my expectations.

Instead, my resolution was to do whatever the heck I felt like doing at the moment, each and every day. This meant simply doing things because they were interesting, they seemed to be good problems to tackle, and they matched my value system, even when they didn't seem to clearly advance my career or social status in any way. Conversely, this meant not doing things that I really disliked, that didn't seem to be solving any real problems, and that didn't seem aligned with my value system, no matter how much they might seemingly help my career or social status.

My whole way of choosing whom to associate with changed as well. I gave up on hanging around the people with whom I was supposed to hang out both professionally and socially. Instead, my criteria became simple: are you a real person, are you a good person, do our values match, do you understand the concept of mutual support, and are you making an effort to maintain the relationship?

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels
When you give up on certain expectations, you may no longer have to deal with people who cross certain boundaries.
Source: Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

That, folks, is when my life began turning dramatically for the better. It rid me of the shackles of expectations or the need to stay on a path. It meant that I would be doing interesting and enjoyable things each and every day. By giving up on particular expectations, I became a whole lot more open to possibilities rather than ruling them out just because they didn't seem to specifically lead anywhere at the time.

Such changes were also empowering. For example, a very senior leader once said that unless I did exactly what he wanted, he would destroy my career. My response was essentially (and I am paraphrasing). "you don't understand. I don't care about retaining my current position or career path. If you try to destroy that, I will simply do something else. So such threats are not going to work on me." The last thing I remember from that encounter was his face turning red like a turnip, looking like it was going to explode.

As a result of giving up, my work became a lot more interesting. My newfound friends became a lot more interesting. My life in general became a whole lot more interesting. I began to see and experience possibilities that I had never anticipated. And magically, my career path seemed to create itself for me. The path was by no means traditional but it was uniquely mine. I was able to combine paths in academics, writing, computer and artificial intelligence work, entrepreneurship, and other things, including ding, ding, ding. consulting. Ironically, my path has at times brought me to work alongside some of those firms that wouldn't hire me in the first place. And seeing how they work has made me kind of glad I didn't get those jobs in the first place.

That's why I tell many students to consider giving up. Giving up on doing what others are doing or what others are telling them to do. Giving up on trying to follow a standard, this-is-how-you-do-it path. And instead, be open to whatever may come along.

Note that this doesn't mean dropping all your cares and responsibilities. Rather, this means giving up on expectations when they don't really match you or your circumstances. Life is not always about devising a plan and sticking with the plan through wind, rain, hail, sleet, cats, and dogs. It's OK to give up sometimes.

Giving up on a plan is not necessarily akin to being a quitter. In fact, it could be folly to desperately stick to a path.

For whatever reason, my path in life has turned out to be quite nontraditional and perhaps confusing to many other people. But that's OK. And it should be OK if it's the case with you. Embrace ambiguity when it happens. Maybe you don't need to know what's around the corner. Maybe, you can give up so that you don't ultimately give up what's truly important to you.

More from Bruce Y. Lee M.D., M.B.A.
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