The Virtue of Quitting
The art of when and how to quit.
Posted Apr 13, 2014
How many times have you heard phrases like "winners never quit and quitters never win"? Or some motivational speaker telling you to "never give up on your dreams"? Now how many times have you heard "sometimes it's best to give up when something isn't working and start on something new"? This post is about the value of knowing when, and how, to give up; not for trivial things, but for the larger goals and paths we pursue in our careers or personal lives.
A virtue defined as a quality that is morally good or desirable in a person. Every culture has a set of these, and in the US, we could say that "finishing what you started" or "never giving up on something" would be on that list. Ultimately, I think it is important value the opposite as well: having the foresight, courage, and trust to end something that isn't working, or that we are not longer passionate about, and find the next course of action in life.
On an individual level, it would obviously be cruel to dash the hopes of children that grow up wanting to be doctors, pro athletes, singers, artists, or astronauts, even if the likelihood for success is extremely low. But as adults, when should we give up on our "dreams" and switch to something that will bring us more success? Maybe even more challenging: when should we give up on relationships, businesses, career paths, or courses of action that are causing a lot of pain?
When and How to Quit
Quitting because you are no longer passionate about something is usually easier than quitting something you care about that isn't working. However, the decision can get more complicated if other people (like family) have a stake in our pursuit, or if we have very few other options. These types of decisions usually need significant management of the relationship dynamics, and the other principles in this section may not be as applicable.
For pursuits that we care about that are not working, the two mistakes we can make are either quitting too soon or too late. Unfortunately it's difficult to know when that point is, so a simple rule of thumb for when to quit is: when something is not improving with substantial effort. Meaning, when things get difficult in business, school, relationships, or learning a new skill, it is important to increase our effort and get help to improve it. If things are still unsatisfactory after a period of time with substantial effort, then maybe it's time to give up on that course of action, if not the thing altogether. The following three factors below are also important to consider, but before going on, let's use an example to make sense of this stuff.
Imagine you are majoring in engineering at college, and you are having problems passing advanced calculus, which you need to master to be an engineer. You have failed the class once already, and this time you are getting extra help and have doubled your study efforts, but your grades are still not improving...
Choose Something Else: It is much easier to choose something new to pursue, rather than to just stop pursuing the original thing. In the example situation, it would be very hard to just deselect engineering without knowing what you would select to replace it. However, if you were also interested in psychology, it would then be easier to quit engineering if you were excited to begin a major in psychology. This can also be applied to situations with even more gravity, because this is often part of why people don't leave failing relationships until they meet someone new. It also speaks to the value of exploring new options right away if a pursuit begins to stall.
Sunk Cost: The "sunk cost" principle is important in economics, and it basically refers to how much we have already invested in something. In the previous example, if you wanted to be an engineer your whole life and you had $60,000 of debt related to pursuing engineering, your sunk cost is very high, and thus would naturally be a barrier to quitting, compared to someone who only wanted to be an engineer for 6 months. Unfortunately, if you continue adding more time, energy, and debt to engineering, when it may never pay off, the sunk cost is even greater. Knowing about this principle may help you know when to cut bait, especially if the sunk cost is huge.
Opportunity Cost: Right next to sunk cost is opportunity cost, which represents the opportunities you are missing out on by continuing to pursue the original thing. In the example, every semester as an engineering major is also another semester that you would not be majoring in something else that would be better for you. Examining opportunity cost can be important in determining whether quitting is a good idea for you.
Giving Up With Grace
Other barriers to quitting are the potential grief, strain of having to reform our identity, and social pain or embarrassment. For the social component, I have found that the way we tell people will influence the perceptions they have about it. Meaning, if someone is likely to be disappointed, hurt, or critical of your quitting, the way you communicate it will influence their response. So the following is a 4 component process for how to communicate your quitting decision to other people who may not agree with it.
1. Make a clear decision: If you are able to demonstrate that you have given the decision a lot of thought and have clearly decided that the goal that was being pursued was never going to pan out, or that your heart is not in it anymore, it will be easier for others to understand and respect it. Seeming uncertain or appearing like you haven't thought things through will invite criticism.
2. Determine the next steps: Knowing what comes next in life is another key part that people who care about us will wonder about. Having a vision of what that entails can go a long way for helping them respond well to the decision. Even if you are not sure what is next, saying you have "no idea" will sound worse than saying "I'm going to take some time and figure out what my next steps are."
3. Own it and be honest: We often worry about losing face if we have very publicly decided to quit something that is failing. It takes a lot of strength to say "I'm closing the restaurant because it is failing and there is no way to turn it around." Ironically, being able to really "own it" like that and tell the truth can actually increase the amount of respect people will have for you.
4. Accepting Their Views: Ultimately there may be no way to frame something that the other person will support or agree with. Sometimes that means having to accept the criticism from the other person and making peace with it.
Failing vs. Being a Failure
Beyond sunk cost, I often hear people say that they stay with a losing effort because "if this doesn't work then it means I'm a failure." Somehow, many of us have confused failing at something as being a failure as a human being. Most people can recognize that as a flawed idea, but it can still feel real, and is ultimately responsible for both staying on a sinking ship too long, and avoiding taking on a new challenge for fear of it not working out.
When this is the case, or you are having other issues related to things covered here, counseling can be a great help in determining when to make new efforts, when to quit, and deciding what comes next.
Other articles that may be helpful if you liked this one are: Following the Path, How to Set Goals, and You At Your Best.