Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Why Quitters Win

Unraveling the last mystery of success.

The Power of Quitting

Not long ago, the psychologists Timothy Judge and Charlice Hurst conducted a fascinating study. Partnering with the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth they examined the progress of more than 12,000 people for more than two decades. They were interested in all sorts of advantages and disadvantages that might impact whether a person winds up digging ditches or founding the next Apple Computer. Judge and Hurst looked at things like the occupation of the teenagers’ parents. Did they grow up in a blue collar home or a white collar home? Were the teens’ parents doctors and lawyers, or dropouts and n’er-do-wells? The researchers were also interested in finding out what kind of grades the teens earned in high school, and what kind of scores they received on their SATs.

Then Judge and Hurst compared all of these things to the annual income the teenagers were earning by their late thirties and early forties. In general, the results turned out how you might expect. The kids with the wealthy, well-educated parents who graduated near the top of their high school class tended to make more money as adults than the blue collar kids who figured out early on that formal school wasn’t really their bag.

But Judge and Hurst also looked at something else. This is where things get interesting. A unique subset of people in the study did not follow this pattern. By the time they reached their middle years, some sons and daughters of roofers and plumbers whose grades (ahem) made the top half of the class possible, still ended up making 30-60 percent more money each year than many of their more privileged peers. What this select breed of underdogs had in common was nothing but a unique set of personal beliefs (stemming from emotional stability, internal locus of control, self-efficacy, and self-esteem) about their ability to shape the future. Those beliefs translate into the ability to choose one course of action (entrepreneurship, less prestigious career path, etc.) while quitting others.

University of Michigan psychologist Georges Potworowski has discovered that people who score low on many of these same traits are also more prone to indecisiveness. For example, let’s imagine your friend Paul is having a party. Paul’s more indecisive friends (not you, of course) probably won’t RSVP because they are afraid that the second they respond “yes,” Peter or Mary will announce an even cooler party on the same day (the horror!). But they don’t want to respond “no” either, since Paul’s party might turn out to be the cat’s meow after all.

But really, who cares? Although failing to RSVP like I often do might send extra conscientious people like my wife to an early grave due to unmitigated frustration, in the grand scheme of things it isn’t a big deal, is it?

No, if all we are talking about is a cocktail party with unconditionally loving friends.

But the inability to make what Harvard ethics professor, Joseph Badaracco calls “right vs. right” decisions can be a fatal strategic flaw. An otherwise talented manager who can’t bring himself to focus on one customer segment at the expense of others (but what if they want to buy, too!?!) winds up taking his team in circles, and his career into a rut.

At the heart of strategic thinking is the ability to focus on one strategy while consciously quitting the pursuit of others. Choosing what we want to do is easy. It's choosing what else we want to do that we are nonetheless going to quit doing that is the hard part—to build the school by stripping funding from the hospital; to develop this product while shutting down production of that one. As David Packard (of Hewlett-Packard fame) once said “more companies die from overeating than starvation.” The same truth applies to our careers and personal lives.

As I said in my last article, there are three psychological forces that ultimately determine our ability to make progress at work and at home. This article is about the first force: Personality. But even if you or your kids or your team members don’t naturally possess these traits, leveraging the forces of Process and Pressure can be equally as effective. We’ll explore those force in the next two articles.