How to quit at the right time
Why quitters are often the real heroes of the story
As we head toward a well-earned break for the holidays and new year, I’ve been thinking a lot about how new ideas often emerge at this annual juncture. Do any of these ring true to your thoughts about the new year ahead?
You’re thinking of changing jobs.
You’re considering moving out of the city.
You just have the urge to discover something new and exciting.
All of these have something in common: they require us to quit on something or someone. Quitting gets such a bad rap. As legendary football coach Vince Lombardi said, “Winners never quit, and quitters never win.” It’s simply not true: the skill of knowing when and what to quit needs rethinking.
Here’s something from a previous edition of Rethink that explores what it really means to quit - I thought it may resonate well at this particular moment.
Shortly after I turned 14, I decided to quit competitive swimming. The relentless, early-morning training sessions and the weekend meets meant giving up a lot of other things I wanted to do.
My parents knew it wasn’t an easy decision (and were secretly delighted not to have to ferry me all over the country). But the response from teachers, friends, and other family members was uniformly, “Why are you quitting?” My decision was perceived as giving up, a form of failure.
I kept at it for too long…
The ideas of “grit”’ and perseverance have become popular ideals. When we read biographies of successful entrepreneurs or stories of incredible physical feats, we hear about people who persist, no matter what, until they’ve reached their goal. Common wisdom dictates that sticking to things, and not quitting, is the key to success.
Yes, of course, if we’re going to succeed at something we must see it through to completion. But people also fail, lose, and even die, rather than quit. Dogged persistence can sometimes be our undoing. It can lead to a common problem — I kept at it for too long.
Why quitters are not perceived as heroes
Annie Duke, a former champion poker player, knows a lot about quitting. A behavioral decision scientist, she studies people who succeed by quitting, particularly during times of uncertainty. Her own success she puts down to quitting fast, quitting often, and quitting without guilt.
On the podcast A Slight Change of Plans, Duke shared some incredible insights on the narrative and value of quitting. “We don’t really see the quitters,” she told host Dr. Maya Shankar. “The heroes are the ones who persevere beyond the point of physical or emotional or mental wellbeing in order to push past that, and like, cross the chasm.”
Duke shared a story about the famous New Zealand mountaineer Rob Hall, who died on Everest while leading an expedition in 1996. Climbers heading up Everest are meant to observe a strict turnaround time; if they’re not going to make it to the summit before a certain agreed-upon time, they must turn around to avoid descending the deadly South Ridge in darkness. The problem is, most people are so set on reaching the summit (and have paid guides more than £40,000 to get there), turning around is seen as a failure.
On May 11, 1996, Rob Hall ignored the 2:00 pm turnaround time he had set. If you watch the documentary Everest, you’ll know that he is painted as the hero of the story. Nobody remembers the names of the three climbers who adhered to the turnaround time and survived — Lou Kasischke, John Taske, and Stuart Hutchinson. Were they quitters — or great decision-makers?
“How do you get people like that to be the hero of your narrative?” Duke poignantly asks in the episode.
Why we don’t quit more often
Warren Buffett once said, “The most important thing to do if you find yourself in a hole is to stop digging.” It’s great advice but not that easy to follow.
The ability to quit when it’s the right time is bedeviled by the “sunk cost fallacy.” When we’ve invested time, energy, or money in something, it’s incredibly hard to leave it behind. I could have carried on swimming if I got stuck fixating on how many hours I’d already spent going back and forth in a pool lane. The greater our past investments, the harder it is to quit. Sunk cost fallacy explains why:
It’s so hard to quit a career that makes you totally miserable if you spent years developing expertise in a specific field.
After pouring resources into innovations that don’t work, companies don’t kill the project.
We don’t let bad employees go if we’ve invested a lot in their hiring and training.
My rethink moment around quitting was realizing what we have already invested is already gone. Emotionally, physically, or financially, it’s gone. As Seth Godin puts it, we need to shift our mental frame from the “cost of moving on” to the “cost of not moving on.”
Quitting is a powerful decision-making tool
Have you ever had a conversation with a friend in which they tell you how awful their job is? This happens to me a lot. When I suggest doing something different often the response is, “I can’t. I’m a doctor/communications director/about to become a lawyer,” fill in the blank…
I’ve noticed these conversations have two common themes:
1. We resist quitting, even when we know it’s the right time to do so because we fear giving up a part of our identity. What will I be if I leave this thing behind?
2. People mistake sticking with something as not deciding. Deciding to stay in something is still a decision.
The Latin root for quit is quietus which means “free,” or “to put to rest, be quiet.” I love the idea of quitting being a release from something.
Quitting can create the space to discover something new — to spend time on different things that matter. Duke sees quitting as a tool to decide what you like and what you don’t like. “Be ‘quitty’ to figure out when you should be ‘gritty,’” she says. When I quit competitive swimming, it wasn’t a form of failure. I was learning how to get out of my own way, to quit when I should.
Incredibly insightful. Understanding quitting as a decision we make to open space for something/someone new resonates so much with me. Do you think that people’s attachment styles and/or personality styles can have an impact on their ability to quit? Thank you! Happy Holidays to you, Rachel.
The views expressed in this article resonates with me. I have often told people that in consideration of my professional growth, I have often not gotten those things I have labored for, rather I have been led or offered better things by providence (God), first disguised as difficult options. However, in my effort to escape toxicity or get off the drudgery associated with an unreciprocated toil , I take these unfamiliar options. Often, I accept these options with the simple pleasure and thanksgiving that they are even available. In reality however, they emerge as growth giving challenges, blessings in disguise.