“You’ve got to know when to hold ’em,
Know when to fold ’em,
Know when to walk away,
Know when to run.
You never count your money,
When you’re sittin’ at the table,
There’ll be time enough for countin’,
When the dealin’s done.”
~ Kenny Rogers, “The Gambler”
One of my NYU students was facing a dilemma: A few chapters into a highly-recommended, award-winning, bestselling business book, she realized that she found it to be a boring and uninteresting waste of her limited and valuable time. Meanwhile she had a pile of other, much more engaging and tempting titles sitting right there on her nightstand calling her name. She was excited about diving into one of them, only to find that when she put the boring book aside to embark on a new reading adventure, she suddenly and inexplicably found herself feeling extremely guilty.
As she put it, “The culture where I come from is really uptight about winning. People who quit are looked upon as ‘failures’. And, so, quitting this book translated into a failure on my part. And this feeling of guilt comes in whenever I don’t finish something.”
“Always finish what you start.”
“Don’t be a quitter.”
“No pain, no gain.”
“Never, ever give up.”
“Winners never quit, and quitters never win.”
“Quitters are losers.”
“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” (Thomas Edison)
“I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion’.” (Muhammad Ali)
“If you quit ONCE it becomes a habit. Never quit!!!” (Michael Jordan)
For those who grew up with parents, teachers, coaches, and/or other authority figures and motivational speakers drilling these mantras into our heads, no wonder we feel guilty when we decide not to continue with something!
But when is it ok to quit? How do we know when it’s better to cut our losses and move on? What about “sunk costs” that cause us to dig ourselves into an even deeper hole? How do we decide when to drop something and when to persevere? How do we determine whether to give something (or someone) a second or third or tenth chance vs. when to say, “that’s it…enough is enough”?
And, is there a difference between “quitting” and “being a quitter”?
Confession: I Am A Quitter
I’ve quit jobs that weren’t working out, and I’ve ended relationships that were dysfunctional. I’ve left many books unfinished, and I’ve walked out of many a bad play or movie. And I quit piano lessons when I realized that I wasn’t really very good. I recently quit eating foods loaded with sugar and carbs, and replaced them with nuts, fruits, and vegetables. And I quit reading the New York Times while laying on my couch, and instead now read it everyday while walking for 30 minutes on the treadmill.
So you can see where I’m going with this: When it comes to “quitting,” it’s all about context, and how you define and frame it.
In his classic leadership book, “What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There,” legendary management guru Marshall Goldsmith explores “the 20 Workplace Habits You Need to Break.” In other words: there are unproductive and counterproductive behaviors that successful people need to QUIT doing in order to enable them to become even more successful, and leaders are often successful not because of how they are, but in spite of how they are. And, so, to get from “here” to “there” they may need to “quit” doing the things that may be holding them back.
While it is admirable to keep on keepin’ on, there is no shame in movin’ on if what you’re doing just isn’t working for you anymore. If you are not engaged, if you are unhappy, if you have given it your all and see little or no possibility of sunnier skies, then, perhaps, the best choice you can make might just be to make a change. As you get older (and, hopefully, wiser), you come to realize that life is short: Too short to waste on books, or movies, or tv series, or projects, or jobs, or relationships that you no longer find valuable. The key, and the challenge, is that – though you can seek out others’ input, advice, and opinions – when it comes to your life, you are the only one who can make the determination on whether to pass or to play.
It often helps to think about the fact that ending something negative – though leaving a void – creates the time and space for the start of something new. And that it’s hard to start something new while our cup is full or when we’re tenuously hanging onto the past.
So I’m not talking about quitting on a person who is relying on you, walking out on someone, leaving a project half-way done, or storming out of the office while crooning the old country song, “Take this job and shove it, I ain’t workin’ here no more.” I’m talking about when you reach a point where, after much thoughtful consideration and deliberation you’ve made the well-thought-out, considered decision that it’s time to move on.
Why Didn’t You Just Quit?
As I wrote about in a previous post (“A Love Letter to All of my Horrible Bosses”), earlier in my career I worked at one of the tv networks as an administrative assistant for an abusive, sadistic, insane and maniacal boss who treated me horribly on a daily basis, including, one time, throwing a box of pens at my head because they weren’t the kind she liked. (They were medium point; she wanted the fine point.)
When people hear these stories about her – after laughing in disbelief and horror – they typically ask, “Why didn’t you just quit?” This question can best be answered in the following old joke:
“This guy works at the circus and his only job is to clean up after the elephants. All day long, day after day, his job is, literally, nothing but shoveling sh*t. And, then, after work every night he would meet up with his friends at the bar and bend their ears for hours complaining about it. Finally, fed up with the endless complaints and unable to hear about it anymore, his best friend exclaims, “If you hate it so much, then why don’t you just quit???” To which he replies, “What…and leave show business!”
The Learning/Enjoyment Matrix
Going back to my student’s story about the feelings of guilt associated with “quitting” her boring book in order to pick up another, more interesting one, it got me thinking about it in this way:
Ideally, it’s great when we’re able to spend our valuable time doing what we love and loving what we do. When we’re “Learning & Loving it,” time flies, we’re truly engaged, in a state of “flow” or “in the zone,” we can’t wait for it to start, and hate for it to end. This could refer to a book, a class, a movie, a tv series that we’re binge-watching, a project, a job, or even a relationship.
Sometimes, though – let’s keep using the book example – we’re not, necessarily learning anything monumental from it, but we’re enjoying it. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a little mindless entertainment, escapism, and fun.
But what about when we’re learning, but not, necessarily, enjoying it? Continuing with the book, maybe it’s taking a tremendous amount of effort to even pick it up again, a challenge to understand, and maybe even an exhausting struggle to get through every page. And, yet, little by little, you are learning something. Do you keep forging ahead…or do you quit?
Lastly, what about when you’re engaged in something where you are neither learning anything nor enjoying it? What then? And, what if it’s not a $14.95 paperback we’re talking about…but a hobby you were trying out that you’ve made an investment in, a project you’ve been working on, a relationship you are involved in, or…even your current job? Then what?
Again, there are no easy answers. And, again, only you can decide. But, perhaps framing your situation using this matrix will help you to think things through.
Playing Quit & Seek: A Few Questions to Consider
When should you quit your job…and seek out a new opportunity?
When should you quit that bad relationship…and seek out a better one?
When should you quit a bad habit…and replace it with something more healthy and productive?
When should you quit complaining about problems…and start coming up with solutions?
When should you quit venting…and start in-venting?
How do you know whether to quit while you’re ahead (i.e., knowing when to hold ‘em, and when to fold ‘em)?
How should you quit (if or when the time comes, what’s the right way or the best way to do it)?
Why are you quitting (is it the right decision, and are you quitting for the right reasons)?
Who can you rely on and trust for counsel, advice, and support?
Have you weighed the pros and cons of quitting vs. persevering?
Have you explored all your alternatives?
Are you giving up too soon?
Or have you already stayed too long?
Have you given it your best shot?
Is it time?
The best distinction I’ve heard between “quitting” and “being a quitter”
In closing, quitting is never easy. It is often an emotional and wrenching and potentially-confusing decision with numerous variables and unlimited pros and cons. And though making the decision to quit something is a tough one, the decision to not decide can be equally as tough. As mentioned in my last post (“It’s Leap Year…So Why Not Take That Leap!”), I’ve found that being stuck in limbo is worse than anything. As the psychologist William James famously wrote, “There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision.”
Perhaps this inspirational quote will help to reframe what “quitting” is about, and help you to decide what road to take or what move – if any – to make:
“Quitting is not giving up, it’s choosing to focus your attention on something more important. Quitting is not losing confidence, it’s realizing that there are more valuable ways you can spend your time. Quitting is not making excuses, it’s learning to be more productive, efficient and effective instead. Quitting is letting go of things (or people) that are sucking the life out of you, so you can do more things that will bring you strength.”
~Osayi Emokpae Lasisi, author of “Impossible Is Stupid”
To sum up, perhaps by ridding ourselves of the mindset that quitting is for losers, we will realize that sometimes, quitting is exactly what we need to do…in order to win.
For a little additional inspiration and a burst of confidence-boosting motivation, please see my recent post:
Spring Forward…By Facing Your Fears and Kickstarting Your Confidence