Why Quitting Today Might Be the Right Thing to Do

Imagine if the first job you ever had was the one you had to stay with forever.  Or if the first sport you tried was the one you had to keep playing.  Or if the first instrument you studied was the one you had to keep practicing – regardless of how well or poorly you did.

I think we'd wind up never starting anything for fear we'd be stuck in something we didn't like or had no talent for.  We'd postpone making any decision at all for fear of getting it wrong.

Yet that's the situation we put ourselves and our children in when we constantly praise grit and deride quitting.


How quitting can be positive

Even our language illustrates this attitude.  In English, if you're "gritty," you're steadfast, determined, unwavering, resolute.  Grit is often equated with courage and heroism.  You're the rock in a storm.  Quitting, on the other hand, is failure.  A quitter gives up and gives in.  A quitter is a loser.  Weak.  Spineless.

Who wants to wear that description?

But quitting gives us the ability to adapt to new information or new situations and opportunities.  It gives us the chance to understand ourselves and the world better, and to act on that insight.  Quitting lets us experiment and change.  In fact, knowing when to quit is at least as important as knowing when to stick it out.

Annie Duke, author of Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away,* makes the point that grit "can get you to stick to hard things that are worthwhile, but it can also get you to stick to hard things that are no longer worthwhile," such as a bad investment or a hurtful relationship.

* This blog is reader-supported.  If you buy through my links, I may earn a small commission.

We "allow" a 13-year-old to explore an interest in drama instead of volleyball, a 19-year-old to change his college major, or a 25-year-old to go back to school and switch careers, but at some point we say "Enough!  If you don't have it right by now, too bad.  No more dilly-dallying.  It's time to settle down and stick it out."

But quitting lets you sign up for that art class, take that job in another city, or go on a first date.  You don't have to have a crystal ball that tells you everything will work out perfectly.  You can take a chance.

(By the way, I realize that having few debts and at least some savings makes this easier.)

Too often, we persist when we shouldn't.  Instead of quitting, we double down, increase our commitment, dig in deeper.  Duke points out that we see this everywhere:

People staying too long in bad relationships, bad jobs, and bad careers; businesses continuing development and support of products that are clearly failing or long after conditions have changed; a nation sticking for decades in an unwinnable war.

Sometimes quitting is the best option.

The fallacy of the sunk cost

boy practicing violin
First identified by Nobel laureate Richard Thaler in 1980, this is the fear that most of us have of wasting money, time, effort, or any other resources we previously put into a project.  When deciding whether to quit or continue, we have a tendency to stick with a situation simply because we've already invested in it.

In the mid-1980's, my parents continued with their failing restaurant for exactly this reason.  Instead of cutting their losses, they stuck it out until they had to declare bankruptcy.  It devastated them.

This kind of thinking keeps us hanging on to stuff we no longer need, things we bought that we've never even used, or projects we no longer have any interest in.  After all, we "paid good money" for them.  They may be sitting in a box in the basement, or hiding at the back of a closet, providing no value whatsoever to us, but because they're "still good," we keep them.  We store them, maintain them, insure them, and move them – because that's apparently easier than quitting ownership of them.

Thinking ahead

Here's the reality:  If we quit something that's no longer worth pursuing, that's not failure.  That's success.

No one would argue that quitting a habit that does you harm is anything less than a victory.  Well, so is quitting something that keeps you from growing, learning, and adapting.  Instead of looking backwards at the sunk cost, we need to look ahead and realize that spending more effort, time, money, or anything else would be the real waste.

And those things you have in storage, the things you find it hard to part with because you'd be "wasting" what you paid for them?  You already spent that money.  It's gone, and keeping the stuff won't bring it back.  But keeping it hidden in your closet?  That's a real waste.  As Joshua Becker has written:

If you're not using the stuff in your home, get rid of it.  You're not going to start using it more by shoving it in a closet somewhere.

Get rid of it, and maybe someone else can put it to good use.

You know what?  Winners quit a lot.  Winners quit and try a new approach, or take a chance on something completely different.  That's bold, innovative, and hopeful – and ultimately demonstrates true grit!

Related article:  The Busy Child


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