When Quitting is Good

Is quitting ever good? If so, how can you know when it is the right thing to do? Screen Shot 2013-03-24 at 4.26.40 PM

IDEA IN BRIEF: There may be a natural window of time in which it is appropriate to quit which is longer than most people are willing to invest, but shorter than most highly motivated people take. Specifically if you put your best efforts toward something, such as a sport, activity, talent, job, career or relationship, and fail to see growth and returns from your investment of time within about 2 years, then it is probably time to quit – or at least re-frame your approach.

Ample empirical evidence demonstrates the importance of the “don’t quit” advice.  Anecdotal evidence is provided simply by watching typical children grow up around you.  Many of them are excellent quitters. My own daughter wanted to quit basketball, soccer, speedskating, the cello, choir, art and drama camp, all after the first day. Half of these she ultimately quit for the right reason – she did not have a natural talent for the activity. Per my last post, she did not have enough “myelinated circuits” to build from to demonstrate speed or skill in those areas. Conversely, with basketball, art and drama – after some diligent practice, she has exploded with talent in these areas, capabilities she would never have known had she followed her early instincts to quit.

For scientific support and quantitative evidence, the Stanford Marshmallow experiment, conducted since 1972, is perhaps the most famous behavioral research corroborating the idea that to be successful, one must be able to delay gratification and persevere through challenging circumstances: in other words, “not quit.”  In this longitudinal study (still going on) children who were able to delay eating a marshmallow in order to earn two marshmallows a few minutes later were shown repeatedly to have greater success in life – higher SAT’s, greater incomes, great levels of educational achievement and happiness.

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It works. I suspect most of the readers of this blog have mastered the capacity to delay gratification and struggle through a tough present for the promise of a more rewarding future. Yet, for some of us, perhaps many of us, I think this childhood guidance has had unintentional consequences and has subsequently become a collective adult neurosis unintentionally designed to rob us of success and happiness.

Yes, I said it, “a collective adult neurosis. “Wait,” you might say, “That’s crazy!” Exactly. To paraphrase Scott Adams, the author of Dilbert who has wrestled with some of these same questions, “Perseverance is great… until it is stupid.”

The problem emerges slowly. As we master the ability to “tough it out”, we tackle ever larger obstacles and delay gratification ever farther.  At some point a mindset and momentum takes over such that overcoming obstacles becomes the defining drive, and gratification is delayed indefinitely. This is the “graying” of man, a transition away from a life of color and sound and passion into a life like that of Sysiphus – a routinized passionless pursuit pushing a rock up a hill with no promise of joy or completion.

Hearkening back to our marshmallow experiment, it appears that some of us have traded not one marshmallow for two but an infinite number of future marshmallows for an undefined future date.

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When discipline completely replaces inspiration, a kind of desperation sets in – a “quiet” sort as famously described by Thoreau. It is not exactly failure, but what is it then?

“Most men live lives of quiet desperation” - Thoreau

Interestingly, two bits of conventional advice put this quandary directly into perspective.  The first is some commonly used childhood guidance, and the second is some cliched adult wisdom.

1) “If at first you don’t succeed… try, try, try again.”

Now, contrast this with

2) “The definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over and over again, and… expecting different results.”

The inherent conflict between these statements is striking. I suspect much of the population needs more focus on the first rule. But there’s another huge cohort of people stuck in the second, banging against the wall.

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Maybe it is you? It certainly was me. I spent years trying to develop endurance as an athlete to no avail.   [embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6MfZ6Rkk-oI[/embed]  I spent years in consulting as a program manager, not realizing that I’m not wired to be high on follow through. We see these people all around us, middle managers that never quite make it, mid level competitors that can’t seem to reach the podium, artists with no sales, musicians that never gather a following, and would-be lovers pursuing relationships that never blossom.

Introducing the “Two Year Rule.” Through my own experience and observations of others, it seems to me that when you pursue something fully and completely for up to two years and do not reach a “break-through” level where you feel momentum and have experienced significant improvement and real success, then it is time to quit. Quit that job, quit that sport, change instruments or start composing, write magazine articles rather than novels, and break up with that not-so-romantic partner. Sometimes you even have to break it off with a platonic friend.

One exception – only parents can’t really quit.  If you don’t have a talent for parenting, make sure you surround yourselves with family and friends that can help provide guidance and model the way.

I once read a “success story” of a woman who tried writing a book for 35 years. She struggled, did odd jobs and eventually published a manuscript that received some critical acclaim and sold reasonably well. I don’t look at this as a success.  This seems like an abject failure – someone who missed her true calling and whiled away a life trying to perfect and overcome her weaknesses.

Here’s the final thought.  We all know people who have quit for the right reasons – and they always say the same thing, “That was the best decision I ever made.” This is almost always true because they latch onto something better, something closer to their strengths, something that resonates within their spirit. Maybe it is time for you to quit, to escape the gray chrysalis of weakness and find that place of passion, strength, light and color. Time to fly!

Next post – when quitting is bad… and why the most talented often quit early and often.