Quitting

November 05, 2021

There are lots of different types of quitting. There's the unambiguously positive type of quitting, like when a friend decides to quit smoking cigarettes. This is a champagne popping moment because your friend is sacrificing the short term pleasure of a nicotine hit in favor of their long term health.

A more nuanced type of quitting is when somebody stops doing something that is challenging in the short term that has the potential (but no guarantee) to lead to long-term success and fulfillment. Examples of this are everywhere: a teenager deciding to quit taking piano lessons; a young athlete deciding to step away from their sport; a person deciding to leave their job or even change their entire career path.

One might assume that these choices would be effortless because it means you are no longer putting time or energy into something. But if you've been in this situation before (most of us have) you know that this is the opposite of the truth. Making a decision about something like this is an enormously heavy burden. It requires deep consideration, courage, and determination.

One reason for this is that quitting is a socially risky thing to do. Nobody wants to be labeled a quitter. That would imply inner weakness -- that you didn't have the capability to persevere. In contrast, everybody wants to be thought of as someone who doesn't give up. Tenacity, perseverance, and determination are all very admirable traits in society because life is full of challenges. Those that are able to endure and continue pushing through adversity are much more likely to make progress and to eventually succeed. People want to be successful, so they don't want to be a quitter.

Quitting is also socially risky because you are changing your social identity. This mass update to how people in your life think of you can be painfully awkward. It's like leaving class on Friday with a crew cut and walking in on Monday morning with a mohawk. You know that everyone will adjust to the new you sooner than you think, but during the adjustment period you have to endure the judgemental stares. We all know we shouldn't care about what other people think, but we do. It's hardwired into our lizard brains.

Setting aside the social implications, quitting something means you are trading one possible future for another because you are reallocating where you invest your time and energy. If you quit taking music lessons now, you are giving up on becoming a modern day Mozart, but now you have time to go to soccer practice and you might become the next Ronaldo.

This is the classic "grass is always greener on the other side" problem. When enduring adversity, we are naturally going to be focused on what we imagine will be great about some alternative scenario and what we dislike about our current situation. During your music lessons, you dream of the smell of freshly cut grass on the soccer pitch and the feeling of the wind in your hair, and you are brought back to your current harsh reality when you get a whiff of your piano teacher's studio, which smells like old cats. We can't help it, our brains just torture us in this way.

Understanding what makes quitting hard can make it easier to approach the decision under control. This is important because you definitely will have to quit various things at some point in life. When in a situation like this, it's all too easy to be overwhelmed by pressure and when this happens you end up quitting poorly.

One example of quitting poorly is to explode. This is when you yell at your boss and slam the door on the way out, or send a nasty email to your piano teacher about how you can't take it anymore and she needs to open a window to let out the cat smell and oh by the way have a nice life.

A less obvious, but more common way of quitting poorly is when you just slowly fade away. People do this all the time. Cancel your upcoming lesson, reschedule the next one further out, rinse, repeat, and eventually just never schedule another one. Stop working on your side-hustle because you are busy working on other things and then never circle back around to it. Slowly start disengaging at work and not giving your full effort, until eventually you can lie to yourself and say that you just aren't cut out for the role. We easily fall into this trap because it doesn't feel nearly as painful or scary as explicitly quitting, but the cost of quitting is still there -- it's just amortized over time.

Don't give in and quit poorly. Instead, strive to always quit well.

This starts with being honest with yourself. It's so easy to be consumed by attempting to live up to others' expectations that we lose sight of the fact that your relationship with yourself is infinitely more important. Even if everyone else approves of you, if you aren't happy with the choices you've made, or who you are, you are guaranteed to be deeply miserable. A way to remind yourself of this is to read the poem The Man in the Glass. Only you can know if you are emotionally trapping yourself on an unfulfilling path, or leaving a rewarding journey for the wrong reasons.

The best way to get clear on this is to take a step back from the emotional pressure and just take stock of your situation. For example, you can combat the grass is greener effect by making lists. You know that your brain is focused on what is challenging about your current pursuit and what will be rewarding about your imagined alternative. Write these things down. Then flip these questions around. What could be worse about that alternative scenario you are imagining? What are the positive aspects of your current situation?

Another way to get clarity is to just talk it out. There is something magical about forcing ourselves to communicate that creates structure and solidity out of the messy vortex of thoughts and feelings whipping around in our heads. You could start by just talking to yourself through journaling, or you could talk to a family member, a partner, or a close friend. It could also be beneficial to talk to someone who doesn't know you at all and whose judgement you don't care about, like a therapist.

In many cases, getting clear on your current situation might help you realize that you will end up regretting your decision to quit. But sometimes it will become obvious that you actually are on the wrong path and it's time for change.

If this happens to you, the next step to quitting well is to be honest with others. These conversations are scary because we imagine that the person on the receiving end will think less of us. It's true that this is a possible outcome, but in most cases this is just catastrophizing. The reality is that change is constant in life. It's almost inevitable that the person listening has been in your shoes before too and will understand, especially if you are being honest. It's easy to empathize with someone who is being authentic. These hard conversations also have the advantage of opening potential doors of opportunity in the form of compromises. Change doesn't have to be jarring, it can be gradual too. If you don't want to work full-time anymore, could you hang around as a part-time consultant? If you don't want to hang around forever, could you create an extended transition period to reduce the impact on your team while they find a replacement and give you more time to figure out what's next?

Life constantly presents new challenges. The enormous majority of the time when faced with adversity, the most rewarding and fulfilling path is the one that leads into and through the challenge. And this brings up the final and most important point about what it means to quit well: quitting is obviously not an appropriate reaction to adversity. Instead, quitting well is something you do when you recognize that your long-term goals are no longer in alignment with the path you are currently on. It takes time and significant introspection to determine this.

In other words, people who quit well don’t quit often.