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When To Quit Stuff

Updated: Jan 24

One of the most difficult things in life is to know when to stick and when to fold. This is certainly the case in business but is also an issue that crops up at critical junctures in so many other parts of life.

I read a book by Seth Godin a while back called The Dip that addresses this issue. And while it doesn't give you a clear-cut answer on when to quit (of course it doesn't, they never do!) it does reassure us that quitting is ok, and sometimes can even be beneficial.

Sometimes quitting is the best, most productive, most rational and most efficient next move we can make when faced with a number of possible options.

When it comes to quitting, people tend to fit more naturally into one category or another - those that quit quite a lot and those that determinedly resist quitting anything.

Generally, because human beings tend to find comfort in established patterns, relationships and environments, more people tend to be of the type to not quit stuff they have become accustomed to, especially the easy stuff of daily life.

However, because human beings like to avoid pain, they quite frequently quit stuff that involves pain. And often success eludes us for the very reason we quit that which we shouldn't, and we don't quit the things we should.

The people that quit a lot of everything, friends, homes, jobs and traditional values, society labels as aimless or drifters, or, if they are being kind, bohemian and free-spirited. These types of people are in the minority. Often they are the rebels that shake things up fundamentally.

The other extreme is the 'Do or Die' personality, the type of person that takes pride in never quitting. They boast that they never quit anything, whether it be a relationship, a career path or the pursuit of a dream.

They are committed and tenacious, and they may admit, in their more self-aware moments, to being stubborn. But they certainly, if asked, would consider quitting to be a weakness, a failure of the ability to commit or work harder or to decide something absolutely.

As society has generally taught us that people that change things and quit frequently are weak and not to be trusted, this kind of person sometimes can internalise these messages and feel that every time they start something and quit (note that this is actually just experimenting!) they have failed.

They and other people look at the projects they have started and quit and sum up that they are lost, confused or unskilled in some fundamental way.

The reason why both ways of thinking about these two types of people and their relationship to quitting is wrong is that Mr Do or Die can become too rigid, pouring time and resources into fruitless pursuits and relationships that will never yield what they want to achieve and are not delivering value, even in terms of intangible metrics like peace or happiness.

And Mr Lazy Drifter might not be that at all, but may instead be someone with an instinct to catch themselves before they invest in something that is moving them in the wrong direction. Or perhaps they are a quick learner and able to spot signs and patterns early that are determinative of whether something is worth continuing or not.

There are many notable quitters in our history books who, were it not for their quitting, would never have made significant contributions to society.

The point is, and the difficulty in this exercise, is to be able to wield the power of quitting with discrimination in relation to the right projects, relationships and habits. What to quit and when, if quitting every time is not desirable, and not sticking every time is optimal?

Seth Godin in his book talks about when to quit and when to keep going and, in particular, he talks about the fact that regardless of whether a project is worth pursuing, you will encounter a lull period when nothing seems to be happening or where what you don't want to happen happens, or things get worse and seem to be doing downhill.

Sometimes this can be a warning that this undertaking is actually doomed, but sometimes it is something you need to push past to get to the next level. But how do you know which is which?

The problem is there is no failsafe way to know and we, like with everything else, react to this lull or pain according to our conditioning, personality and intrinsic preferences for bearing uncertainty and discomfort.

And, yes, some people like pain for the feeling of triumph overcoming it provides to the psyche and self-esteem - this relationship to how we view pain, and the overcoming or transmutation of it, can sometimes predict where we fall in terms of our relationship to quitting. Where we go too far, however, is in glorifying this pain. This is what we do, for example, when we glorify 'hustle culture' as being something intrinsically good.

So what can we say about quitting that is helpful?

Well, one thing is for sure - those who always quit at the pain point will never reap the rewards that may lie on the other side, which is not to say there will be any rewards if they stick, but there is 100% certainty that you will never know unless you stick. So that is an argument for not quitting early as soon as you encounter pain or conflict or stagnation.

And another surety is that if you always stick, no matter how long the pain lasts and no matter how much you have tried to problem solve and iterate, then you will never achieve success either, because you are committing your resources, emotional, energetic and, most important of all, your time, to a losing venture.

So all we can say is that it is important to not always stick and not always quit.

You are not a hero for never quitting and changing, sometimes radically, in the pursuit of the most overall success and happiness.

Equally, you are not an aimless drifter if you quit things. Just make sure you don't quit everything, and if you find yourself doing that then you may need to start to increase your resilience and ability to deal with pain and frustration, which is part of every journey towards success.

I am more of a sticker than a quitter. Although I have quit plenty of stuff in small ways, in the more big picture ways I tend to stick - to people that mean the world to me, to my true passions, to things I have invested in learning and those in which I have developed expertise. For example, I may quit a job or end a venture, but the skill or experience I gained, I don't let entropy, but try to retain, cultivate, grow and use again and again.

In the same way, key relationships may experience frequent deaths, but the love you grew does not; perhaps that relationship can be revived in some way into a new version, but even if it can't be redeemed, you haven't quit the overall pursuit of love, but just changed its object or its expression.

Efficient, rational and useful quitting is that which brings us closer to our goals, towards our ultimate big-picture destinations of happiness, success, peace and abundance, in a simpler and shorter way. If we can find another road to get 'there' then quitting is not just an option but can be the best possible option.

Big goals and big dreams, the kinds of dreams you should be dreaming, require so much of us that we should quit the things we don't really care about or feel a deep passion or love for or which are going to lead us astray, and do it as soon as we have enough information to do so. And arguably, being skilled at life is being able to make these kinds of 'quit or stick' calls more and more quickly over time.

Because if are going to take massive leaps of faith in betting on an uncertain future we had better make sure, at the very least, that the journey itself is meaningful and enjoyable and that the person, project or thing we have decided to take a leap of faith to commit to is truly worthwhile.

What do you think? Are you more of a quitter or a sticker?

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