Knowing When to Quit: Your Best Decision for Personal Growth
“Never give up!”, “Don’t quit!” “Keep on going” and Vince Lombardi’s famous quote, “Winners never quit, and quitters never win,” are all popular well-meaning statements made to challenge and encourage us to give our very best and persevere until we achieve success. They can motivate us to strive hard and attain seemingly impossible goals against all odds. However, they do not always apply to every situation we face. Knowing when to quit is one of the most important life lessons we can learn.
In a recent interview I did with former professional poker player Annie Duke, she said, “Being ‘quitty’ allows you to make better choices about when to be gritty.”
For instance, let’s consider the startup world, where the founders get emotionally and financially connected to the business they launch. For many, it defines their identity. The simple truth is that most startups fail after a few years of grinding it out. Startups are challenging, and 99% never generate $1 million in sales annually. No one likes to be the person who gives up, but sometimes it is the best outcome overall. Perhaps the venture is no longer bringing the founder joy; they have lost their emotional connection, the business is not growing, or it’s impacting their health and relationships.
But that begs the question, how can you tell when it’s proper to keep persevering or knowing when to quit?
Like this startup example, it is common to be heading in the wrong direction in many areas of our lives but persisting to try and make the circumstances work out. Perhaps you are in a bad relationship or feel stuck in your job because it pays you well and you like your lifestyle. In such times, you might be tempted to keep pushing on, hoping the situation will change. But if you look deep enough, you realize that you sometimes must quit your current path to focus your time and energy on plotting a new and better one.
Knowing when to quit could have prevented the 1996 Mount Everest tragedy.
This is one of the most terrifying stories of disasters that occurred in the mountains. On May 10, 1996, four groups of climbers set out to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Rob Hall of Adventure Consultants led one group, Scott Fischer of Mountain Madness led another, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police arranged an expedition, and there was a Taiwanese expedition.
The over-commercialization of the mountain and what some refer to as “Summit Fever” were significant factors in the disaster. According to an account of what happened, on the day of ascent, the climbers set out early in hopes of reaching the summit on time and beginning their descent by 2:00 pm — the latest safe time to ensure they get back to base camp before nightfall.
However, they encountered some delays along their journey to the summit. The most significant delay was caused by the guide ropes not being in place and taking about two hours to get fixed. This ultimately caused a bottleneck of climbers to build up toward the summit, slowing everyone down.
A storm had been developing beneath them by this point. Rob Hall and Scott Fischer’s guides, who were now in charge of their team without Fischer, decided to press on despite knowing they would not make it to the summit by 2:00 pm. Many climbers were prepared to go to any lengths to reach the summit and may have felt compelled to continue because others were doing so.
Dark clouds were already forming at that point, and snow was starting to fall. This was particularly perilous because it meant that their tracks, which they needed to use as a map to find their way back down, would be hidden. By 6 pm, while climbers were still attempting to descend the mountain, it had intensified into a full-fledged blizzard “with gale-force winds.” The blizzard raged around the seventeen climbers while they were trapped on the mountain and their oxygen levels dropped. Only half of the climbers who had gone that morning had returned to base camp by 10 pm.
The catastrophe resulted from inexperience, unfavorable weather, human error, and a desire for financial gain. Finally, group leaders like Hall and Fischer could not foresee the issues and delays and adequately react to them.
But the sunk cost fallacy was another primary factor in the disaster. The decision to continue the expedition was made based on the team leaders’ prior success in climbing the peak with novice climbers, despite having the option to cancel the entire expedition to protect the climbers’ lives and knowing when to quit.
The sunk cost fallacy occurred because the guides and climbers continued their undertaking when they should have stopped and turned around. They decided to persevere because they had already expended resources (time, money, and effort).
What can we learn from this story?
Why we should persevere
I have found throughout my life that good things don’t come easy, and this is true. It takes consistent action, character, and perseverance to achieve any worthwhile goal.
It’s common to feel like giving up when things are challenging. Many people typically give up at that point. Nevertheless, you should keep going even if something is challenging or you are having a poor day. In fact, if handled correctly, bad days can serve as a powerful motivator by serving as a reminder of why a particular objective, circumstance, or connection is worthwhile.
To persevere means to be persistent and refuse to stop until we reach our aim in a job, a business, a relationship, or a career. Perseverance is an excellent quality and a crucial factor for success. As behavior scientist Angela Duckworth discovered, perseverance becomes grit, a vital factor for success when combined with passion.
Agreeably, luck is also a factor in success, but there is no serendipity without hard work and perseverance. Being gritty helps us stay long enough on a path and improves our chances of getting the needed luck.
Just look at these examples of people who persevered with significant payoffs. J.K. Rowling was rejected 12 times by publishers, but by not giving up, she eventually became one of the most famous and wealthiest authors with the highest number of books sold. It took Thomas Edison 1,000 attempts before inventing the light bulb. NASA experienced 20 failures in its first 28 attempts to send rockets to space. Colonel Sanders didn’t start KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) until he was 60, and so many more stories.
However, the value of grit is only obtained when you rightly apply it to things that advance your goals. This implies that applying your passion and tenacity to the wrong stuff happens more often than you think.
This leads to the question of why we may keep persevering long after we should have stopped.
What makes us persevere for too long?
Now that I have discussed the importance of perseverance let us look at why we may keep persevering long after we should have stopped.
Our mindset and beliefs
Your decisions and actions by your mindset and beliefs. When you constantly hear statements like “don’t quit” or “quitters never win,” you internalize them and become conditioned to believe quitting is a negative outcome. When you link the negative perception of quitting to failure in your mind, you become more prone to keep at something you shouldn’t continue doing.
Pride is a dangerous force that can keep you from growing. When a person is full of pride, they refuse to take correction and may stick to a destructive path even when they are aware of the dangers. Humility is what makes a person willing to admit their mistakes and quit a course of action that is no longer beneficial.
Being too harsh on ourselves
No one is perfect, and we all make poor decisions. When you are too critical of yourself and don’t give yourself the room to make mistakes and correct them, you will likely end up sticking with the wrong things for too long.
Have you ever been highly loyal to someone just to find out unexpectedly that they betrayed you?
I know I have.
As seen by news stories about business scandals, political intrigue, sports betting, and gangland killings, loyalty frequently fuels negative characteristics. Blind loyalty involves loyalty to a person, a cause, or an organization, even when they exhibit negative traits.
It stems from the belief that staying loyal is more important than being objective, choosing the right course of action, and knowing when to quit. Cronyism and nepotism are common manifestations of loyalty to one’s friends and relatives in business and politics, frequently at the expense of competence and fairness, whether real or perceived.
Sunk Cost Fallacy
I previously mentioned the sunk-cost fallacy in the Mt. Everest example and discussed it in a previous episode on identifying cognitive biases and how to avoid them. This fallacy, connected to status quo prejudice and loss aversion, can also be seen as biased thinking.
The sunk cost fallacy occurs when a person refuses to quit a strategy or course of action because they are so focused on past investments, even when it is clear that quitting would be in their best interest.
For example, you buy a movie ticket, sit in the theater, and after 10mins of watching, realize it’s not the right kind of movie for you. At that point, you should cut your losses and quit watching so you can savor your valuable time. Because of biased thinking, you stick to watching it because of the money you already paid for the ticket.
When is it right to quit?
There is a famous saying, “There’s a difference between giving up and knowing when to stop.”
Knowing when you should quit a job, business, relationship, or goal is not always clear. This is because we tend to misinterpret temporary inconveniences, which we ought to persevere through, to be permanent ones that require us to stop. However, certain conditions should tell you when it’s time to quit. These include:
- When it harms your physical and mental health
- When it no longer fuels your passion nor gives you room for growth
- When your reward is not commensurate with your efforts
- When it requires you to compromise your values
To gain better clarity, here are some vital questions to ask yourself:
- Why did you start this journey in the first place?
- Is the original purpose still the purpose you are pursuing?
- What are your long-term goals, and does this interfere with them?
- How does your current situation align with your desires and values?
- If you were to quit now, what would you use that freed-up time and resources for instead?
- Do you need to change your strategies and methods to more effective ones rather than abandon the goal altogether?
- Have you reached the point where your aspirations impact your physical health, mental health or relationships?
- Will your persistence pay off or dig you into a deeper hole in the long run?
These are just a sampling of different questions that you can ask yourself. It’s best to think of as many as possible and honestly answer them to get the much-needed clarity for you to make your decision.
Knowing when to quit in the right way
Seth Godin’s book “The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When To Quit” tells the story of when Jack Welsh was the CEO of General Electric (G.E.). Welsh decided to quit funding any G.E. businesses that weren’t number one or two in their respective markets. By doing this, he freed up capital to invest in product lines where G.E. was the best or had a high probability of becoming the best.
This decision resulted in the G.E. market share going from 12 billion dollars to 280 billion dollars over the 20 years of Welch being CEO. He further explained that Winners understand how limited their time, resources, and daily energy is, so they recognize quitting as an essential strategy to take advantage of better opportunities.
With this understanding, what steps can you take to ensure that you are quitting in the right way? Here are a few :
Maintain a long-term perspective
When you have a short-term perspective of your life, you may focus on what you have in the present at the expense of what you can achieve in the future. This may cause you to stick too long in an unfavorable place instead of quitting it and heading towards the better place you can be in the future.
But by maintaining a long-term perspective, you will quickly recognize when a particular job, business, or relationship will not benefit your future self and recognize when to quit it.
Knowing when to quit while you are ahead
The right time to decide when you should quit is before you get into a situation that may prompt you to have to do it. At this point, your mind is clear, and you can carefully make the choices that will protect your values and happiness and draw the lines you want to avoid crossing when you set out on the journey toward your goal. This will prevent you from making rash decisions based on feelings of doubt and sentiments.
Focus on the goal
Your goals can be fixed, but the means to reaching them can change.
Let’s take, for example, that you want to get fit and decide to go cycling. Then as you start cycling, you realize that you begin to feel constant pain in your knees due to an underlying medical condition that is aggravated by cycling. In this case, the right thing to do would be to quit cycling and find another exercise that would still help you achieve your fitness goal.
By focusing on your goal, you will quickly realize when you should quit a particular path because it may adversely affect you and follow a new one.
Seek counsel from others
In her book “Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away,” Annie Duke talks about the role of a “Quitting Coach” to help you make firm decisions to stop what you need to. This quitting coach could be a parent, a mentor, a friend, an acquaintance, or anyone else who has your best interest at heart.
The reason for having such people in your life is that they will be free of sentiments that you might possess in making decisions and help you be much more objective and know when it is time to quit something that is no longer serving its intended purpose.
Why Knowing When to Quit May Be the Best of All Strategies
When was the last time you received praise for quitting? The majority of us would struggle to recall such a time. After all, giving up is typically equated with failure, frailty, and weakness. Few people aspire to have the reputation of being “quitters.”
Instead, our success-driven culture exhorts us to persevere through hardship, surmount challenges, and work toward success. However, just like failing, quitting is a common occurrence in life. There will be moments when leaving is the wisest course of action in our employment, relationships, friendships, businesses, sports, and interests.
Understandably, quitting after you’ve spent much time and energy on a goal can be challenging and painful. Still, those who flourish in life understand that accepting this discomfort now prevents much more pain later. When done constructively, it will lead to greater opportunities, personal growth, happiness, and satisfaction.
“Of all strategies, knowing when to quit may be the best.” — Chinese Proverb.
Remember, you can never go too far in the wrong direction that you can’t quit and change your path for good. So carefully assess your circumstance, be honest with yourself, seek the counsel of those with your interest at heart, and take that bold step of quitting what you need to quit.
Above all, don’t hesitate to know when to quit when you need to.
The best course of action may occasionally be to break up a friendship, discontinue a relationship, leave a job, cancel a project, or back out of a commitment. Quitting can be a chance to grow and develop and is necessary to make a place for positive change.
Where to Go From Here
I hope you found this short guide on knowing when to quit useful. If you’re looking for more ideas on getting motivated and staying that way, check out the Passion Struck podcast and my episodes with behavior scientists Ayelet Fishbach, Katy Milkman, Astronaut Wendy Lawrence, NASCAR driver Jesse Iwuji, and Vice Admiral Sandy Stosz along with my over 80 solo episodes.
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