Knowing When to Quit

When you are raised to fight for what you want, to persevere against the odds, and you are taught that quitting is an act of weakness – knowing when to quit is a tough call. Doing it, even tougher.

Naturally, context is important. “Quit while you’re ahead” works fine for the non-gamblers among us who find ourselves up twenty at the slots or fifty at the Black Jack table.

Quitting a job that you despise?

If your family is dependent on the income, if it’s a terrible employment marketplace, if you have no other prospects until you invest in additional knowledge and skills, your decision becomes a gnarly one.

Calling it quits in a relationship?

Some of us quit things or places or even jobs easily, but not people. We can’t bring ourselves to give up on the friend with the drinking problem, the niece who is constantly in trouble, the spouse who strayed and swears he will never do it again as we press on stoically, striving to rebuild trust.

Whether or not we consider walking away from an emotionally, physically, or logistically complicated situation has much to do with investment and consequences. Then again, knowing when to quit is also tied up in identity.

I’m No Quitter!

Some of us love a challenge, don’t we? Give us a tricky task, a people puzzle, an organizational system in disarray – and we happily pursue the process of unraveling what is tangled and setting things on a smooth course. We see ourselves as problem-solvers. This is part of feeling adult, responsible, good about ourselves.

In a way, we are willful in our belief that we cannot be beaten by complexity or adversity but rather, we will rise to any occasion and give it our all. We ive by the adage: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” practicing this mantra at every turn from the contentious workplace to the less than satisfactory marriage.

Now sometimes this kind of sticktoitiveness is a phenomenal asset, this insistence that we not throw our hands up in the air at the first signs of trouble, that we face down our demons, that we do not “quit.” At other times, our so-called determination is plain foolishness. We have lost sight of the notions of investment and consequences.

Instead – and I certainly count myself in this crowd – we are engaged in a battle of wills (often with ourselves) as we stubbornly insist on constructing a more beautiful sentence, installing new software we don’t really need, building a garden shed to prove we can, or transforming a three-week fling into a serious relationship.

We are indiscriminate about “not quitting” and so we view every challenge (or activity) as something we must complete, achieve, or beat – lest we feel defeated.

Speaking of Download Drama

In my own experience, I periodically feel compelled to accomplish everything I begin, regardless of priority. At times, I’m more aware of the unnecessary nature of this attitude, but I return to my upbringing (oriented around the traditional New England work ethic), and a key aspect of my identity: I am not a “quitter.”

Recently I watched as a friend wrestled with a software download that wasn’t working as he expected. I had the impression I was gazing into a mirror at myself, and the view of his (stubborn) continued efforts was, in a word, illuminating.

Having followed the instructions on his Mac for each step – the program wouldn’t run, the shortcut wouldn’t appear on his desktop – he would start again, deleting files, walking through the process, varying the sequence and details.

After all, the definition of crazy is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results.

Trust me, he isn’t crazy, but he can be obstinate! Some 30 minutes passed and I ceased peering over his shoulder. I returned to my reading while he persisted, increasingly frustrated, and refusing to quit.

As I observed his growing irritation, I reminded him that this wasn’t important. He was installing software he wanted, not software he needed. He sat back and took a breath, then remarked that he could wait and ask an IT person at his office.

When “Quitting” May Simply Mean “Stopping”

These issues of personality and character – that is what we’re talking about after all – are not simple. There are times when we should not quit though we may want to. We haven’t yet invested enough, or we haven’t invested in the right way.

There are also times that quitting isn’t quitting at all, with its negative connotations of surrender to something larger or stronger. Whether you’re quitting a job or leaving a relationship, sometimes quitting is about survival. Sometimes quitting is simply stopping. There is no dishonor in either. If anything, to say no to unhealthy behavior, to chasing after an utterly unattainable goal, or to recognizing that priorities must shift is common sense – isn’t it?

Knowing when to quit or stop is a matter of judgment, of maturity, of weighing the pros and cons involved. It means remembering to consider investment and consequences.

Clearly, complex scenarios to do with family, with health, or how we make a living are not black and white; we have invested our hearts, our reputations, our history as well as time, money, and effort. The consequences may yield a choice of “lesser of two evils” rather than any variation of a win-win.

Would You Quit Your Dream? Your Job? Your Marriage?

If you’ve dreamed of running a marathon and you trained for a year, do you quit at mile 20 because it’s rougher going than you realized? Do you quit if you twist your ankle badly, and in the morning you have to board a plane on business?

Quitting an entrepreneurial venture into which you’ve sunk five years of savings and two years of work requires that you consider the consequences as well as your sweat equity and finances. Are you the only person involved? Are there customers, employees, partners, and backers? Are they counting on you continuing and is it possible that you can?

The boss is driving you crazy, but management turnover is the norm. Do you wait it out? Do you consider your high blood pressure? What are your alternatives?

Naturally, these are different decisions from saying goodbye to a six-month relationship, or a six-year relationship, or a six-year marriage with no children, and the same six-year marriage with three kids.

Stopping one activity in favor of pursuing another, delegating an activity to someone more skilled, or acknowledging legitimate limits are examples of using judgment, not demonstrating weakness. Likewise, accepting that we may not know what we think we know is a life skill in and of itself.

And determining how we change the situation – when to push ahead, when to ask for an assist, when to walk away – is one I’m working on, with a little help from my friends. And that includes the gentleman struggling with his download.