This is a post about quitting things. But don’t worry...I’m not quitting anything anytime soon!
Over the years, I’ve quit a lot of things: Swimming lessons. The National Honor Society. High school. Graduate school. A post-college job working for an eccentric old man who was reinventing the Internet, apparently unaware it had already been invented. Lots of other jobs after that.
Add to that a handful of relationships, and you start to get the sense that I am, well, a quitter. And we all know America hates quitters.
But I come by it honestly. My dad dropped out of art school, deciding to just go do the art he wanted to do. My mom dropped out of Stanford Law School, after less than a semester, when she discovered that lawyers weren’t her people. My stepdad dropped out of seminary, realizing the priesthood was not truly calling him. So, are we all a bunch of wimps who just flake out when the going gets hard?
Eh, maybe. But I don’t think so. I will admit that I have quit things that I should have stuck with. I’m sure I would be a much better swimmer if I hadn’t refused to return to the Y after the first class, claiming there were “too many kids.” But actually, of the things I’ve listed above, swimming lessons is the only thing I have some regrets about quitting. The other things not only made me miserable, but they also weren’t going to lead to something I wanted (the dropping out of high school thing is a long story; stay in school, kids).
Perhaps the misery of a math PhD program, for example, would have been worth it if I had wanted to be a mathematician. But I realized almost immediately that, while I may have been happy as a math professor had I been a white man living in the 1960s, the realities of modern day academia were not going to give me the life I wanted. So the suffering was not worth it to me.
Similarly, upon arriving at Stanford Law School in the fall of 1978, my mom realized that, once she found herself surrounded by them, she generally didn’t like people who wanted to be lawyers. She dropped out. My dad was restless in art school. A mentor could see that he already knew the kind of work he wanted to do, and advised him to just go do it. So he left art school and never looked back. I’m lucky my stepdad didn’t stay in the priesthood, because, if he had, he wouldn’t be my stepdad.
Sometimes we quit things out of fear. We believe ourselves to be frauds. We think it’s only a matter of time before we embarrass ourselves, so we’d better pull out before that happens. I have thought about quitting my business many times, and each time, when I really forced myself to look at my situation head on, I realized I wanted to quit because I was afraid. That’s not a reason to quit something.
But sometimes a thing just isn’t working. It’s not noble to stick with something that makes you miserable and will not bring you something that you want. Many Americans have a Puritanical propensity for suffering, as if an activity is made more worthy by virtue of our hating every second of it.
Of course we sometimes have to keep doing things that we don’t want to do. We make commitments to people—our partners, our parents, our children—that we have to see through. But we can’t live solely for others, as Elizabeth Gilbert cautions us in this quote-within-a-quote:
I mean, it is very kind of you to want to help people, but please don’t make it your sole creative motive, because we will feel the weight of your heavy intention, and it will put a strain upon our souls. (It reminds me of this wonderful adage from the British columnist Katharine Whitehorn: “You can recognize the people who live for others by the haunted look on the faces of the others.”
It’s not possible to iteratively improve your life (or business) if you are hanging on to the first thing you tried, insisting to yourself against all evidence to the contrary that sticking with that thing will bring you joy and success. I need to think about the idea of letting go of what’s not working more in the context of my business; this work is so personal to me, and I feel I have invested so much, that it can make me blind to the things I need to scrap to make room for the next thing.
Several years ago my sister went to business school and introduced the family to the idea of a “sunk cost.” Basically, the idea is that once you’ve spent something that you can’t get back—time, money, psychic energy—the fact that you’ve spent it shouldn’t factor into future decisions. Just because you’ve spent, oh, I don’t know, $3,000 on the wrong sewing machines doesn’t mean you should keep using them indefinitely instead of getting the right ones.
I’m finding that being more willing to let things go that aren’t working actually makes it easier to make progress with something difficult. Blindly sticking with something—anything—isn’t a virtue; what we need to do is clear all the brush around the thing we desire, in order to let it grow.
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