I’ve always prided myself in not being a quitter.
Over the years, what I’ve lacked in natural intelligence and ability I’ve tried to make up for in grit. To this day I have a guiding principle around perseverance and “sticking with it,” no matter the cost.
Then something happened a few weeks ago that yanked this guiding principle up by its roots.
Not my job, but a masters program in clinical mental health counseling. I was nearly four weeks into the first summer block, doing two courses, and I had only three weeks to go before the block was finished.
I was doing relatively well, and the subject matter was interesting. But it was pushing me beyond healthy limits and eating up any margin, as I was trying to do the program and work full-time as a pastor and be present to my family. Nothing against the program—it was a solid program with really good instructors and reasonable expectations for graduate work. But it was taking its toll on my personal wellbeing and my capacity to be fully present.
So I quit the program, which meant losing all the money I’ve invested and getting a failing grade for the two courses since I didn’t complete them.
On the one hand, quitting didn’t make any sense. On the other hand, it was the best decision I could have made, especially for right now.
There was a confluence of factors that led me to this decision to quit. Chief among them was a book I read by Annie Duke titled Quit:The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away (Penguin Random House, 2022). The main premise of the book is that we’ve mistakenly made grit (at all cost) a virtue and quitting (in any circumstance) a vice. Duke writes,
Quitting means failing, capitulating, losing. Quitting shows lack of character. Quitters are losers (except, of course, when it involves giving up something obviously bad like smoking, alcohol, drugs, or an abusive relationship). The English language itself favors grit, describing those who persevere with positive terms like can-do, unwavering, steadfast, resolute, daring, audacious, undaunting, gutsy, and hardy. Or as having backbone, pluck, mettle, tenacity, or stick-to-itiveness.
Duke goes on to point out that people who persevere are almost universally seen as “successful” and “heroic,” while those who quit are dismissed as “cowards” and “failures.”
But this is a major fallacy. Duke sets out to show that the key to wisdom isn’t to persist in whatever circumstances you face but to know what to quit and when to quit. Quitting the right things at the right time enables a person to invest more fully in what is most important. And the more time, resources and effort we invest into something, Duke says, the harder it is to quit—even though that actually would be the best decision. We are cognitively, behaviorally, and culturally biased towards not quitting even when it leads to disaster, financial ruin, poor health, injury and, in worst cases, death.
Her book is chock full of illustrations and anecdotes from sports to academics to the business world to the profession of poker (of which Duke is highly accomplished!). But the illustration that most stood out to me was Duke’s research around climbing Mount Everest. “What’s the goal of climbing a mountain like Everest?” Duke asks. The common reply: “To get to the summit.” Wrong, says Duke. Every experienced climber knows that the goal of climbing a mountain like Everest is to get back down the mountain alive.
So the best climbers have ‘turn-around times” set in advance so that, as they make the climb, they are cognizant of their own limits and attentive to when they need to quit climbing, turn around, and save enough energy to make it back down safely. Most often, the fatalities that happen with Everest involve inexperienced climbers who ignored turn-around times and pushed on to the summit. They didn’t want to turn around because they had invested so much money, time and effort into making the climb. Their grit wouldn’t let them quit. And they died.
So for the first time in my life I’m “trying on” the virtue of quitting, hoping to gain wisdom in knowing what and when to quit so I can show up more fully to my life and vocation and the things that matter most.
I’m learning to honor my limits.
I’m learning, in the words of the great Kenny Rogers, to “know when to hold em’, know when to fold em’, know when to walk away, and know when to run.”
I’m learning to cease and rest, and to say “no” so that I can give a more whole-hearted “yes.” Yes to God, yes to others, yes to my soul, yes to life.
I’m learning to be a quitter.
And I’m not going to lie…
It feels pretty darn good.