Monday, November 9, 2009

Quitters and Winners

Any kid growing up in America who participated in anything from T-Ball to youth hockey or even just watched an 80s movie with a dramatic training montage has heard the old saw about how "winners never quit and quitters never win" or some variant thereof.

But is that really true?

Conversations with two good friends about their recent life decisions (one recently left his full-time job to pursue his dream of writing full-time, and the other is contemplating a career change of his own), coupled with recent decisions of mine to drop a martial arts class and leave another group led to some stimulating discussions about when it might be appropriate to quit something.

One thing we all agreed on, by the way, is that the hackneyed sitcom-morality-tale tripe about how it's NEVER okay to quit something is pretty bass ackwards, and ultimately serves no one. Whether it's major issues of foreign policy, really serious things like interpersonal relationships, or even just one l'il yellow belt's decision to throw in the white jumpsuit, so to speak, there has to be a time when a smart, adaptive person decides to stop banging his or her head against a wall.

Here are four points that are germane to the discussion, in no particular order:

(1) Even though the thing in question may not be going well, is it providing some useful second- or third-order benefit? The obvious case here would be a job. Even though you may hate yours, quitting might be a terrible idea because the pain of foregoing that income may outweigh the pain incurred by said employment. Of course, if you have six months' worth of *emergency money* in the till and the confidence behind a transition, that could be your ticket out.

There might be other cases where this would apply, too. You may not enjoy your Monday afternoon golf game, but if there's some contact you're making by playing, or some future benefit you think you'll derive from staying current in the sport, it might not be time to go just yet.

(2) Even though the thing in question may not be going well, is there some clear light at the end of the tunnel? To me, the obvious thing that comes to mind here is a graduate degree program. Even if you absolutely hate it, and you can't stand the costs and the foregone income, unless we're talking Ph.D. or M.D., you're at most a couple years away from being done. The degree is the clear *reward* for the current pain and suffering. Obviously, the *light* factor would not apply for something like a steady 9-to-5, or a relationship, in which there's no end date in sight or easy ticket out.

Still, if a friend was halfway towards his MBA, and told me he was thinking about quitting, I'd tell him that I think he's nuts. I might even have to bust out an old Dr. Jason Seaver teaching moment from "Growing Pains" where Mike or Carol learns the value of perseverance through adversity.

(3) Is there a commitment to others? This is probably the trickiest one to figure out, and I think if anything, people are overly likely to tip themselves into thinking there's a commitment when there might not be. Still, what's clear is clear. If you agreed to be the President of the Taunton River Valley Knitting Society for a two-year clip, and you quit after three months without an idea of who's ready to replace you, there is some type of ethical breach to consider. Ditto for anything where there's a clear delineation time/duties/duration, like coaching a youth sports team.

(4) If it's time to go, it's chest out and chin up, not tail between the legs. I know this last point kind of differs from the other three, but I think it bears mention. Many times, because people feel ashamed, or because they overestimate or otherwise misunderstand Question #3, they slink away into run and hide mode. A WAY more honorable ticket out of something is to communicate what you're doing, and why you're doing it, to whoever you report to, or meet with, at said activity. Whether that's two weeks' notice at your job, or it's telling your co-knitters why you can't lead them anymore, there's honor in doing that. However, it's hard to respect someone who goes "RF cold," "radio silent," or just plain MIA without having the cojones to say why, or at least let someone know they haven't fallen off a cliff somewhere.

Bottom Line to all this (just because I know there's a Col. reading who loves that expression) is that yes, sometimes it really is okay to quit.

It should be contemplated, discussed in the open, and certainly slept on, so as not to come across as something impulsive that will later give way to Quitter's Remorse.

And if it's done right, with respect to Conditions 1-4, sometimes quitters really do win, and the losers are the people who stick with sinking ships and the time/energy vampires around them out of a misplaced fear of letting go of a sunk cost or an imaginary fear of disappointing someone else.


C R Krieger said...

Yeah. "Loves" that expression.

Is this a prelim to saying Gov Palin was right to bow out as Gov of Alaska, which up until she did it was a job of no consequence?

Basically I agree with this.  I had to make a personal decision recently about supporting a relative who is in pursuit of a PhD.  I figured I was at the point where it might have become more important for me than the candidate and said that it was OK not to go all the way.  As it turned out, the candidate is all about charging on, which is a good thing.

Regards  —  Cliff

JoeS said...

A poem that I posted at my desk for so many years, until it was time to "move on":

When things go wrong, as they sometimes will,
When the road you're trudging seems all uphill,
When the funds are low and the debts are high,
And you want to smile, but you have to sigh,
When care is pressing you down a bit,
Rest, if you must, but don't you quit.

Life is queer with its twists and turns,
As every one of us sometimes learns,
And many a failure turns about,
When he might have won had he stuck it out;
Don't give up though the pace seems slow--
You may succeed with another blow.

Often the goal is nearer than,
It seems to a faint and faltering man,
Often the struggler has given up,
When he might have captured the victor's cup,
And he learned too late when the night slipped down,
How close he was to the golden crown.

Success is failure turned inside out--
The silver tint of the clouds of doubt,
And you never can tell how close you are,
It may be near when it seems so far,
So stick to the fight when you're hardest hit--
It's when things seem worst that you must not quit.

- Author unknown

The New Englander said...

Interesting turn of events with the Ph.D. candidate. Maybe it was that once the feeling of *pressure* had been removed, the candidate felt some type of burden lifted and then just wanted to charge forth..Joe, thanks for sending the poem, though I wonder if that poem's author would agree with my general premise..

Shannon said...


Thanks for blogging about this. I decided that it was time for me to move on from my job about a month ago. I had to make the move, I am trying not to look back. Ive been there for 4 years so its tough. I let my supers know and they were not too happy about it.
That imaginary fear of letting someone down has kept me there for a while.
I learned so much there and made great friends and connections, including you, so I will take with me lessons and friendships that I will never forget but I cannot grow there anymore.
I am 'chasing after my dream', step by step, And Im excited but confident and unsure lol.
I appreciate the poem that Joe wrote. Inspirational things are great and I would remember that poem while moving forward with my decisions, but not in regards to staying at my previous job.