You’ve heard it, and I’ve heard it: “Winners never quit, and quitters never win.” This inspirational old saw spoken by parents, coaches, bosses and teachers has pushed many of us to dig deep and pull out satisfying success.
But it’s also pushed many of us to the breaking point, pursuing paths that are more grounded in what we “should be” rather than what we are.
That’s how we get lawyers who hate the law and can’t figure out why they went to law school at all, doctors who are frustrated with the practice of medicine and find their patients irritating, and teachers who’d really prefer to spend their waking hours playing guitar. Had they had the opportunity to quit at some point in the road, perhaps it would have made a difference not only in the quality of their lives but in the quality of the lives of those they touch.
On my radio show this week, I spoke with Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson, author of one of my favorite non-fiction books of 2012: Nine Things Successful People Do Differently (Harvard Business Review Press). You can listen to the full interview here.
One of the Nine Things is “Have grit.” Which, to me, means persistence, determination and fortitude – more of that winners/quitters thing. So, naturally, I asked Heidi about the juiciest thing – the quitting part.
I asked her how to thread the needle on knowing when to stick to the plan, and when to hurl the plan out of the closest window.
She agreed that it’s an important moment. “For success and well-being, knowing when to throw in the towel is just as important as knowing when to hang in there.”
And the key question is:
“Why is it not working out?”
Oh, how I love that question.
If it’s because “I’m no longer interested, I’m not happy, I don’t like it, it’s not what I thought it was going to be” or “it’s costing me more in time and energy than I realized it would” then those are really good indications that it’s time to quit.
Because no amount of persistence and grit toward something that now feels flat and unimportant is going to transform it into something magically meaningful.
But what if you think you just need more time, or need to put in more effort? Halvorson suggests you ask: “Do I have those to give?”
Because you might have a lot of different things going on, and many, many demands on your time and attention. Putting any attention on something that just isn’t going to get you where you want to go… well, feel free to put your energy elsewhere.
Regardless of what anyone might say.
However, if you answer the question, “Why is it not working out?” with “I just don’t know that I have what it takes”, then persistence is precisely what is called for. As Halvorson said, “If it’s just self-doubt that’s making you feel bad, then that’s the time when grit and persistence pays off. Generally speaking, if you don’t have what it takes right now, you’ll have what it takes if you just hang in there.”
She reminded me that “All of our resources are limited so we do have to pick and choose.” It’s in the choice that we chart our best possible course.
And to wrap up this section of the interview, Halvorson reminded, “There are times when you have to hang in there and there are going to be times you have to say, ‘let it go’. And either answer can be the right answer. Really happy and successful people do both.”
So don’t be afraid to quit. There’s no shame in it, and it doesn’t mean you are in any way “less than”. Just make sure you ask the right question and quit for all the right reasons.