Perseverance has always been tightly woven into the fabric of American culture. Caravanning pioneers wouldn’t have found California gold if they had stopped in Missouri. Would we have made it through the Great Depression and two world wars without our we-can-do-it attitude? Quitters definitely don’t win the Super Bowl, as football coach Vince Lombardi famously admonished with the most American of quotes, “Winners never quit and quitters never win.”
Today the canonization of persistence continues, even enjoying a resurgence with the popularity of Angela Duckworth’s compelling research on the benefits of grit, the latest buzz about character strength in the personal development pantheon of positive psychology. In her best-selling book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Duckworth convincingly demonstrates how determination and doggedness trump talent every time when it comes to success and satisfaction.
Grit is the opposite of quitting. Grit is hanging in there, sticking with it, and going the distance. And although everyone knows there are exceptions to the “quitting is bad” sentiment—stopping smoking and other bad habits is great; ending abusive relationships is essential—giving things up has become synonymous with losing and weakness. Year after year, so many of us feel like failures for giving up our resolutions, business ideas, gym memberships and diets. We feel guilty for not finishing a book we were reading, for stopping a volunteer project, or letting go of a dream to play the cello, run a marathon or learn a new language.
But what if quitting one thing meant directing more grit toward another thing? What if ending those cello lessons meant you could focus more on your new business? What if quitters can win?
In a 2015 study from the University of Southern California and Northeastern University, 426 undergraduate students were individually assessed for their personal level of grit using Duckworth’s grit scale, evaluating whether statements such as “Setbacks don’t discourage me” and “I finish whatever I begin” were very much like them, not at all like them, or somewhere in between. The students were then given a set of 37 anagrams to solve within 20 minutes and told that for each correct answer, their names would be entered into a lottery to win $100. What they didn’t know: Sixteen of the anagrams were unsolvable. What happened? The participants who were high in grit spent much more time trying to figure out the impossible puzzles. The less gritty folk, after a few unsuccessful attempts at solving the trick anagrams, moved on more quickly to the next ones, ultimately solving more and earning more chances to win the cash prize. The grittier subjects just couldn’t give up. Unwilling to cut their losses, their grit came with a price.
“Evolutionarily, hanging in makes sense,” says Peg Streep, co-author of Quitting: Why We Fear It—and Why We Shouldn’t—in Life, Love, and Work. “Our default setting is to keep going and trying. Being persistent pays off when it comes to basic survival and to improving physical ability.” If you’re being chased by a bear, for example, you probably don’t want to stop for a water break. “But there are zillions of situations in the modern world where this doesn’t hold true,” Streep adds. You can spend years trying to improve a toxic relationship that all of the persistence in the world won’t change. Dedicated practice probably won’t earn you a spot on a professional basketball team if you’re over 40 years old and not particularly tall. But plenty of people buy into the idea of the little engine that could, Streep says, likely due to the sunk cost fallacy. According to this theory, once we’ve put time, effort and money into something, we’re less inclined to let it go, even if it’s clear that the endeavor will not succeed.
On a large scale, this might mean that a company continues to invest millions of dollars in a technology that has already become obsolete. Duckworth offers the example of Polaroid, whose “single-minded pursuit of better and better instant film cameras did not serve them well in the era of digital photography.” On a small scale, it might mean that you refuse to stop reading a book you don’t enjoy. You’ve already read half, you rationalize, so you should slog through to the end, even if it takes weeks. Seeing things through, even in irrational cases, has become a matter of morality in a culture that glorifies resilience. It’s no wonder we’re ashamed to give up certain pursuits. But how many better books could you have read in that time?
“Staying power is really overrated because most people stay past their expiration dates,” says Streep. The allure of the near win keeps many from quitting when they should. It’s a psychological concept that casinos take advantage of: You get three lemons at the slot machine, so you think it’s just a matter of time until you get four. Outside of Vegas, you know you are falling for the near-win fantasy when you hear yourself saying such things as, “I keep thinking it will get better.” The “it” might be the book, the TV series, the volunteer gig or the friendship that probably won’t.
You shouldn’t quit everything. Grit and resilience are good. Even Duckworth acknowledges that quitting is necessary and smart sometimes. But how do you know when to cut your losses?
Flip a Coin
Steven Levitt, co-author of Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, thinks people should quit more often. So why don’t we? Levitt chalks it up, in part, to what he calls hyperbolic discounting: We prefer a reward in the present over a similar or greater reward in the future. The further in the future the reward, the more likely we are to choose the right-now option. This means that, as humans, we avoid change and fail to reset our courses. Although often a moment of truth arrives that forces one to make the tough decision between stay and go. For Levitt, an aspiring professional golfer in his youth, that moment came when he saw a fellow player who could hit the ball harder, farther and better. He knew he would never reach that level, no matter how hard he worked at it. He decided to pursue other things—writing best-selling books—for the sake of his future.
But the moment doesn’t have to be meaningful. Even a random occurrence can spur us into action. In an informal study, Levitt encouraged his readers who were struggling with a tough choice to let chance make the decision for them—with an online coin flip. Half of the group were shown tails and instructed not to make the change. The heads group was told to take the plunge, whether that meant quitting a job, breaking up with a partner or ending a volunteer commitment. Six months later, the people who got heads were much happier than those who saw tails. “If you can’t decide, you should always make the change,” Levitt has said.
Duckworth insists her message behind Grit is not to encourage people to relentlessly claw their way to the top. Rather, gritty people know how to prioritize. She recommends figuring out your ultimate professional and personal goals, and using them to establish your smaller, daily goals. Is it your top goal to create meaningful art? Do you want to enjoy and provide for your family? Is it your goal to help people in need? Is your objective to make a difference in the lives of others through medicine, writing, teaching or managing?
Duckworth’s highest goal is to “use psychological science to help kids thrive.” If she begins a particular study that eventually proves problematic or unfruitful, Duckworth—a self-anointed “paragon of grit”—has no problem ditching it. Ultimately it’s not serving her top goal. Her time and efforts could be spent on a more promising line of research.
If you feel overwhelmed or unhappy with lots of commitments, determine what your ultimate goal is. Are your commitments in line with it? Could other activities serve your goal just as well or better? Say your top goal is to live a healthy, active lifestyle. You sign up to run a marathon but quickly realize you don’t enjoy jogging and that the intense training takes time away from cooking healthy meals and getting the sleep you need. At this point, attempting the marathon actually defeats your original purpose. What could you do instead? A daily yoga class? Bike to work? Train for a shorter race? Quitting the marathon doesn’t mean you give up on your ultimate goal.
Prepare for the Dip
Seth Godin, author of The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick), argues that we should consider quitting when we start any new pursuit. Why? Because every undertaking hits a low point—Godin calls it the dip—where the goal seems unattainable and the work to get there tiring and trying. “There are lots of things we can start doing and get applause for. We can join a gym or start violin lessons or try to raise money for a charity. But after a certain amount of time, we hit a dip and that’s where we quit.” If we plan for the dip in advance, though, we can equip ourselves to make it through to the other side of mastery and success. Conversely, in anticipating the dip, we may also realize the endeavor isn’t worth the sacrifices we’d have to make to surmount it.
Look at the examples of people who have done what you want to do. Want to learn to skateboard as an adult? Talk to people who tried it. Did their dips come when they sprained their ankle and banged up their elbows? Or when they couldn’t drop in after months of practice? Did they continue or quit? And are you willing to risk injury? Whether you are is up to you, but it’s best to know beforehand.
“When Twitter first came along, I realized it takes a few hours a day to do it well and build a big following. So I didn’t do it,” Godin says. “Why should I take hours away from the writing I’m good at so that I can be mediocre at something else?”
Quitting the Shame
Instead of equating quitting with failure, think of it as regrouping, switching gears and getting unstuck.
Instead of equating quitting with failure, think of it as regrouping, switching gears and getting unstuck. Successful businesspeople quit all the time. If one project isn’t panning out, they bail and invest in something else. Quitting is reinvesting. Unless you are leaving other people in a bad or dangerous spot or you’re breaking promises, there’s no shame in what Will Meek, Ph.D., a private-practice psychologist in Vancouver, Washington, calls strategic quitting. “Strategic quitting is making a prideful choice to admit that something isn’t working out and to go in a different direction. It’s making a decision to put your energy toward something more fulfilling.” Strategic quitting is also about timing: “You want to quit before you have no choice.”
“Being a good quitter is a really important life skill,” says Streep. “It’s the ability to let go cleanly.
Once you’ve done the deed, keep guilt and shame at bay. Remind yourself you made an informed, rational decision that respects your time, money and talents. “Being a good quitter is a really important life skill,” says Streep. “It’s the ability to let go cleanly.”