OWNER'S MANUAL

Why You Really Should Quit More Often

We're told we shouldn't quit. But maybe we should be told -- and should do -- the opposite.
Advertisement

Quitting means failing... so for a hard-charging, goal-achieving, quota-surpassing business superstar, failure is never an option, right?

Yet it should be, because quitting is sometimes the best thing you can do.

The following is a guest post from Paul Jarvis, web designer and author of The Good Creative: 18 ways to make better art. (While I'm the farthest thing from an artist, it's a great book for anyone who wants to create and build anything... including a company.)

Here's Paul:

The old adage, "A quitter never wins and a winner never quits," tells us to slog on when things aren't working and tough it out until they do. (Nerdy fact: The quote is from Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich. It's often inaccurately attributed to Vince Lombardi, who probably had a better marketing team.)

Me? I'm basically a serial quitter.

I quit university. I quit my one and only real job. I quit several startups I founded. I quit yoga (then I quit quitting yoga.) I quit consuming meat, dairy, and gluten. I sometimes quit paid web design projects. I've even quit living in several cities, packing up in a huff, and flipping the bird from the moving truck on the way out of town (that's another story.)

We don't want to be known as quitters, as someone who just couldn't hack it. So quitting is equated with failure.

But like most things in life it's not that black and white. For example, we wouldn't consider ourselves failures if we quit being addicted to heroin. Or if we quit a job with a verbally abusive boss. Or if we quit running marathons because the muscles holding our legs together were deteriorating to the point that if we continued we'd end up paralyzed.

These are extreme examples, but still, they help illustrate that quitting isn't always the ultimate disgrace. But what if the situation isn't as extreme?

Most entrepreneurial experts, motivational speakers and pro-sports coaches say you can't give up. They say giving up is the only sure way to failure. Hell, I've written versions of that in my books, too.

I guess I'm quitting that opinion now...

... because I've realized that I love quitting.

There's a feeling that washes over me the second I either act on quitting or tell myself that I've just quit something: it's absolute relief. Sweet, sweet relief. As if a fog has cleared in my brain and my shoulders can now drop back to their normal position instead of being stuck all the way up by my ears.

Sunk Cost Bias

But quitting is not easy; quite the opposite. This is due to something fancy folks (psychologists) call sunk cost bias.

Basically we all have a greater tendency to keep going with something once we've invested in it. When time, money and/or effort are involved we feel we need to justify depleting those resources with a favorable outcome... by using more of those resources. We don't want to feel like we've wasted our resources so we keep going.

And by then we've invested even more, so we really can't quit now. Even if it's not working out or not fulfilling us or achieving the results we really want.

It's like buying tickets to a fancy play that ends up being boring, but we've already spent money on tickets, driven an hour to the theater and sat through half of it... so we might as well stick it out until the end, wasting even more of our time, even though we know there's a negative return on investment.

As a result of this bias we tend to stay the course or even invest additional resources in bad decisions in a futile attempt to make the initial decision seem worthwhile. We can't quit now--we've got skin in the game.

Operating on Limited Resources

Bringing it back to myself and other self-employed creatives, sunk costs really hit at a personal level because we're doing things on our own. We're the boss, we're in charge, and it's on us if things don't go well.

For almost all of us though, we've overcome this bias before. We've all quit jobs that had steady pay and some level of certainty. We were dissatisfied or craved more and decided to quit. We beat bias. (Let's high five later!)

But then when we start to work for ourselves and something's not working, or no longer fulfilling or not achieving the results we'd hoped for, we mostly try and just push through. I know I'm guilty of that.

So we soldier on, thinking we're making the right choice... but really, we aren't making any choice.

By not quitting, we're saying no to all other opportunities. We're saying no to trying different routes or options, or doing something in a new way. We're saying no to spending our time, money and effort elsewhere.

Uncertainty is Scary

We do this because quitting involves uncertainty. At least if we don't quit, we have a clearer idea of our direction. Saying no means we may not be sure what's next, which can often seem scarier than simply continuing on with the thing that isn't working.

But I've reached the conclusion that 9 times out of 10, choosing to quit is more important than toughing it out.

Quitting is a direct action that leads to a more thoughtful and efficient way of spending our limited resources. There's value in choice, in quitting, and in accepting that neither is failure. Quitting is really just opening up to new, possibly unknown, opportunities. Yes, it could lead to everything going to shit, but if it's already gone to shit, why not quit?

And if you think through your post-quitting steps beforehand, your world won't necessarily come crashing down instantaneously.

When to Throw In the Towel

So how do we know when is the right time to quit, since this decision is laced with fear and uncertainty?

Honestly, there's no way to tell the right time--unless you invent a time machine (and then there are certain time travel paradoxes to consider). But when whatever we're doing isn't improving even after substantial effort, then that's a good sign quitting should be at least considered.

We can consider quitting for lots of other good reasons too: we're allowed to change our minds, we're allowed to say no, and that we aren't perfect. And really, most of the time, no one but us cares if we quit or not. Our perceived massive failures, especially when it comes to our work, aren't even blips on other people's radars.

Having said that, there are definitely crappy ways to quit something. Grace, especially when others are involved, is important. Burning bridges isn't a great idea.

Mostly though, we need to re-think our opinion of quitting. Admitting and learning from mistakes can be far more valuable than persistence and perseverance.

Quitting what isn't working opens up room to work on what might work better.

So to me the quote should be more like: "A quitter sometimes wins and a winner sometimes quits." Just attribute it to Vince Lombardi.

IMAGE: audi_insperation / Flickr.com
Last updated: Jun 24, 2014

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



Register on Inc.com today to get full access to:
All articles  |  Magazine archives | Livestream events | Comments
EMAIL
PASSWORD
EMAIL
FIRST NAME
LAST NAME
EMAIL
PASSWORD

Or sign up using: