Quitting for the Win

In January I cancelled my membership at the jujitsu gym where I’ve been studying. I love lots of things about jujitsu, but there is no room in my life for the time commitment right now. I’ve had this off and on relationship with the mats for a very long time now. It was an agonizing decision. I’ll miss the other guys and girls at the gym. I’ll miss the training and the feeling of achievement. But it was time for a break, and I know I will be back eventually. Still I feel like a quitter.

Quitter is a label that we all avoid. It gets thrown around a lot in sports circles and other competitive environments. The connotation is always negative, today I want to tell you why I think that is completely wrong.

Quitters are vilified as those who are not strong enough. The ones who can’t take the discomfort and give in. The implied narrative is that those with real success stories are the ones who master the pain and persevere in spite of it. Let’s look a little deeper at that though.

If you’re doing the wrong thing, should you persevere? If you’re crossing the wilderness, but are pointed in the wrong direction, should you just keep going? No! it would be stupid. If you started a career that you thought you would love and soon found that you hated it, should you stay? Grind it out for thirty or forty years of misery? Again No! If you thought you had found your soulmate and married them, tonly to find that you despise everything about them after a year, should you stay in the marriage? Is there any good that could come of sticking to your commitment for years on end? Again I say No!

At a distance, it seems obvious that you should turn from paths such as these. The reality is a lot more difficult. Your decisions are tied to your identity. You begin to worry about all of the time, money, and reputation you have invested in the choice. Won’t all of that be wasted if you quit? Then there is the damage to your external reputation. What about all of the questions you’ll have to answer from people who will be surprised at the change? You begin to imagine the pain of having to tell people that you failed. Shame is a very strong motivator. The combination of these is a potent brew. We begin to fear the level of life-quake that the change will bring and the pain of continuing in the daily downward spiral is preferable in comparison. It can be very tempting to just push on into catastrophe. At least when that end comes, no one can accuse you of weakness, right?

No! You don’t have to break yourself to engender enough pity to offset the stain of a poor choice. Continuing to fight a losing battle is not heroic it is wasteful and petty. It is more cowardly to continue to deny your failure while grinding yourself to dust just to maintain your pride in your toughness.

This whole argument may seem strange following on the heels of the previous post about learning to suffer, but bear with me for a minute. There’s a difference between suffering through something momentary and continuing to beat your head against a wall that will never break. A good metaphor might be fasting. It is good for you to fast for a time. It cleans up damaged cells through autophagy. It shows you that you have the mental toughness to control instinctive urges. It can break habitual eating patterns. But more is not better. Eventually you starve to death.

If you are feeling down, if you are unhappy, take some time to reflect on your life today. What are you doing that is unsustainable in the long term? What decisions are you avoiding because you’re overly invested in them, and afraid of the fallout of a change? Addressing these might be painful, but it also might be the only way out of the funk you find yourself in. Maybe you need to be a quitter to move forward.

I am addicted to learning about why. From nutrition to neuroscience and philosophy to behavioral economics I am always seeking to understand. When I am not completely immersed in the latest book to catch my eye or practicing Brazilian jujitsu, I am usually cooking for my wonderful wife, playing with my two beautiful kids or out running with one of our dogs.