“Quitting is not a problem; not knowing when or why to quit and being a quitter is the problem.” ~ Kayambila Mpulamasaka
All along growing up I always thought that quitters were losers who lacked grit and persistence. It did not help that society had conditioned me to disdain quitters. The human brain is also hard-wired for persistence and so the more time we invest in something, the more invested we become, and it becomes hard to quit. However, the idea that you have put in too much work to give up now blinds you to new possibilities.
It turns out that quitting is an essential life tool, yet no one wants to be called a quitter. Ever since we were born, we have been fed the hero’s story which goes something like this. You have an individual who is okay and their life seems to be going fine and then at some point they are faced with a challenge, a dark valley of sorts and they fight tooth and nail to get out of the rut. After much perseverance, they end up winning and we call them heroes. Everyone loves to hear a hero story and to live such a story in their lives. Nobody ever wants to hear the story of people who quit because there is a belief that there is nothing to learn from failure. There is even a cliché that goes “Winners never quit and quitters never win”.
However, studies have shown the human brain tricks itself into persistence for persistence’s sake even though the writing is on the wall. The following are the ways our minds remain in the constant cycle of persistence:
Intermittent reinforcement- Psychologist B.F. Skinner pioneered this concept, which applies to lab rats and to people. One hungry lab rat gets food each time it pushes a lever; another rat pushes but gets none, and a third rat also pushes but receives food only sporadically. The rats behave in predictable ways: The one that gets food only some of the time – intermittent reinforcement – proves the most persistent. We behave the same way as the rat that receives intermittent reinforcement. Think about it, how many times have you met people who when stuck in an abusive relationship reconsider their decisions to leave when a partner shows acts of love or generosity or a person who despite seeing evidence that a particular investment is not working, continues to keep their eggs in the same basket?
Sunk-cost fallacy- This is the belief that the more time, energy and resources you spend pursuing a career or relationship the harder it is for you to leave. Accepting the loss becomes difficult purely based on the fact that you have made a significant investment and thus persistence is sustained. Infact, modern day con men realize this fact and have capitalized on this strategy to dupe many an innocent people. They feed you with small breadcrumbs along the way and once you become heavily invested, it becomes hard for you to divest.
Reliance on the stories of others- This particular aspect makes a lot of sense and helps us not go down the same dangerous path as other people have. It is key to survival so to speak. If a friend of yours invested in let’s say quail eggs or off plan houses and succeeded, you might be tempted to pursue the same road and think that you too can succeed. However, in today’s complex world there is a danger in copy pasting other people’s situations to your circumstances.
Being deceived by a “near win”– Experiments have shown that gamblers minds react the same way to a near win as to a win-they keep playing. In the same way, our brain reframes a loss as a near win. As such, we keep on persisting even when to a rational observer, the decision is completely irrational.
While passion and persistence are desirable traits for any endeavor, knowing when to quit is also a key strategic arsenal for many successful people. Instead of wasting their energies in pursuits that are not optimal, they know when to quit early when they discover that a particular path is not a best fit and do not sulk about it. Seth Godin, author of some of the most popular works in career matters actually puts it as such, “We fail when we stick to the tasks that we don’t have the guts to quit”. This however does not mean that we should be serial quitters but rather strategic ones. We need to recognize when quitting is attributable to a lack of perseverance or when it is simply in pursuit of something better.
We should normalize having conversations before we pursue any given path on the conditions that would make us quit. This will essentially protect us from the biases of our minds discussed above that keep us in the constant vicious cycle of persistence. That job that you are stuck in that does not feed your soul and you are merely just ticking a box by persevering in, that relationship that is clearly doing you more harm than good, that investment that despite hoping against all hope has shown clear signs of going under, maybe it’s time to let them go and pursue other worthwhile opportunities.