How to Quit Like a Champion

We are told, from the time we are old enough to understand, that we should never, ever quit.  Quitting is seen as a dangerous and worrisome character flaw, a toxic trait to be avoided at all costs. As Vince Lombardi concisely put it, winners never quit and quitters never win.

Okay, then why do so many great performers have histories of quitting, both on the large and small scale? Michelangelo and Leonardo were always quitting projects short of completion (there are entire collections devoted to their half-finished work).

Or businessmen like billionaire Richard Branson, who habitually starts dozens of new projects and ends up quitting most of them (anybody want to buy Virgin Megastores?).

Or there’s Michael Jordan, who quit basketball to play baseball, then quit baseball to go back to basketball.

Or President Harry Truman, who might have wound up a haberdasher if he didn’t have the foresight to quit. And don’t even get me started about great writers, who might be the most quit-happy group of all, a point that can be underlined with a quick glance at Mark Twain’s resume (riverboat pilot, printer, miner, newspaperman, etc.).

The point is, when you trace the paths of many top performers, you find very few straight lines. Beneath their forward progress is a churn of false starts, a steady drumbeat of quitting.

The key distinction, I think, is between quitting with a capital Q — giving up, throwing in the towel — and quitting with a small Q — which might more accurately be called “adapting.” The great performers are small-Q quitters. They quit strategically. They hit a wall, and try something else. They keep moving forward, in a telltale staccato rhythm.

I think this pattern gets at an important truth about persistence. We normally think of persistence as a kind of endless stubbornness. But that’s not it. Persistence is something more supple than that — it’s the quality of responding to dozens of different setbacks in dozens of new, different strategic ways. It’s not like climbing one long mountain — it’s more like climbing a bunch of short cliffs. Or, as Walter Elliott put it, “Perseverance is not a long race; it is many short races one after another.”

The key to persistence, then, is knowing when to quit one race and begin another — when to bail on an approach and start a fresh one. And high-quality quitting consists of two basic acts:

First, recognition. The act of realizing the current path isn’t working.  This is harder than it appears, especially if you’re emotionally invested in the approach. It’s easier if you think of recognition as re-cognizing — literally, rethinking. It’s not enough to see it — you have to think about it in a new way.

Second, creativity. The act of looking around and figuring out what to do instead. This, according to this paper on how great entrepreneurs think, has to do with effectual reasoning: you assess your strengths, and see how to combine them with the existing environment. In this view, persistence is not about following your pre-ordained destiny; it’s more like being a contestant on an episode of Iron Chef: you look at what you’ve got, and you start putting things together.

In all, I think there are two takeaways:

  • 1) Quality quitting involves a strategic mindset, not an emotional one. So be tactical: use a notebook, make lists, map out possibilities. This doesn’t come naturally because we tend to take our ventures deeply personally, until the very moment we quit — and then it’s best if we forget all about it. That’s weird and paradoxical (like pretty much every big truth in life), and like all those things, it’s probably best to acknowledge that it’s weird and paradoxical, not to think too much, and to move on.
  • 2) If it’s a new skill, give it a minimum of eight weeks before deciding to quit. That number keeps coming up, both in the science (see this study on how long it takes brains to change) and in the length of training programs of everybody from the classical musicians at Meadowmount to the Navy SEALs. Eight weeks appears to be a threshold time required for practice to build reliable new circuitry.

I would write more about this, but I’ll leave that to you commenters.  I quit!

(Hey, that feels pretty good!)