How to Quit Like a Champion

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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!)


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17 Responses to “How to Quit Like a Champion”

  1. David says:

    Good post and similar to an entire book devoted to this top, The Dip by Seth Godin.

  2. djcoyle says:

    Thanks, David — Hadn’t heard of Godin’s book, but will check it out.

  3. Peter says:

    Hey Dan – Just so you know, this is the third post in a row I’ve tried to “share” via FB and the system has failed to publish the correct link (it posts this: http://dev.thetalentcode.com/2009/03/30/brazilian-soccer/). I can obviously paste article link URL but thought you’d want to know the “share widget” isn’t working quite right (at least for me).

  4. This is an awesome post indeed. I have lived it with no regrets which inspired one of my posts last year, http://fit4thabo.blogspot.com/2010/09/why-i-quit.html

    I can’t remember where I read this, “If winners never quit and quitters never win, who came up with quit while you are ahead?”. It has always stuck with me. I guess that is what quitting like a champion is.

  5. Ah, what a challenge in numerous aspects of our lives…and there are no easy answers. Food for thought indeed!

    I liked the small q versus capital Q distinction you make, and along those lines, I was reminded of The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Then together Mark Bryan, Catherine Allen, and she built upon it with a book called The Artist’s Way at Work. Anyway, as part of the work, they interviewed world class artists and such. One of the things discussed was the idea of how creative people reframe failure. This notion seems similar to the “adaptation” you note that you have observed.

    I find the economic principle of “sunk costs” is useful in this instance. Move forward and be prepared to let go of whatever you have invested. And we must bear in mind that the time lost in indecision about the current path versus new path also costs us. I don’t suggest acting in haste, but just to be aware of the cost of time spent on analysis (paralysis). Trust that the lessons you learned will come to your aid in the future; maybe that will help ease the pain of letting go. As my brother in law would suggest, once you make a decision, you have the opportunity to learn from whatever you are doing, instead of hanging out in limbo.

    I also think that if we consider the opportunity cost (another economic principle I love) of the current path, then we may realize it is time to ditch the current path and try something else. The more fearful we are of making the wrong choice, however, the harder it is to get started on something new (and quit whatever it is you are doing which might prevent you from going out on the new path.) There is a balance issue of course – i.e., if you are always evaluating the opportunity cost of your current path, you might not be able to focus sufficiently in order to give a chance to your path (new boyfriend, new job, new instrument, new teacher).

    Barry Schwartz’s work on the Paradox of Choice comes to mind, as well, and though he is not discussing this topic exactly, I feel that too much choice might make it difficult to choose a new path and so it is easier to stay on the same one. And that ties also into what I think of as “inertia”. Momentum works in both ways…it can serve to push us forward on a great path, but it can also keep us moving steadily on a path that might not be best for us (for whatever reason).

    Finally, I have recently been thinking about the need to feel right – where does it come from? how does it hinder relationships and progress? Coincidentally, today there was a TED talk posted http://www.ted.com/talks/kathryn_schulz_on_being_wrong.html – it features a “wrongologist”and although she is not focused on the concept of quitting per se, I thought her story highlights a likelihood of why we are likely to “hang on” when it might be better to “admit we were/are wrong” and move on.

    By the way, I’m a reader of Seth Godin’s blog and you might find the part of his blog specifically related to The Dip (which is a pretty short book) to give some initial insight as to his thinking on this topic: http://sethgodin.typepad.com/the_dip/

  6. Scott says:

    Hi I was just hoping to ask you a question that I was hoping you could answer, but i don’t no the best way to ask you is it through a comment on your blog, or through email, also I love your book it’s so insightful and interesting. Thanks.

  7. Renita says:

    I like the description of persistence as “supple,” Dan. :-)

    There’s a big difference between tanking a tennis match because you’re losing badly and trying a new activity or venture and deciding not to devote yourself to it for the rest of your life.

    The difference, I think, is in the context: giving up because continuing to pursue a goal is too hard and you don’t feel like trying anymore, that’s Quitting. If your goal is simply to learn new skills and explore different activities then it’s not really quitting if you don’t master or “succeed” by other’s standards.

  8. Dale says:

    The late Harry Brown in his book, How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World, talked about The Previous Investment Trap in which you keep doing some activity or investment because of all the time or money you’ve already invested in it. The key, he says, is to think about what you want to be doing from now on and focus on that. You can’t get your time back.

  9. djcoyle says:

    Hey Scott — if you’re comfortable, put it here. Or hit the email button on the blog’s home page — it sends your note to me. Thanks, Dan

  10. Robert says:

    Set a goal last year to make the local pro tour in golf.
    at my age (47) and health level and game (9 handicap) considered insane.
    I tried my old swing for 8 weeks, then decided, not going to work for me, found someone and started to rebuild it for 8 weeks, rested 5 months got lesson, improved immensly.

    spent the last 3 weeks in high intensity focus to practice the new additions and remove flaws from old swing system.
    Improves daily with huge steps and striding along where I am building a swing that works for me. Loads of failures along the way but I am determined it will work this year.

    Its also important to measure or map the progress due to how people tend to forget where they once started to where they are going.
    Its due as some say that the brain moves the information which allow us to recall the skill but not how we did learn it.
    Video is a good source there.

  11. Dale says:

    @Robert Best of luck on your plan. Another guy is trying something similar. http://www.thedanplan.com

  12. Robert says:

    Thx, seems more talents are out there ;)

  13. Garnet says:

    Very timely and interesting post. I’m just in the process of quitting one long term project and starting a number of others and this post confirms and clarifies much of what I’ve been thinking about during the transition. Very helpful.

    One question regarding practice and quitting; often when I practice I perform at a higher level than usual for the first few of minutes, especially after a rest of a day or two, then it falls apart. Is it best to quit, having just ingrained that higher level of performance, or keep mucking along knowing that the practice, even though it’s a notch down, is still establishing the skill? In other words if practice makes permanent, where do you draw the line between quitting before you ingrain bad habits and being a quitter?

  14. Carla says:

    I like this positive spin on the very windy path my life has taken. I have carried with me everything that I learned in each place that I left. In every transition, I quit some aspect of a thing and magnified some other aspect that suited me better.And thus I have ended up pursuing a childhood passion. This destination was completely impossible for me at the beginning of the quest. My experiences along the way have put me in a position to get where I am, thus the need for quitting.

  15. Melanie says:

    I found this site by chance, searching for images of I quit. After a quick scan of the comments left by others I had to read the article. It was very interesting and I hope to cite a piece of it in one of assignments. I liked the difference between the throwing in the towel and changing ones course.

  16. Arek says:

    Wow – great post and insightful comments! Music to the ears of this previous Jack of All Trades, Master of None – who’s growing library of partially finished music compositions he wondered were a sign of being a Quitter (capital “Q”) and now feels in great company being with the many quite notable and adept quitters (small “q”). Thanks all and may you quit often!

  17. VAinCA says:

    Your link was posted in a facebook group page that I frequent — Encouraging Court Reporting Students — and so much of what you share is what is going through our heads as CRing students. Learning a new foreign language/code and attaining our skill at 97.5% accuracy or better is not for the easily distracted.

    My question to you Daniel is this: Does learning styles play any part in your steps in developing talent?

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