Last week I wrote about the power of staying with something and that made me think of one of my favorite columns I wrote for Body & Soul years ago—on quitting. It came to mind because nothing is black-and-white: sometimes we need to stay, sometimes we need to wake up and get out.
Here’s that column updated with fresh stories and insights:
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In my 20’s, when I was floundering at USC film school, my dad wrote me a letter, something he rarely did. I still have it. A few lines on a piece of lined notepaper, “When the going gets tough, the tough go on their nerve.” I knew how well that advice had served him, through challenges I couldn’t imagine—poverty, war, a feckless father, a loveless marriage, years of grinding work to build his business. So I listened. I put my head down, dug my heels in, and powered my way through.
I’m not sorry I did. Being tough and determined is one of my best qualities. Yet there came a time when I started to see that continuing no matter what wasn’t always the best choice or the only way. Somewhere in my mid-30’s (pause for a moment of astonishment at how stubborn and single-minded young Jen was) I started to see how going on my nerve was burning me out or keeping me stuck.
Learning when—and how—to quit, that’s been the work of the last 15 years.
Enter Default Quitting vs. Compassionate Quitting
Default quitting I covered a little bit last week. It’s looking for an excuse to quit because we don’t like the discomfort we’re up against, the effort required, the repeated need to feel foolish as we learn. I’ve taken up running since I moved to Colorado, thanks to a fun running club, and the first 15-20 minutes? All about default quitting. My mind is all, “Just quit, just quit, just quit.” But my body? “Go, go, go! This is fun!”
Default quitting keeps you stuck just as much as not quitting. It’s fear in in the disguise of “take in easy” or “you don’t really want that.” It’s the fixed mindset with a sloucher and a beer.
But what if it isn’t? What if you really should throw in the towel? Unfortunately, it’s not rarely clear if you want to quit a situation for healthy or fearful intention. But that’s actually the first dragon to squeak by! You feel sleepy and want to distract yourself with anything rather than give this question of “Engage more or quit?” the sustained attention it needs. That’s your first sign to pay attention! Don’t let yourself be fooled, or rather let yourself be fooled, eat the ice cream, and then come back to discerning what the best move for you is.
Which might be compassionate quitting—quitting out of compassion for yourself and others, quitting because it’s what your heart wants, even if you have no idea what’s on the other side. Quitting because staying is hurting too much.
How to decide what to do? Try these questions, based on author Mira Kirshenbaum’s very useful book Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay with my own additions. Make notes of your first impressions—they are very useful!
- Look back to the beginning, when you first started _______ (fill in the situation, job, activity, or relationship you’re considering quitting). Did you enjoy it? Was it very good? If it was never very good, it’ll never be very good. If it was once good, it might be worth working for.
- When you think about it, have you already made your decision? Are you already building a life, at least in your mind, that excludes ________? Are you showing up late for meetings, not doing your homework for class, forgetting you have plans with that friend yet again?
- If an omniscient power appeared and said it was okay to quit and nothing bad would happen, would you skip down your street? Or would you be sad to leave?
- Is there something about what you are considering quitting that you look forward to and take pleasure in? Locate what still feels good, if anything. Then ask, is it a healthy pleasure that makes me feel good about myself?
- Do you regularly feel humiliated, shamed, or invisible in regards to _____? Is something or someone in this situation contributing to a feeling of worthlessness?
- Do you keep waiting for ________ to change? Have you drawn a line in the sand—only to back up and redraw it, and then redraw it again? Of course, the lines we redraw most often are the ones we make for ourselves.
- Are you still growing and learning in ways that matter to you? If you still feel you are moving toward a future that delights you, that’s a very positive sign, even if things are hard right now. If not, this may be telling you to quit.
- Are you comparing your current reality to a dream or fantasy? A CPA friend imagined that leaving his tax career to write full-time would bring carefree days of following his muse and swapping writing tips over cognac with other writers. I asked him to interview other writers, including me, which helped him plan more realistically. Don’t quit based on an ungrounded fantasy.
- If you knew you couldn’t fail if you quit, what would you do? Fear of failing and fear of getting what we want stops many an option from surfacing.
These are diamond questions. They penetrate sharply and deeply. Feel free to take them to your coach, therapist, mastermind group, or best friend for help discerning.
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What do you do if you decide you want to quit but you can’t? Young children to raise and you can’t afford two houses if you divorce, aging mom to care for who doesn’t want to move with you to Bali, great co-workers but an awful corporate pace… I get it. I’ve been there myself and with many a friend or student.
And I know so strongly and so clearly that so much more is possible when we are willing to own what we really want without clinging to our story of how it has to unfold. It’s only from that place of owned desire that your energy and determination can build your new life. It never happens by pretending things are okay when they aren’t.
It seems deeply pissy that, in deciding to quit, you have no guarantees. But in the end, it comes down to this: You must be willing to look yourself in the mirror and ask, “Am I suffering enough to do something about it?” or “Am I hungry enough for something more to take this risk?” If you don’t ask yourself now, then when?