The power of quitting

Perseverance receives a fair amount of promotion in our busy world, but as Miriam McCaleb discovers, there is power, peace and even productivity in the art of quitting.

There’s a lot to be said for tenacity. Stickability, consistency and grit –these are all admirable qualities that will often lead to great things. But have you ever wondered whether our collective admiration of these traits might come at a cost? Are there times when we’d be (gasp!) better off quitting?

There must be reason beyond the fishtail plait that made icy Elsa resonate with so many. On some level, we all have something that makes us long to 'let it go'.

Turns out, the ability to recognise when a situation no longer serves its purpose is valuable –and the willingness to walk away from that situation can be important for our mental health. Our culture is full of messages about the unsavouriness of quitting, but I’m here to propose an alternate reality.

First things first
Before I issue your Licence to Quit, I must offer a couple of caveats. First: parenthood. By and large, where kids are concerned, consistency is your friend. The younger the child, the more that is true. Babies need consistent care and their needs usurp ours. The needs of the human with the highly malleable brain trumps our desires, so even if we are inconvenienced, it is our duty to provide consistency. Sorry. Except, I’m not really sorry. When our children are small, we make sacrifices. That’s that.

There are other times in our lives when we need to call on our ability to Suck It Up, Buttercup. Having a pool of tenacity to call upon is essential. Caring for a relative during an illness is not something we get to walk away from. A mini-break? Sure. But actually bailing? I’m afraid not. My vast pregnant self drove my ailing mother to and from chemotherapy appointments even when I’d much rather have driven us both to the movies – and to denial.

Another example: when my husband was getting his business established, he earned nothing at all for a good while, and my earnings kept us going. Problem: I hated my job. Hated it! I cried all the way to work each week. But I had to find a way to make that work, at least for a while. In hindsight, it was time semi-well spent – I made some lifelong friendships and valuable contacts.

I also learned what direction I did not want to take my career. Golden.

One thing leads to another
My friend Lisa had a similar experience when she was working for a particular organisation that she had previously thought would be the pinnacle of her career. “I thought it was going to be awesome and meet all of my professional needs”, she says. “Instead, it wasn’t challenging enough and I felt trapped. I thought 'I can’t back out now. From outside observation this is the be all and end all and I should be happy'. I had to acknowledge that it wasn’t working. Sometimes that’s harder than staying and being miserable.” That’s right. Quitting isn’t always the easy option.

This message may be especially important for women to hear – especially women with kids. Researchers at La Trobe University in Australia showed that employed mothers juggling work and home life face prolonged pressures and poor mental health, and that is regardless of a child's age or the woman's socio-economic background.

Dr. Elizabeth Westrupp was the lead author on the study, which found that “there are reciprocal and ongoing effects between mothers' mental health and their work-life balance. It is not a one-way street; conflict in these roles affects mental health, and mental health affects how mothers juggle work-family roles”.

All the more reason to do whatever you can to ensure that any paid employment is something you can take pleasure from.

Lisa is an example of how quitting at one thing can lead to success in something else. “I stayed working there for about one year. When I left, it felt liberating, like a huge weight off my shoulders. It felt like a lesson in remembering that sometimes the reality doesn’t meet the expectation, and that’s fine.” Lisa has gone on to work in prestigious settings here and overseas, whilst managing to claim more time at home with her family – and she has since earned her PhD too. See? Quitting isn’t just for losers.

Another point of view to consider in all of this is our timing with regards to quitting. Stephen Levitt is an economist at the esteemed University of Chicago. He’s the co-author of the successful Freakonomics series of books and he often appears on the podcast. In one Freakonomics podcast called The Upside of Quitting, Levitt said: “If I were to say one of the single most important explanations for how I managed to succeed against all odds in the field of economics, it was by being a quitter. Ever since the beginning, my mantra has been ‘fail quickly’. If I started with a hundred ideas, I'm lucky if two or three of those ideas will ever turn into academic papers. One of my great skills as an economist has been to recognise the need to fail quickly and the willingness to jettison a project as soon as I realise it's likely to fail”.

Right. Let it go.

Striking the balance
The benefits of bailing can extend beyond the workplace. In fact, we might argue that they definitely should. So many aspects of our lives sit outside the realm of quit-ability –there is plenty of stuff we have to do, no matter what. Surely that’s all the more reason to trim the fat wherever we can. Sometimes we have to put up with a depressing job for a time. Sometimes we have no choice but to wade through the challenges of ill health. Babies? They definitely need us. Bin liners? They’ll always need replacing. But what about all those other responsibilities we pile onto ourselves? Are they truly necessary?

Take, for example, this tale from Belinda Donaldson. Belinda is a mother of two boys who are both busy with various sporting commitments. She helps to run the family wine-making business, taking responsibility for many of the day-to-day operations at their restaurant. You may think that these jobs, in addition to running a home, would be plenty. But last year, Belinda thought she would have a crack at adding something else. “I really wanted to tackle something just for me; something that was a bit more intellectually challenging. I loved the idea of picking up some German language papers at university. It had been years since I’d immersed myself in study and I really thought it would be a treat.”

In this case, Belinda’s U-turn decision to later bail from her study commitment is an example of wisdom all round. “Instead of adding texture and challenge to my life, it just piled more pressure on to me. My work and my family demands stayed the same, and pretty soon university was more trouble than it was joyful. I bailed after the first semester which was the best thing I could have done. It's just not the right time.”

Finishing well
There are a couple of things I love about Belinda’s example. She chose to quit, but still rounded out the first semester and she finished the paper she started. This strategy of waiting for a natural exit point is excellent, and it's a great model for negotiations with our children when they decide they don't wish to continue with gymnastics; or rugby; or the cello; or whatever.

Encouraging our children to see out the term honours any commitments made to a team, the teacher, and the paid fees. It ought to help our kids as they build their reserve of grit – which will be useful should they need to stick out a difficult job, work through unavoidable family unpleasantness or the inconveniences that will arise when they, themselves, become parents. But it does so while maintaining a pragmatic acceptance of the fact that sometimes the best thing to do is change tracks.

Healthy defeat
Another thing I value about Belinda's bail was her recognition that the perceived benefits of the class were not worth the cost.

Time is so precious, and we cannot make any more of it, so how we spend it is worth deliberate thought. As Tristin Stevenson says: “Doing less is so the new black”.

Tristin runs a business called The Yoga Club. In her practice she finds an increasing number of students are referred to her by health professionals for stress-reduction purposes. She acknowledges the irony of adding something more in order to lessen stress, but she’s passionate in her belief that adding yoga is a wise move. “A yoga practice is a great place to muck around with letting all sorts of things go."

Need more reason to quit? Psychology professor Carsten Wrosch noted in the aforementioned Freakonomics podcast, “People who are better able to let go when they experience unattainable goals have, for example, less depressive symptoms; less negative affect over time. They also have lower cortisol levels, and they have lower levels of systemic inflammation, which is a marker of immune functioning. They develop fewer physical health problems over time”.

Those are some profound advantages and they reinforce the power of giving up.

Don’t look back
Perhaps this is a useful time to mention the ‘sunk cost’ fallacy. The sunk cost fallacy is when you tell yourself that you can't quit because of all the time and money that has been invested: “I’ve been paying for my son’s tennis lessons for three years, he can’t quit!” Repeat after me: Yes. He. Can. Or: “But I’ve slogged my way through two whole years of law lectures – I can’t change my major now!” Yes. You. Can.

Continuing to pile time and money into scenarios that don’t offer rewards puts us at risk of falling victim to another fallacy – the Concorde fallacy. Richard Dawkins coined the phrase to describe the behaviour of someone who persists at something in which they have invested a lot of time, energy or money, even though they know that the outcome is unlikely to be a success.

In a recent issue of the Sunday Star Times, financial advisor Martin Hawes wrote “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. Cut your losses and spend your energy trying to find something better, rather than worrying about past losses and sunk costs”.

Whether we’re talking about investment of time or of money, this is excellent advice. Stop digging. Know when enough is enough. Choose your battles. Let it go. Instead of vilifying Giving Up, think of it as another skill to practise. An attribute.

Knowing when to give up, how to quit and what to bail from – these are life skills that might just be worth as much to us as knowing when to persevere, stick it out and hang in there.

Just ask Richie McCaw. 

Miriam McCaleb has taught children and tertiary students on both sides of the Pacific, but she practised giving up and letting go of full-time paid employment in order to parent, write, and grow veges. Visit her at



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