We hate quitting. Quitters are losers, quitters are weak, quitters don’t accomplish anything, you get the picture. We’ve even got some nice quotes, like “winners never quit and quitters never win” from Vince Lombardi, and “all quitters are good losers” from Robert Zuppke, and “when my car runs out of gas, I buy a new one. I don’t want to ride around in a quitter” from Stephen Colbert. Quitters may be losers, but those are some winning quotes, eh?
I’ve mostly bought into this quitting stuff over the course of my life, most of us probably have. It sounds awesome to never give up, to always achieve whatever you set out for in the end. It speaks to the unconquerable human spirit, the idea that we can do anything we set our minds to. Well, I’ve changed my mind, with the help of David Epstein and his awesome book Range.
Before I get too far I should make a distinction, there are different types of quitting. I’m not talking here about quitting in the sense that you’ve given up on life, or decided to live out your days in your parent’s basement, or stopped trying. Don’t ever quit only because things are difficult or scary.
What I am endorsing is a relentless search, an unwavering experimentation, a commitment to continually try things. This means quitting, probably a lot, probably in a lot of different pursuits. It means trying and failing quickly. Maybe it’s a project at work, maybe it’s a fruitless side-hustle, maybe it’s a crappy book. Whatever it is, don’t be afraid to pull the plug. Not because you’re giving up, because you’re after something better, trying something new.
Epstein points out that success does not come from early specialization and simple grit (passion and perseverance in one area). Grit is important, and specialization can be too, but perseverance for the sake of perseverance is not helpful. “No one in their right mind would argue that passion and perseverance are unimportant, or that a bad day is a cue to quit. But the idea that a change of interest, or a recalibration of focus, is an imperfection and competitive disadvantage leads to a simple, one-size-fits-all Tiger story: pick and stick, as soon as possible” (Epstein, p 145). Counterintuitively, trying and changing are much more closely tied to success than blunt perseverance. Seth Godin, in his popular little book The Dip, notes that perseverance through difficulty is a real competitive advantage in business, but he also notes that perhaps the best advantage is knowing when to quit. The ability to walk away from something in pursuit of something better, to keep moving instead of persisting in stagnation, is a mark of success.
This all takes some wisdom, we need the ability to distinguish between a simple aversion to difficulty and a smart move towards better options. But here’s the important point stated positively: try things! If it doesn’t work out, or it isn’t what you hoped for, quit! Just don’t ever quit trying.