Knowing When to Quit

Knowing when and how to quit is one of the most valuable skills out there. Why? By strategically quitting things that don’t work for you, you’re free to work on things that do.

Quitting has gotten bad rap over the years. When you say you’re quitting anything besides cigarette smoking, seal clubbing, or self-mutilation, people look at you like you’re some kind of failure (of course, we know there’s nothing wrong with failure).

Of all the vices out there, though, we can learn the most from gambling. What does gambling have to do with quitting?

The gamblers who make the most money are the ones who know when to quit.

Rather than reinvest their winnings in the hopes of an even bigger win (which they’re sure to lose), they choose a wise time to cash out, often with the help of a magic talisman.

We can learn from these canny folks, no talisman required.

Before I go further, I should add some caveats.

Perseverance is important, and finishing most of what you start is admirable and full of side benefits. The problem most people have is quitting too soon, rather than too late.

Developing professional-level skills and abilities can take years. According to Malcolm Gladwell, those at the top of their field put in 10,000 hours of focused practice. They never quit. ..but not everyone can be a Bill Gates, Jimi Hendrix, or Joyce Carol Oates.

Sometimes you have to focus on just one thing, let go of the others, and move on. All these people are (were) exceptional at their main skill. All the other stuff, they quit along the way.

In short, keep working on what works for you, but quit most everything else.

Why Quit?

Quitting is never an easy decision. After putting in months or years developing a skill or working on a project, letting go seems like such a huge waste of time and energy.

Reasons to quit include:

  • Gaining freedom from something that’s changed from a cute, cuddly new thing to a snarling, snapping, biting pain in the ass.
  • Having more time to focus on one or two more important things. Or…having more time to spend with your family.
  • Reducing stress levels. When you really just don’t want to do something, doing it anyway (for a long period of time) will probably kill you.
  • To move on to new projects; to change, grow, and learn.
  • As a way to get out of a long-term rut.
  • Regaining your soul, in the event some malevolent force of your own making is sucking it out through an ethereal straw.

When to Quit?

The time to quit is different for everybody. The gambler can tell with a stroke of the lucky rabbit’s foot. Without a talisman, your task is  harder. Sometimes the need to quit is obvious, sometimes not so.  Only you can be the judge.

Here are some warning signs:

  • Feeling apathetic and disinterested over a long period of time, nothing a vacation or re-orientation will cure.
  • When you’ve either achieved your goals, you realize that the goals are unachievable, or you simply don’t give a flying fudgebar about goals.
  • When the thought of working on the project makes you want to gouge out your eyes with chopsticks.
  • After having a moment of clarity and realizing you’ve been living out some kind of sad delusion.
  • You get a little older and realize the things you wanted in the past aren’t what you want now.

How to Quit?

The clever gambler recognizes a losing streak and, instead of trying to play their way out of it, they cut their losses and develop an exit strategy. For you, when you quit something, it needn’t be a total loss either. With a little foresight and planning, you too can make a graceful exit.

  • Sometimes you just need a readjustment in what you want. You might not become a megastar but it’s perfectly possible to carve out a living.
  • If you have created something tangible (a business or a blog), you could sell it off, piece by piece.
  • In some cases, you need to train a replacement. This can be fun but also disorienting.
  • Whenever possible, have something else lined up. Quitting something that was an important part of your life can leave a big gap.
  • Reflect back on your time and figure out what you’ve learned.
  • Don’t burn any bridges. If you’re leaving some project that involved other people (and most do), let everyone know you appreciated doing whatever with them.

That’s it. Remember, the value lies in strategic quitting. Do what works for you. Say goodbye to everything else. Cut your losses. Finish what you can and forget about the rest. Good luck!

Over to You

  • Any strategies for quitting?
  • Do you think people should simply never give up?
  • Is baby seal really as delicious as I’ve been told?

Photo credit: koiart66

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Ali Hale February 26, 2010, 3:33 am

    Very nice post — and thanks for the link!

    I won a whole £30 at a casino once by knowing when to quit 😉

    I love the way you put this: “Gaining freedom from something that’s changed from a cute, cuddly new thing to a snarling, snapping, biting pain in the ass.”

    — YES! Exactly! Sometimes, it’s good to stick with commitments; sometimes, you just need to cut your losses and get the hell out before it drives you slowly insane.

    All I’d add to the “Strategies for Quitting” is that sometimes it’s worth hanging in there till you can reach a particular milestone. E.g. maybe finishing a college course and getting the credits, or turning a part-written book into a series of articles. It may not be much fun, but you’ll actually get *something* back for the time spent.

  • Natalie Christie March 26, 2010, 10:57 pm

    I really relate to this. I went through the whole quitting process when I left the stage to have my children and to get some space to just chill the hell out…

    And what you say here is really important. For some people it can seem easier to stick with the pain of awful, eye-gouging misery than have to face the pain of change. But it’s when we change that we truly grow.

    And who says saying “no” to something has to be permanent anyway. 🙂

    Great post Seth.


  • Seth March 31, 2010, 2:24 am

    Hello, thanks for the comments.

    @Ali. You’re right about hanging in until you reach a milestone. Everybody says ‘if you don’t want to do something, don’t do it,’ but that’s a tricky statement.

    Even if we don’t want to do them, some things are worth doing… especially things like college courses or cutting your *losses* and turning that ebook into a series (both of which I’ve actually done).

    @Natalie. Thanks for stopping by. As a musician myself, I can only what a difficult decision leaving the stage must’ve been. But if we don’t change, we not only don’t learn, we stagnate.