Perseverance is an attribute that is woven into our DNA. Since the beginning of time, man’s survival depended on battling harsh climates, volcanoes, drought, famine, disease and war. To give up or quit might have meant certain death. Closer to home, our personal histories include precious stories of ancestors emigrating from Northern Europe to new lands offering freedom and opportunity. Imagine their struggles of survival getting here, then dwelling in sod homes during North Dakota’s cold, harsh winters and dry summer months. Nationally, Americans universally root for the underdog, supporting the underlying belief that to persevere against all odds, good, bad, dangerous, irrational – or not, makes them the hero in our stories.
When facing difficulties, people often think that giving up is not an option. We all have heard stories about successful people overcoming obstacles to achieve great success: Thomas Edison’s 10,000 failed attempts before perfecting the light bulb; Steve Jobs, fired from Apple, a company he founded, only to return 12 years later to create iTunes, iPod, iPhone and the iPad; Oprah Winfrey, born into poverty and abused as a child, rising from her circumstances to become one of the wealthiest and most influential people of our generation.
When a Door Closes…
The truth is, successful people give up a lot. They understand there is an art of quitting if goals become an obstacle in their path to success. Sometimes you have to close one door to open another. For example, in the mid 1990s, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer developed sildenafil, a compound for hypertension (high blood pressure) and angina pectoris (a form of cardiovascular disease). It failed in clinical trials, and Pfizer considered abandoning the project. However, although chemists found that the drug had little effect on dilating blood vessels in the heart, its effect on blood vessels in the penis were noticeable. Thus, Viagra was born. Pfizer patented the compound in 1996 and conducted clinical trials to determine safety in a mere two years, while most drugs take around 10. The result was that the FDA approved Viagra to treat a “disease” (erectile dysfunction) that wasn’t recognized as a medical condition at the time. Viagra enjoyed immediate success, becoming the fastest drug to surpass $1 billion in sales. The moral here is to learn to recognize when strategies and goals no longer work, then give yourself permission to quit and explore other avenues of opportunity.
How Do You Know When It’s Time to Quit?
Jason Andersen, Trinity Addiction Services, has been a licensed addiction counselor for over two decades, which is to say he’s helped a lot people set goals. If persevering could be dangerous, it makes sense that quitting the drug of choice, or a dangerous situation, is the righteous path toward a balanced and productive life. However, Andersen believes that unless people have an honest understanding of their “WHY,” setting goals can be futile.
“Before you make goals, you need to figure out your ‘why.’ We see this with addiction, as well as with a healthy population. You have to get honest and realize that your motivation and desire to change a behavior must be stronger than the rewards it provides,” he says.
Andersen suggests defining what you are willing or not willing to do to reach your goal. “Define your limits, which might require you to dig in to determine what pleasures you are willing to let go of, and what your Plan B might look like. Prepare to create habits over the long-term,” he added.
The beauty of setting goals is that when you start something, you will discover new information. This information could be about whether you’re happy, if the goal is a good fit, or your own changing values. Perhaps you discover that something you thought you wanted is no longer as important. Andersen advises that the time to quit is when the cons outweigh the pros.
“This is tough to judge, because it’s not a measurable sum, but rather about the depth of severity, based on what does and does not work,” Andersen said. “It’s not as simple as listing four pros and six cons to determine whether or not to quit. The measure is determined more by individual limits.”
Measure your pain threshold and learn to get comfortable with your limits, he advises. But avoid falling into the Sunk Cost Fallacy, which is the idea that you need to continue on a certain path because you have already invested time, energy and resources into that pursuit.
The book “Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away,” written by professional poker player and decision scientist Annie Duke, argues that in many cases sticking to your goals – whether they are career objectives, personal aspirations or home projects – hold you back. She suggests that you ask yourself: “what are the signals I could see in the future that would tell me it’s time to quit?” Then think about: “what are the signals that would tell me that things are good?” Duke adds that every goal needs a really good ‘unless.’ As in, I will do this unless…
Planning for a New Year
Letting go of an unattainable goal frees you up to pursue other goals. Every day, we are presented with infinite opportunities, but not every opportunity leads toward the goals we have for ourselves. Quitting such opportunities opens a new world of chances. We might be afraid to quit, fearing the regret of missing out on possible success. But if you want to progress, take the first step and quit something that obstructs you from moving forward.
To quit you must honor your instincts and the desire for something else, but it also demands that you take a leap of faith. It requires you to trust yourself and the world enough to believe you will be ok without the membership, credential, activity, situation or person you are walking away from. Quitting is not an impediment to progress. It is a redirection of your efforts toward something that will assist you in growing.