Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Blessed are the Quitters

Yesterday, my sister wrote on her blog about quitting her job and what an incredibly difficult thing it was for her to do. I’m inclined to think we can all understand that feeling, to some degree or another. Sure, there are people who don’t give a rat’s derriere about what their bosses, co-workers, or anyone else think, but I reckon most of us experience some degree of social discomfort whenever we willingly and explicitly extradite ourselves from some activity or practice to which we’ve heretofore been committed. It needn’t be something as grandiose as quitting one’s job. For some of us, even the thought of quitting a book after we’ve read 20 pages or so feels taboo. And you know what? That’s a bunch of bullroar.

About two weeks before my sister quit her job, I was thinking of writing a blog post on this very subject—the stigma attached to quitting. I was inspired by the sudden disappearance of an undergraduate philosophy student who had signed up for the graduate level philosophy course I am taking this summer. The student was taking the class to help her decide if she wanted to pursue philosophy at the graduate level. On the second day of classes, this student told me that she was intimidated by the course. And that was the last I ever saw of her. Now, it may be that this student gave up on the class all too easily. But maybe not. Maybe she quickly realized that her heart was not in it, and she acted appropriately. And if that’s the case, then all I can say is: I envy you, disappearing undergraduate student. Kudos for not wasting your time.

I have no doubt that many people give up on things all too easily. Some people jump in and out of various projects on a whim and are completely unreliable because of it. But how fortunate are those people who actually feel okay about quitting things once they’ve realized they’re not interested in pursuing them and that they needn’t do so? How much less time and energy do these people waste on things than someone like, say, me? How many crappy movies have I watched because I was determined to see each movie through to the end? And how many more great films would I have seen if I had stopped watching a movie that bored me and moved on to something else? That’s a mundane example, but certainly the more significant you make the activity, the more significant the rewards for not wasting your time. And yet “quit” is such a dirty word in our society. “I quit taking (fill-in-the-blank) lessons,” “I quit my (fill-in-the-blank) class,” and of course, “I quit my job.” Notice how naturally we smuggle negativity into these sentences, how naturally we project a sense of failure onto anyone who might utter such a thing. And yet there is no reason to suppose that, every time one of these sentences is uttered in the world, it is a bad thing. On the contrary, the wisest among us is probably more apt to say these things than we are, since we’ve all been brainwashed to believe you should never give up on anything—even if it’s a complete waste of your time!

I’ve considered the idea that perhaps I have this view on quitting because of my family. Maybe my parents somehow instilled this in me. I remember my mother talking about how, when she was young, she forced herself to read a book she hated because she didn’t feel like she could give up on it. I have those very same tendencies, and it looks like my sister does too. But I really don’t think it’s my family in particular—though I’m sure we’ve added our own neuroses to the mix. (You could argue that we’ve concocted quite the cocktail of self-deprecation and self-doubt over the years.) It really does seem like it’s society at large that feels this way about quitting. I think the psychological notion of “loss aversion” speaks to this. The general idea is that people are so averse to wasting any of their resources that, once an endeavor has begun, they will see it through to the end even if the projected costs of pushing forward do not seem to merit the effort. (This phenomenon is discussed in the book Intuitions: Its Powers and Perils by David G. Myers, which I recently reviewed.) Loss aversion is manifest on a grand scale all the time, when government projects are pushed to completion even if initial budgeting forecasts prove vastly naïve and even though the project would never have been approved at the costs it eventually incurs. But, on a more familiar and day-to-day scale, how many of us have pumped a second dollar bill into the vending machine to get a bag of chips unstuck that we didn’t think was worth the first dollar we put in? (I have, within the last couple of weeks in fact.) And so, who cares if “quit” rhymes with another famous four-letter word? Do we really need to treat it like one?


  1. Ben, you are so awesome. I am always SO impressed with your writing. I'm even more impressed and grateful for your friendship, your way of seeing life, and your ability to help me feel better about it all. Thank you so much for this post and your understanding and support. I love you!

  2. Never give up... Never surrender. I think that you make a very valid point, but I think in other perspectives some people are quitting too easily. I often wonder how many people give up on important things in life just because it's hard and they miss out on the rewards of having accomplished something great!

  3. Interesting comments here. It's kind of surprising the depth this can be taken. Of course, that probably just displays my own mental shallowness.
    I'm going to blame it on the school system wherein we have to keep forging on for whatever cause and are not ever allowed to think of changing course. You're stuck with what you got and that's that! Kudos to the under grad [?] who changed really fast. But sometimes I think there is just this danglingness about not finishing a book, which is interesting because I don't see that same thing manifest in anything else.
    Well, food maybe. We always had to eat everything and "clean up our plates." I don't think anyone in your generation thinks much about that as a rule to follow. But we had to abide by it, for sure. Quiting seems to be easier for people now. Things aren't so stringent
    As for JoAnna, she has all the best reasons to give up her job and I'm pleased that she made that choice. Sometimes you just turn down a different road, that's all.