Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Okay, so just a little more on stopping and quitting

At the end of my previous post about stopping and quitting, I said that there was more to say about all of it and that I'd stop there. Well, at least the first was true.

I've been ruminating about stopping and quitting a fair amount more since then, mainly due to the excellent reactions and commiserations I received.* Seems I'm not alone in struggling both with not quitting and with failing to make much sense of why that is. All signs might point to giving up (jobs, habits, marriages, whatever), but a lot of us don't and don't exactly know why.

As I said before, I do think honest, straightforward reasons do explain some of the resistance to quitting—heavy investment (of time, money), say, and the general cultural conditioning against ever quitting anything. (We're told pretty much right away that nobody likes a quitter). Enjoyment might even have been derived from the thing, whatever it is.

But what about when the straightforward reasons just don't sufficiently justify sticking something out? And what about the not understanding? Part of what stalls me at this point, I think, has to do with not really knowing how to take my own reasoning about quitting.

Let me try to be a little clearer. I'm not the hugest fan of Malcom Gladwell,** but a recent article of his on espionage for The New Yorker nicely gets at the problem here. He begins with the story of "Operation Mincemeat," a bold and successful plan by the British in World War II to leak false information to the Germans about a pending Allied invasion. It's a fantastic tale told exceptionally well, and with a powerful lesson. Gladwell writes:
It is not just that secrets themselves are hard to fact-check; it's that their interpretation is inherently ambiguous. Any party to an intelligence transaction is trapped in what the sociologist Erving Goffman called an "expression game." I'm trying to fool you. You realize that I'm trying to fool you, and I—realizing that—try to fool you into thinking that I don't realize that you have realized that I am trying to fool you.
Oddly enough, we spy on and fool ourselves, too. I'm sitting right here, so I'll use myself as an example. Why don't I just give up my academic research, such as it is, and get seriously going on some of the writing projects I've been meekly pecking away at for a while now? When I put myself on the couch I get to thinking that I probably fear what might happen if I actually made a real run at writing—that I might not get beyond sucking badly or (worse?) that I might not suck all that much but can't get anyone much to notice my not sucking. But then I think that these worries (that I might always suck or be always outside) is really me fooling myself into finding a way to stay between everything, to have more "could haves" to console myself when I get to wondering, in the end, about what happened. And then again, maybe I'm fooling myself with that, too.

However fractal-like this gets, I've learned that quitting can lead to good. I have seen a few of those close to me bloom after divorce, and others make themselves new when time demanded it. But anyway like just about every parent ever, I worry over what my kids see when they observe me (which they, like all kids, scarily do), even more so than what I say. I'd like them to use more "dids" than "should haves" if they wonder about me.

Will they know when to quit?  Will I?

*Thanks Twitter, Facebook, and blog-reading folk. I really appreciate the thoughts.
**The guy can tell a good story, but Blink was just awful.


Unknown said...

I almost always rise to the occasion when circumstances demand it (at work, anyway), and I'm usually very pleased with my job after such an episode. On the other hand, I don't think I'd enjoy it very much if called to do so often.

Mostly, though, my life seems arranged to be bland and boring (by my own hand, no less), and I wonder if I'd be better off doing something else.

The human tendency toward rent-seeking at work, conflicting with love for adventure.

Anonymous said...

I think there are many different reasons why people find it hard to quit (some more straightforward than others), but I am speculating that part of the reason why people find it so difficult to quit is because the (mature) human mind just doesn't deal with changes too well - especially if the alternative to what you are doing now involves a great deal of uncertainty. As numerous studies have shown, uncertainty is a major psychological stress factor (partly because it involves a loss of control) and people go through a great deal of trouble to avoid it, even if they're not very happy with current circumstances. This is probably something that kids have less trouble with - for them, every day brings something new and exciting anyway (and they're probably also less concerned about potential negative consequences of their decisions). But once you've kind of settled (and your brain becomes less flexible) it is hard to give up on routines - especially if you're not *really* unhappy with the current circumstances. And it will probably be harder the longer you delay the quitting. Also, quitting always means giving something up and letting it go, which is hard - especially if you're not really sure what your life will look like afterwards (it's harder to imagine what will be than to remember what has been).

The thing is, you will never quite know whether you've made the right choice (because you will never know what would have happened had you made a different one), but if you know deep down that you want a change (and what you write seems to suggest that), then you need to find ways to make it happen. If you don't you will blame yourself later for not trying.

One way is to simply close your eyes and jump. This will feel risky, but it will also give a great sense of liberation. And if you have support from family and friends (which I am sure you do), it will be doable.

If this doesn't feel quite right, the other way is to somehow test the waters first; not give up on your academic career quite yet, but try to get a little more serious with your writing projects. I know that seems like a cop-out, but it doesn't always have to be all-or-nothing from the start (especially when being faced with an all-or-nothing choice makes it impossible for you to decide). Perhaps set aside one or two days a week that are dedicated purely to non-academic writing, or take a semester off if that's possible, and just take it very seriously. Maybe you can set yourself a goal, such as submitting a story (or whatever it is you are working on) to some publisher or some contest and see what happens. Of course, you need to give yourself time and be prepared for initial hardships and disappointments. But again, with the right kind of support, everything is possible.

It's true that sometimes we just should stick things out and not quit just because not everything is perfect. But just as important as endurance is the ability to know when it is right to quit - we shouldn't just endure for the sake of it. Just trust in life and in yourself (like your kids do), and I am sure things will work out.

Of course, all of this is easier said than done.. :)

RM said...


I, too, feel the same--viz., that I get something good and very real from rising to an occasion, even in a job I don't regularly enjoy. The (infrequent) opportunity for this kind of enjoyment has no doubt kept me on my current path, such as it is. That and many kinds of people found in universities and colleges.

And the "human tendency toward rent-seeking at work" is nicely put, the sense of work as temporary and not for itself. Pretty much nails it for me as well, I think.


You're right, of course. Loss aversion is an well established phenomenon (thanks, Dan Ariely et al.), and a deep one at that. The fear of losing what one has plays a powerful role in behavioral calculus, often without one's realizing it.

And you're right, of course, that I should either "simply close my eyes and jump" or "somehow test the waters first." I've been hanging out by the pool for a while now--and I've got tremendous support from friends and family. I should slip all the way in, get used to the current and cold.

Thanks for the excellent thoughts, guys. Honest.