Knowing When To Quit

Knowing When To Quit

Hard questions. 

Tough decisions.

Well-hidden answers.

Our lives are filled with challenges. One of the more common questions people face when pursuing some accomplishment is, “How can I know when to quit?”

Enter Seth Godin’s terrific illustration in The Dip. Keep swimming ’cause you don’t know how close you may be to reaching your goal. Godin points out that many people may quit too soon while the achievers have a refusal to give up. 

Unfortunately, readers may incorrectly assume Godin’s approach is simply an emphasis on sticking with it. There’s power in staying with something in order to find out if success is possible, but there’s also power in knowing when to walk away because failure is sure. Or because you’ve changed your mind. 

We love stories of people who kept going, and going, and going…eventually finding success. They become popular, passed around, and serve as empirical evidence of a false truth that persistence is a weighted determination of achievement. But there are many, many sad stories we don’t hear – or want to hear – about people who chased something their entire lives, refusing to quit…but never realized success. Those stories depress us with the possibility that life can be utterly wasted in pursuit of something not possible. Perhaps often due to a lack of natural talent, resources, or luck. 

Knowing you’re in the dip is one thing. Knowing how close you may be to reaching the other side where success is found? That’s entirely different. And hard. But it’s also personal. 

I know. Because I’m in the throes of deciding whether or not to quit. For me, the hard part isn’t making up my mind, but wrestling with personal responsibility. At my age, there are many things – personal and professional – that weigh heavier than at any other time in life. Many of them, maybe most, are focused on one question, “What’s my responsibility here? In this moment?” 

Maybe it’s the urge to “pass it on.” Maybe it’s the realization that I’ve never been better. I’ve never been this experienced, this knowledgeable, this wise, had this much insight or this much developed skill. What’s my obligation? 

Frequently, I want to quit. Sometimes I want to run away and hide. More often than not I want to find the biggest rock around and dig under it so I can live in some fictional underground tiny home. The psychological battle of push-pull isn’t always easy to fight. Because some days, I’d rather not fight it. Instead, I’m happy to acquiesce, surrender and leave everything to others. Which is odd, given my natural “bent” to be proactive and take action. I’ve learned that’s not always best though and by now I’m quite practiced in patience. 

For as long as I can remember my best gauge for knowing when to quit hasn’t been about the net results to me, but the net results to a cause and the people I most care about. This is why the pinnacle of my progression chart that I use in coaching clients has remained unchanged for many years. 

I’ve committed myself to this progression since I was a teenager. It grew out of my observations of people in my life. At work. At church. At play. In competition. Family. Friends. Foes. 

It plays an important role in knowing when to quit certain things. 

The foundation is humility. When humility is hard to embrace, it’s time to quit. Quit being arrogant. Quit being pompous. Quit being a know-it-all. Quit thinking my opinion matters more than anybody else’s. Just quit!

Without humility, the progression is stalled. Pointedly, that means I make NO PROGRESS until I first make sure humility is the ruling foundation. Some days it’s easy. Other days, not so much. It’s not a check-the-box endeavor. It’s a wake up every day and put in the work affair. 

Curiosity proves why. Without humility, we lack curiosity. We don’t ask questions. We see no answers. Because we already have them. Or so we think. That’s how hubris kills the best efforts in our growth. But if we can embrace curiosity, we ask questions. Not so we can provide answers, but so we can learn what we don’t yet know. 

The result?

Knowledge. By asking questions and listening to answers we learn things we didn’t yet know. Ignorance isn’t bliss. Knowledge is. 

Knowing things and understanding things aren’t the same. So the next step is seeking to understand what we’ve learned. Every step is challenging, but this may be especially tough because we’re all prone to make assumptions. Mostly getting it wrong. We lack knowledge and are often too lazy to find out…and we jump to an easy, but too often wrong conclusion. We think we’ve figured it all out when we have very incomplete knowledge. And no understanding.

Have you ever misjudged somebody? You thought they were one thing only to find out they weren’t that way at all? Feels awful, right? Don’t you suppose people have done that about you? We’ve all done it and it’s been done to all of us, too. Mostly because people weren’t curious enough or respectful enough to find out. So we fill that gap of what we don’t know with assumptions for which we’re sure. Until we find out they’re not sure at all. 

How can we increase our understanding? By more fully embracing each step in the progression and refusing to fake it. When we want to understand we’re more able to accomplish it. It seems to me, that when understanding it hard, we’re resistant. We claim we want to understand, but mostly we want to make sure we’re understood. The paradox is, the more we seek to understand the better we can be understood. The more we strain to be understood the less we seem to understand others. 

The elephant in the room – the big enemy to all of this – is selfishness. We focus too intently on ourselves and it disrupts every step of the progression. Whenever I make it more about ME, I lose. Whenever I make it more about OTHERS, I win. So do they. There is no downside to getting this right. 

The ultimate prize in the progression is compassion. I deploy a simple view of compassion by defining it as a focus on others. It’s a hard journey to reach compassion, but so worthwhile. 

That’s how I know when to quit. When my attempts to help others make matters worse, it’s time to quit. When my actions aren’t properly focused on serving others, it’s time to quit. 

I know you’re like me – we’d like clearer, more easily defined answers. But I’m not sure there are any. 

The path forward is paved in humility. For me, if I’m able to more fully realize and work for that, then I’m able to let go of how others may wrongly judge me. I’m able to move forward without fear of how others might second-guess my moves. Or give false attribution to my motives. 

Because life has taught me well that we’re surrounded by ninnies. 😉 And I’m prone to being a ninnie, too. So I need to quit it.


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