Hi readers – I apologise for being absent of late. I quit a job and had a lot to finish up on. This gave me cause to reflect on the subtle art of making a good end, and to this end I thought I’d better get posting again! Wishing you a wonderful 2019 and thanks for reading!
…..silence…… awkward silence at that…
“Are you kidding me?”
“No, I’m serious. I resign, effective at the end of next week, as the terms of my employment requires”
“But loads of people would kill for this job!”
“I don’t doubt it – do you have their number?”
“Is there anything I can say to make you reconsider?”
“No, nothing, but I’ve enjoyed my time here for the most part, many thanks!”
– Conversation with my boss, 1996.
No doubt about it, I’m a lucky guy. I’ve had my trials, heartaches and disasters, but on the whole life’s been good to me so far (if you don’t get the reference to the song, click here; you’re welcome). I’m not going to use the word successful, because by many people’s definition, I doubt I would fall into that category.
But from my own perspective, I’ve done a great many things I set out to do and had some truly amazing adventures (I discuss these elsewhere). I’ve frequently said that for the years I’ve had, I haven’t missed a thing and wasted few moments (caveat – according to John Lennon, time you enjoyed wasting wasn’t wasted, and who am I to disagree?). Luck has had a great deal to do with that, no question about it. But to the extent that I had anything to do with it, I would say that getting to do the things I’m grateful to have experienced, and living a life I am extremely grateful for now, comes down to a proclivity I was always warned against. But judiciously used, for me it has been a bit of a superpower.
I can quit.
But that’s terrible right? Where’s my persistence? My grit?
Well, today, I’ll argue that persistence and grit are not always the same thing, and what’s more, it can take a lot of grit to quit. A friend of mine quipped how he considered ceasing to drink the vast quantities of beer he was accustomed to, but then had an epiphany, “Hey, I’m not a quitter!”, and discarded the idea in favour of more fashionable persistence.
‘Winners never quit, quitters never win’ – or so the saying goes. ‘Nothing takes the place of persistence’ goes another. These days we hear an awful lot about persistence and grit as if it was some magical panacea to all the world’s ills, but it seems to me that our world could benefit from a bit more quitting at times. Our dogged persistence with ideas, behaviours, groups, and beliefs that are useless at best and destructive at worst has done at least as much damage as as a change of course might have. Think long unsatisfactory careers, fossil fuels, unhealthy relationships, climate change, and plastic ‘disposables‘.
But how do we tell between situations we should quit, and those we should persevere with? Clearly some endeavours simply cannot be ‘quit’, a promise has been made and the obligations are ‘one way’; parenthood for example, can take many forms, but it’s a one way deal. I doubt there’s any perfect science, but it seems to me having clarity about our values helps. Trouble is, that clarity is not always available to us early in the piece. Very frequently, when we are new to a career or an activity, we simply don’t know what we don’t know. When we’re starting out, we might think one karate teacher (‘Sensei’) is much the same as the next one, or that one famous for winning tournaments is your best bet. Ten years in, they may not be the things you value about martial arts. You might think all universities teach your vocation according to the same values, so the one the students have the most fun at is the way to go. All your prospective friends or lovers will approach friendship and love the way you do, because what you have seen so far is ‘the way it is done’ (for good or ill). Hopefully, a decade’s experience in any of the above permanently disabuses us of this naivety, and what is more, it’s to be hoped that you would have found your feet in terms of your own attitudes and values in these pursuits. But here’s the rub, having found our values, we may also find ourselves already involved with (and invested in) groups, people, goals or the like which don’t really align with them.
The Samurai retainer Yamamoto Tsunetomo dictated a book of advice on the Way of the Samurai called Hagakure (beneath the leaves) way back in 1710. In it he argues, rightly enough, that entering into the river without understanding its currents and depth may well result in being swept away without achieving one’s goals (p. 67). He was quite right of course; another more contemporary phrasing might be that just about anything is easier to get into than out of! To play devil’s advocate though, sometimes our path requires that we wade into the river, without knowing all the possible consequences of our decisions. So proceed mindfully, and with caution, but one must proceed nonetheless. If there was a ‘perfectly safe time’ to move forward into uncertainty, it wouldn’t foster growth. Like travelling in a foreign land, uncertainty moves us out of the comfort zone, teaching us about ourselves, shaping us and deepening our sense of place in the world. But in doing just that from time to time, is it really sensible to expect we’ll always make the right moves? Will we really always end up in a place so aligned with our values that we will never realise a need to change course? To me, that doesn’t seem all that likely unless we’re so conservative – or timid – we never test our mettle in any meaningful way.
Quitting on what?
When do we know it’s time to quit? Again, I don’t think that’s an exact science, but speaking for myself, I’m likely to call time on something when I am convinced that to continue would be deleterious to others, or myself, and that this cannot be remedied in the present condition. Frequently, I find myself getting itchy for a change when I am a little too ‘comfortable’; it can indicate a soporific state that, to quote P. T. Barnum, is ‘the enemy of progress’. Now progress is a subjective idea I deal with elsewhere, but for me I mean progress in my personal development, learning and the cultivation of contentment. But it is really important (I think) to be honest with yourself about what it is that needs to stop.
Very frequently I talk to couples who want ‘out’ of their relationship, but don’t want to quit on what they rightly see as a serious undertaking. This is not as bleak as it sounds. Where both people are able to hear one another and act in good faith, it is quite rare that the relationship cannot be remade in a fashion that is much more agreeable to the values of those in it. We have many relationships over our lives (friend, lover, co-parent, business partner, companion, teacher, student, fellow geriatric!). If we’re prepared to do the work (and we’re a little lucky) we’ll have many of these relationships with the same person. So when we want something to end, we need to be clear what it is we want to ‘quit’ on. It might not be the marriage or the friendship (or the job), it might be the resentment, or the fighting, or the boredom, not the relationship. Sometimes it’s not the ‘what’ that is at issue, but the ‘how’ we’re going about it. This is important, because many people quit on a job, or a relationship, and take that very same ‘how’ into the next situation, with predictable and disappointing results. If ‘quitting’ on the whole deal is a ‘chicken gate’, a way out of something you would get much more out of working through, then it may be a good idea to think again. Why? Because when you arrive at your new situation, you may very well find the lesson waiting for you at the bus stop!
Caution – Arabic story ahead (let’s give the Far East a day off…).
It seems there was a young man in a small village, wandering the market when he turned around to see a tall shrouded figure behind him. He instantly recognised the figure, for it was ‘Death’ himself. “Well hello, what are you doing here?!” said Death. The young man was terrified and ran home. When his older brother arrived home the young man was packing furiously.
“Death has seen me and he knows where I am!! He saw me at the market and spoke to me!! I have to go!” cried the terror stricken lad.
“Where will you go?” asked his brother, “Damascus, I’ll go lie low in the city for a while”, and he left in the heat of the day as quickly as his poor horse could carry him.
His brother was a protective sort, and marched down to the market. There he quickly spotted the dark lanky figure in the crowd and made a bee-line for him. “Hey Death! Yes you! What’s the big idea scaring my little brother like that? I won’t have it I tell you.”
Death was polite and unruffled. “I didn’t do anything to scare him on purpose. I simply expressed surprise at seeing him here, since I have an appointment with him in Damascus this very evening!”
But with all that said, what if it really IS time to quit. A mentor of mine gave me the following advice “Justin, if you’re not where you feel you should be, decide where else you should be, then act!” Yet, a great many people believe no good can come from their present job/career, a relationship, or even involvement with a club or organisation and yet feel unable to move. So what’s the difficulty? There are a few reasons (and millions of excuses) why people don’t call time on a situation they are convinced will come to no further good. Here are my favourites!
There’s no way out of it. The hard truth is often times people will express disdain for a group or relationship they’re involved in because it makes them appear noble or otherworldly. But there’s nothing like a discussion about quitting something to bring into sharp relief one’s real reasons for doing it. I have heard psychologists, martial artists, and elite sportspeople express very fashionable disdain for the power, prestige and status advancement through the ranks has bought them, only to balk at an opportunity to advance in their chosen path if it might require them to relinquish some of that which they claim not to care about in the first place. It might look all very otherworldly and ‘cool’ to say that status doesn’t matter, but when the rubber hits the road, most people don’t (hit the road that is). Perhaps it really is about status after all? A good question for the mirror.
That also applies to starting new things. After all, you can’t start exercising in the morning unless you ‘quit’ on staying up late and sleeping in!
Sunk-costs is a decision-making bias involving a reluctance to abandon a plan (when changes in circumstances demand it) for fear of wasting the time and resources already committed.
This bias can be very powerful, especially when the pressure is on. Psychological studies from La Trobe university identified sunk cost bias as a factor in sometimes disastrous decisions made by firefighting teams when the stakes couldn’t be higher. In fairness though, it seems that ‘doubling down’ on a strategy when it isn’t working is a pretty ubiquitous strategy when the heat is on. Even baboons do it! Watch what happens when this frightened primate gets his hand stuck. All he had to do was let go.
In addition, I think this is a matter of the ‘social clock’ for many. Imagine being a respected and well paid stock broker. You don’t like the job, you secretly harbour dreams of being a wildlife carer. An entry level job comes up and you’re offered it. But the idea of ‘starting again’ at 40 is just too much, that’s not what 40 year olds do right? You have invested years into your career, and now you’d be a ‘grunt’ who knows effectively nothing about your new role.
The illusion of permanence (OK, Zen is back…) feeds into this as well. If I’m honest and say that even though I’m not nuts about being a stockbroker, I like the prestige that comes with it, there’s no guarantee I’ll get to keep that. I could be one Global Financial Crisis away from starting over anyway. You CAN fail at what you don’t want as easy (or easier) as you might lose that which you do want.
Considering ‘starting over’ at an advanced age when many wouldn’t think of it, I consulted a colleague for her advice. She simply replied, “Well, the alternative is NOT starting again isn’t it?”. That sealed the deal for me, and I’ve been the happier for it.
‘Never ever underestimate the power of human denial’
– American Beauty
This is a really fancy way of saying that the main object of thought and reasoning isn’t necessarily to get at the truth, but just to reduce uncomfortable conflict between what we think, and what we do. Now it seems a no brainer that our beliefs, preferences and attitudes influence how we behave (I know right? Wow, this guy’s brilliant….). But what is less obvious is that it very frequently works the other way about. Sometimes we observe our own behaviour, and notice that what we are doing doesn’t match our beliefs or attitudes. That’s the ‘dissonance’ bit. So we change what we do right? Wrong. Just as frequently we change our attitudes to match our behaviour. That’s why you rarely hear a reformed smoker question whether smoking gives you cancer, but why we often hear smokers question the harm smoking does.
How does this fit in with quitting something that just isn’t working for you? Well, it seems that when we’re doing something that doesn’t accord with our beliefs (perhaps we’re being paid, feel like we can’t say no, or coerced in some way), we tend to defend our behaviour by changing our beliefs, and the less rewarding it is, the more we change our belief. In other words, this doesn’t suck, because I’m doing it…
So how do I know when I am doing this to myself? I mean, it’s as if my brain has ‘A mind of it’s own!’ (see the wonderful Cordelia Fine’s eponymous book here). Well, there’s no magic bullet I don’t think, except for careful introspection. Speaking for myself, I have tended to become more shy of goals, because goals don’t always reveal what they are in the service of. I can work for a weapons manufacturer and feel terrific about meeting my increasing sales targets every month. Or achieving my 4th Dan by 2020; regardless of what that does, or does not, involve. Rather, I find myself thinking more clearly (aka honestly) when my actions are considered in light of my core values, and these values send me in a certain direction without a predetermined expectation about how long I should work. For me this seems to be more fulfilling, because we tend to focus on goals as a future ‘reward’ for our present actions. With values driven directions, our actions are their own reward. It’s more about how to live now.
Some years ago, during a lecture in Developmental Psychology, I overheard students discussing social rules, how they were horrible and that they should be challenged. I saw an opportunity for a learning experience and took up the topic. I asked the students to raise their hand if they believed that societal mores largely determine how they behaved. Less than half the hands were raised in that group. I then asked the class to take their pulse and we determined that their resting heart rate as a measure of physiological arousal. I said no more and continued with the lecture.
The following day we had a tutorial and I asked the students to accompany me to the University Café. Taking a table near the kitchen I invited any volunteers to walk up to the very long line for coffee and politely say to the person at the head of the line, “Hi, I’m in a hurry, I just need to step in here”, and then proceed to step in front and place an order. They were further instructed to wait a couple seconds, and to then politely apologise to the person upon whom they had cut in and explain that they were doing an exercise for a tutorial and step out of line. Of those who, on the previous day, liked to think that social rules did not determine their behaviour, only two students took up the challenge. Both students after (bravely) violating the social rule of waiting your turn – which by the way is not universal but particular to Western culture – took their pulse to discover that their heart rate had almost doubled. One of them suddenly excused themselves and vomited. Students who had been invited to take part in the exercise but declined and watched their classmate try it, had their heart rate increase by around 50%.
Not all social rules are a bad idea, I’m quite fond of waiting my turn and having other people do the same, but the point is socio-cultural rules are powerful and have real physical effects. So quitting on a group where conformity and obedience are central (quasi- military martial arts ‘organisations’ are the object case here), is no small thing and can require considerable courage. Leaving something will often cause disappointment to others, sometimes for the wrong reasons, or sometimes because the people involved will miss you. I find it helps to remember change will visit us one way or another, and that it isn’t always a bad thing to be ahead of that change and make it work for you in ways that might present new challenges and enrich your life.
It is true that some people around you may not approve of your decision, or at least might not understand it. There’s no harm in listening to their doubts, and being sympathetic to their feelings. This doesn’t mean you’re required to ‘fix’ them or take responsibility for their emotions.
‘Your trouble is, you think you have time.’
Quite a few useful pieces of advice are attributed to Siddhartha Gautama Buddha (the rest are divided up between Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill it would seem). But it’s the above quote that really moves me. Given that change is hard, and often scary, it is seductive to imagine that it will be easier to do later on, that somehow the obstacles present today will magically vanish tomorrow, and that the opportunities will still be there. You’ve got all the time in the world. Maybe. Maybe not.
On at least two occasions I can think of, I have been advised to wait, that now is not a good time for the organisation, for others, for me, and that other opportunities will come along, or the present opportunity will wait. But many opportunities do not wait. If I had availed myself of their advice, I would most likely not be married to my wonderful wife nor would I have two sons who are the light of my life, and I would not enjoy the rare opportunity of studying with my Sensei. There is no question my life would be poorer for it.
If an opportunity for a challenge or new growth comes along, it won’t come at a convenient time. The ‘convenient time’ is an illusion, and it lives in that magical forest we never get to called ‘later on’. There’s no such animal. But to grab that opportunity, you will have to put something down.
If you’re going to do it, do it right…
As someone with a fair amount of experience with quitting, I have to say, it took a while before I could do it well. In my teens and twenties I was appalling at it, and this resulted in no small amount of – well justified – ill feeling.
Ghosting is a fairly common way of bailing on a job or similar arrangement. Unless it is your express intention to display contempt to the relevant party, do not ever ‘ghost’. Ghosting means to simply cease all communication with the party, and refuse to respond to communications from them. Where the other party is abusive or totally unreasonable, ceasing all communication in this fashion may be sensible, but even then a communication informing them you will not be responding to further communications is appropriate.
In my experience, things go far better by facing up to one slightly uncomfortable conversation, and stating your case clearly and kindly. Everybody needs friends, and this gives everyone the best chance of separating on good terms. When I felt that I needed to leave an Association I had been involved with for 10 years, I made an appointment with the Head of the Association, and explained my position, assured him he was the first to hear of it and thanked him for his help and support. It was difficult, but nowhere near as difficult as I imagined, and it really paid off. I have availed myself of the new opportunities I desired, and I am delighted to report we remain on very good terms. Recently, a friend of mine who sees this person regularly brought me a gift, explaining that the Head of the Association ran across these items while having a clear out, thought of me and that perhaps I might like them. I was touched by his thoughtfulness and generosity. Ghosting does not produce such things, and frankly, it is cruel. Go on, have the conversation. But before you do, please consider the following!
If it is not up for negotiation, say so.
If there is nothing the other party can say to change your mind, don’t pretend otherwise. People often prevaricate on this point, in the guise of letting them other party down easy, or for fear that the other party, seeing nothing to be gained by nice, will become unpleasant or angry. They may indeed, but that is out of your control. Moreover, they’ll become much less upset at a firm and kindly “There’s nothing you can say to change this”, than they will after feeling as though they had been strung along. Kindly but firmly assure the other party that this change is happening, and that it probably need not be a really big deal. The moment will pass, and if there are big emotions on the other part, they will pass too. The next bit can really help with this.
Be honest with yourself about your motivations.
Believe it or not, when you have had a relationship with a leader, teacher, partner or boss, it is much easier to give them the proverbial ‘middle finger’ than to end things kindly and with goodwill. Breaking away from something you may have been very invested in, and going toward something you’re uncertain about is hard, and sometimes you need to summon a lot of emotional energy to do it. What’s the easiest way to summon that energy? Get mad. Think of all the ways they have wronged you, all their shortcomings, every single time they fell short. Invent something if you have to. Now you can tell them to get stuffed. Easy and very seductive. But there are few problems with this. It can colour your memories of your time with them, and keep you from remembering the nice things, the good times and the growth you experienced. What a waste! Memories are malleable, you remember what you decide to recall. While it is easy to decide you’re leaving because of other’s shortcomings, you were there of your own volition up to this point, and that is worth keeping in mind. Now you have decided otherwise, and it may be that very little is wrong with your present situation, it is more about your attraction to another path. If that is the case, it preserves a lot of goodwill to say so openly.
Acquit your responsibilities honourably.
Another reason people seem to tell themselves that their erstwhile associates were horrible and awfully mean to them (ALL the time), is they believe it allows them to ignore their obligations. Now matter how upset you are at your ex-partner, if you’re a parent, you have to do your bit. If you have explicitly or even tacitly agreed to finish certain projects or work a period of notice, then do it with a smile. As hard as it can be to wait to move on to the next adventure, finishing well really matters. A good beginning at something new grows much better following a good ending.
Good endings, quitting well if you like, take a lot of energy, patience and in my experience considerable forbearance with other’s unsolicited opinions, but they’re worth doing. Sometimes quitting is harder than staying, and takes more ‘grit’.
If you’re involved in something you really want to quit, reflect on why. If an exit is really what is required, make the move. Be honest with yourself, and others, act firmly and above all with compassion, even if the other party are acting out.
You may even look back on ‘quitting’ well as an achievement, not a ‘failure’, because it need not be.