The benefits of quitting and changing paths
We often get this idea that grit, persistence and pushing through are traits to be universally admired. And if you have even a small interest in self development you’ve likely tried to embody these traits at some point. There are sayings like “winners never quit and quitters never win” or “if you quit you lose”. We get this idea that quitting is failure, that it’s a demonstration of a weak character. But research suggests that the ability to quit, and to do it intelligently, is far more valuable than most of us realise.
How can quitting be good?
When we think of quitting, we often only focus on one end of the equation. That is, we focus on the thing that we are giving up. For example, if someone quits a job, the focus is often on the fact that they will no longer be doing that job. But by turning your back on one thing, you’re automatically facing something else. Yes, you might have quit a job, but now you have opportunities to take on a new job, one that might be even better if you use your intelligence.
Studies have found that there is an initial downside to switching careers (regardless of where people are in that career). But once the switch has been made, progress is much faster. Just like when we were babies, the initial stages of learning how to walk meant that we were temporarily slower at moving from point A to point B than if we just crawled (and we may have fallen and stumbled into things as we learnt to balance on two legs). But once we got the hang of it, it allowed us to move much faster.
Rather than thinking of quitting as failing, we should think of it as progressing. This is true even when things seem to have gone badly, because having a greater breadth of life experience (from starting something then quitting then trying something else), is highly beneficial.
Switching careers allows us to find a job that is a better match rather than ploughing through with sheer grit doing something that no longer suits us. Research shows that switching actually makes us happier most of the time (it’s just initially scary and filled with uncertainty). When we’re happier and feel more engaged and intrinsically interested in the work we’re doing, our brain works better, we have more energy and it’s sustainable (thus bypassing the need for so much grit in the first place).
Quitting (ie: switching / progressing) isn’t a sign that someone has lost their drive. It’s a sign that they have found a new drive, a passion that is more true and honest for them at that point in time.
The sunk cost fallacy
The sunk cost fallacy occurs when we don’t want to stop doing something simply because we’ve already spent time, money and/or energy in it. This results in continuing down a path that at some level we know isn’t the best for us. We start a degree or a job and realise at some point that it’s not the degree or job we really want and yet we continue. We do this in part because we feel we will lose all our progress, we feel that all our time, energy and money that has gone into following this path will go to waste if we switch.
This is another example that shows we really aren’t as logical as we think we are, and it’s our emotions that are the driving force behind our decisions (emotions that are often based on subconscious beliefs).
As humans, we are very strongly oriented towards patterns. We have patterns of behaviour, patterns of emotions, patterns of how we respond in stressful situations, patterns of how we act when we get more money and how we feel when we have less money. When we start down a new path (such as a new degree or a new job), it’s a bit like starting a new pattern. We’re ingraining something new into our brain and body. But the more we ingrain that pattern the less likely we are to change it.
Continuing down a path that you know isn’t the best fit for you, is the equivalent of starting to eat something, realising it’s off, but deciding to continue to eat it just because you’ve paid for it and have already taken a few mouthfuls..
From this perspective quitting (ie: switching) isn’t a lack of grit, but an aptitude for intelligence. We need to look past the sunk cost fallacy that so many of us are controlled by, and find the courage to make a better choice.
Fun fact: Con artists have been known to use the sunk cost fallacy. They will ask small favours of someone and scale it up. The person, having already invested some time, energy and/or money, is more likely to follow through even in situations that would seem too extreme from a logical perspective.
How switching gives you more information
Not only do we progress faster after we switch careers / education etc, but the notion that the time we spent in other areas has gone to waste is false. Our previous experience has shaped us and affected us. We’ve learnt things or ways of looking at things that someone who only studied in one field or only worked in one job wouldn’t have. It gives us breadth and diversity to draw from. It enriches our minds, our hearts, our actions and ultimately our lives.
Research suggests it’s better to run a beta test or get a small taste through experience when choosing a career / area of study / project etc and quit early, than guessing on a purely mental effort or just sticking with something because you’ve started it. The former will give you more accurate information on what is a fit for you and what isn’t. Having a lived experience of what a particular job is like is the only way to really know.
When we quit, it means we’ve learnt something about ourselves. Zigzagging from one thing to the next looks messy, but it gives us more and more information on what is a fit for us and what isn’t. We’re living more of life, opening up to the world and possibilities. Exploring and being curious is in our nature. This suggests that to switch is to be human, not in the sense that humans make mistakes, but in the sense that humans grow and explore.
Not only do you find something that’s a better fit, but you also end up having a better net effect on the end result. For example, teachers who switch to a different school are better at improving students' performance (this has been true even when they switched to a school that was academically lower. Therefore we can not say that it’s simply due to the students being better). What seems to be the case is that they have found something that is a better match, a better fit.
Have you ever had the experience of having one teacher explain something and it completely confused you or went over your head, but when someone else explained it, you understood it? Sometimes someone can even say the exact same thing as someone else, but just by virtue of who they are, it resonates with you more strongly. That’s the value of finding something that’s a fit.
So our new motto should be “switchers are winners” Winners have the guts to quit early and not waste time.
Rather than valuing perseverance above all else, we should be encouraging the skill to know when you should quit and when you should persevere. Just because something is hard, doesn’t mean you should quit - that’s the tricky part - that’s the part that we need to learn and develop.
One practical step we can take comes from Seth Godin. He suggests that before starting an endeavour, we should clearly lay out the conditions under which it would make sense to quit.
How the US army didn’t understand this…
and thus wasted $500 million
With all the money the military spends on training soldiers, it’s in their interest to keep those soldiers. One way that they tried to accomplish this was to spend more money on the people they thought had the highest potential. But they found that these people kept leaving the army.
Because those individuals with lots of potential discovered more about themselves throughout their time at the army. They did indeed have more potential and realised that they could do much more with their lives outside the army. They quit to find something that was a better match for them. They weren’t being weak, they were being intelligent and integral to who they were.
The army then tried to give financial benefits to people if they stayed longer. This did not work. All that happened was, the people for whom the army was a match stayed (as they would have anyway), and the people for whom the army wasn’t a match didn’t stay despite the financial incentive. This was a $500 million lesson. However, to the army’s credit, they did end up finding something that worked (they persevered to find a solution - grit isn’t all bad).
They offered more army cadets options of what they could do within the army as well as where they could be, along with incentives. This allowed each person to find a position that was a better match and change positions as they changed as humans.
The lesson from this is that we should be looking less at whether someone has the grit to go through the trials of a particular job/task etc, and look more to whether a person is well suited to a job/task.
Van Gough - the master switcher
When you think of someone like Van Gough, you might think that he started painting as a young boy, discovered he was talented and worked on that talent throughout his life so as to produce the works that to this day, are seen everywhere.
But that is not what happened.
He wasn’t good at art as a boy. And so rather than spending time in front of a canvas, he spent long periods of time out in nature, going on walks during the day and night, observing everything around him. The observation he used in this period of his life served him well later on when he became an art dealer. But that wasn’t the end of it. He followed many different career paths which took him from country to country. From teaching at multiple different schools (and no, not as an art teacher), to having a desire to become a missionary in South America, finding himself working as a bookstore clerk, to studying intensely to become a pastor. Yet after all this he “failed” and found himself with nothing.
As an adult he read “The guide to the ABC’s of drawing” to teach himself art as well as trying his hand at formal art education, but it didn’t work out. He was told “you are no artist” and “you started too late”. He was advised to be in an art class with 10 year olds due to his level of skill.
After this he zig zagged from style to style. One moment he was utterly focused on painting realistic figures, the next he was absorbed with landscape paintings. He went from realism to expressionism, from vibrant colours, to paintings that were composed purely of different shades of black and grey. With each new style he fell in love quickly, and out of love quickly. But all this messiness allowed him to come to a point, in the last few years of his life, where no-one had come before. From that point he created pieces of art that not only spawned something new, but that are still revered to this day.
How do I apply this?
Even though you may intellectually understand the benefit of switching, if at an emotional or subconscious level it still feels like the wrong decision due to the sunk cost fallacy or simply due to the popular idea that winners never quit, it is very likely you will act from those emotions rather than from what you intellectually know.
A very useful tool that you can use to help get this knowledge from your head into your body is called “Tapping”. If you’ve never heard of it before, you can learn the basics below. If you’re already familiar with it, feel free to jump to the next section in this blog where you’ll get some tapping prompts and ideas.
“Tapping” (EFT) is a scientifically proven, mind-body connection method. It allows you to rapidly reduce the emotional intensity of situations in your life. Science shows that when you reduce that intensity, you are more intelligent, resourceful and resilient amongst many other things. You’re better able to see problems from new perspectives and take more efficient action.
While knowing what to do is powerful, we can often have resistance to doing the things we know. With Tapping you can reduce and sometimes completely eliminate that resistance. This isn’t just a mental hack, this is something that has profound effects at the level of your nervous system, your biology, and your subconscious mind.
Tapping involves lightly tapping on acupressure points on your body while focusing on a specific problem. This physical action of tapping sends a calming signal to your brain and body. The result is that the problem that once caused you distress, now has little or no power over you. In other words, you’re removing what’s in the way rather than using more force.
Remember to take responsibility for your own wellbeing.
Tapping: how to do the basics
1) Identify a specific negative experience (past, present or future) to work on.
2) See if you can feel any emotion or physical sensation when you focus on this. (eg: feeling stressed, angry, tightness in your chest, pit in your stomach etc). Identify the level of intensity for you right now on a 0-10 scale (0 being no intensity, 10 being maximum intensity).
3) Tap the side of hand point continuously while saying the following 3 times:
“Even though_____________(insert problem), I deeply and completely accept myself”.
eg: “Even though I’m stressed by this project, I deeply and completely accept myself”.
(Note: If the last part of this statement feels off, you can try using “I accept I’m feeling this” or “I’m OK right now”).
4) Gently tap the 8 points about 7 times each with your fingertips while repeating a brief phrase at each point, that reminds you of the problem. eg: “feeling stressed”, “this project”.
5) Test to see if there has been any change on the 0-10 scale of intensity or a change in emotion/physical sensation.
6) Repeat until intensity is 0, adjusting statements to reflect any changes you experience.
keep in mind that these are just the basics of one method. If you don’t get the expected results, you may need the help of a trained practitioner or a different method.
You can also read these blog posts where I cover the most crucial information when it comes to getting better results with “Tapping”:
You will get the best results with Tapping when you focus on your specific situation and use your own words to accurately describe it. However, having some prompts can be helpful to get you started. I encourage you to use the following as starting points rather than strict rules to follow. Use what resonates with you and discard what doesn't:
Even though I’m afraid of quitting, I deeply and completely accept myself
Even though I’m afraid that if I quit, I’ll lose everything I’ve worked so hard for, I deeply and completely accept myself
Even though I’ll be starting from square one if I switch to _____________(insert what you’re switching to), I deeply and completely accept myself
Even though I’ve already invested time into this, I deeply and completely accept myself
Even though I’ve already invested money into this, I deeply and completely accept myself
Even though I’ve already invested energy into this, I deeply and completely accept myself
Even though I feel like if I switch now it makes me weak, I deeply and completely accept myself
Even though if I keep going it’ll show that I have grit, I deeply and completely accept myself
Even though I don’t know what will happen if I switch, I deeply and completely accept myself
Even though I don’t know if I’ll be any good at _____________(insert the new thing you’re thinking of switching to. eg “engineering” or “design”), I deeply and completely accept myself
Even though I feel uncertain about what might happen if I switch, I deeply and completely accept myself
Range: Why generalists triumph in a specialised world by David Epstein