Why Quitting Is Often A Winning Strategy
Never quit. Never give up. Always see things to the end. Parents, teachers, coaches, celebrities, and infomercials ingrain those beliefs in us before we learn to walk.
So many of the inspirational quotes you see on Instagram and Twitter focus on the evils of quitting and virtue of perseverance no matter the odds or circumstances.
Yes, quitting something meaningful at the first sign of trouble makes for a life filled with disappointment and regret. But quitting can also be a useful strategic tool.
Why is there such a distaste for quitting?
Our obsession with never quitting stems from both cultural influences and our natural tendencies.
The hero never quits
Our culture makes it challenging to embrace quitting. The hero in a typical movie or television show never quits. They stick it out against all odds and somehow turn things around in the end.
In all fairness to screenplay writers, a story about a hero who decides to end a fruitless pursuit makes for uninspiring drama.
Let’s not forget the ubiquitous refrigerator magnet wisdom which screams anti-quitting slogans like these.
Never give up
There is no failure except in no longer trying
If you quit ONCE, it becomes a habit. Never quit!
These quotes may sound like mottos of wisdom, but in some circumstances, they epitomize misguided stubbornness. The gurus and unwitting followers who peddle these sayings perpetuate a false belief that quitting is always wrong and perseverance is always right.
But culture is only part of the bias against quitting.
A sunk cost is an expense already incurred that cannot be recovered. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, explains that people tend to, “throw good money after bad and continue investing in projects with poor prospects that have already consumed significant resources. In part, this is to avoid feelings of regret.”
We commonly call this the sunk cost fallacy — pursuing an inferior alternative merely because we have previously invested significant, but unrecoverable resources.
“We’ve already invested X number of dollars. We can’t quit now no matter the path ahead.”
The original thinking around sunk cost suggested it was an interpersonal phenomenon — your previous personal investments influence your decision making.
Recent research suggests that sunk cost fallacy also affects our judgment and decision making in response to other people’s past investments, making it even more insidious.
We commonly associate this phenomenon with money, but it can mean any kind of resource: time, effort, and emotional attachment. We often cloak sunk cost reasoning in arguments that sound logical but defy rational thought. See if you recognize any of these statements.
“We’ve already invested 100K number of dollars. We’re not going to cancel this project.”
What that executive is really saying is this.
“I’m ignoring the slim prospects for success. I refuse to recognize that my earlier decision may have been wrong.”
We can also apply this to relationships.
“I’ve already invested three years in this relationship. I can’t give up on it now.”
What she’s really saying is this.
“If I end it, then I’ll be admitting to myself that I wasted three years of my life.”
The folly of that logic is obvious to us as outsiders; she’s committing to more unhappiness by staying in the relationship.
I’ve fallen into this trap with my career choices.
“It took me five years of work to get to this point. I can’t just quit, even if I hate it.”
I continued on a path I hated because of previously invested, unrecoverable time.
Strategic quitting is the alternative
Of course, sometimes you feel like quitting, but that doesn’t mean you should. You might face an obstacle on a project, but it still has a strong possibility of achieving success. Your relationship might hit a rough patch, but you still love each other.
I’m not suggesting you quit just because things get hard. You only quit when it makes sense to cut your losses. Think of quitting as another strategic option to deploy in the right circumstances.
Strategic quitting — Giving up something uninspiring or lacking in potential to make room for something better.
Overcome the stigma
In some sub-cultures, particularly in work settings, there is a stigma to quitting. I used to work in sales. Whenever someone resigned, the manager would take the opportunity to espouse the virtue of never quitting. Then he’d talk about the anatomy of a quitter, dissecting the makeup of our former colleague as if he’d been born of a sub-human species.
Yet, when that former employee told his friends he had quit so he could embark on a more meaningful career, he probably received a pat on the back.
In most corporate cultures, quitting is frowned upon. Tell your boss he should kill his big project because it’s no longer viable in the market.
“We can’t quit now,” he says. “Are you f*cking crazy? We’ve already invested a million dollars.”
Change your verbiage
Recall the definition of strategic quitting. You’re giving up something unfavorable to do something worthwhile. Don’t call it quitting, call it transitioning.
When you transition, you move on to something else. Not only does the verbiage help ease the stigma of quitting, but it also serves as a good sanity check.
I’m quitting this job because I have no future here. I’m transitioning to…
If you can’t complete that sentence, it might be a good idea to do a little planning before you announce your transition.
Overcome sunk cost thinking
Overcoming your natural tendency to focus on sunk cost is the harder challenge. You’re too emotionally involved to see the truth.
You need to actively determine if you’re using sunk cost reasoning. These questions will help you.
- What decision would you make if you had to evaluate your situation without considering past investment?
- Would it have made sense to go down this path knowing what you know now?
- How likely is it you will succeed at this point?
- If you hadn’t invested any time, resources, or effort to get to this point, would you still push forward?
- If a good friend of yours were in the same position as you, how would you advise them?
- What is the likely outcome of quitting? What is the expected result of continuing on your current path? If there is money involved, include dollar amounts in your answers.
- What would you transition to should you decide your current path is no longer worthwhile?
Reframe your thinking
Once you’ve determined that transitioning is the best option, reframe your internal narrative to something that supports your decision.
Let’s revisit the examples from earlier.
The dead relationship
I’ve invested three years in this relationship. We don’t love each other. It has no chance of succeeding. It’s time to transition into some alone-time for self-discovery.
The job from hell
I spent five years building my resume to succeed in a career and industry I hate. How can I leverage my experience to do something more rewarding?
The money-sucking project
We’ve invested one million dollars into this project, and it has no chance of success. Let’s kill it and redeploy our assets into a more promising venture.