May 14

6 comments

Being a Quitter Is One of the Best Ways to Approach Your Life

Ugh. Today’s the day. 

Today’s the day I should follow up on a decision I made last week. 

Today’s the day I recorded my last Podcast episode

Because last week, as I was working past midnight to put up an episode (ironically, that episode was about how to develop a schedule that works for you), I decided that I’ll quit. 

That’s not something you’re supposed to do. 

Even on Medium, we’re confronted with article after article that tells us that we should hang in there, that we should push through. 

That we’re weak or stupid or undisciplined if we quit. 

I beg to differ. I’m a German lawyer and while we’ve been accused of having many character flaws, weakness, stupidity and lack of discipline are typically not one of them. 

(Actually, I’m only kind of a German lawyer because I quit both living in Germany and working in law…but I digress.)

Let’s assume for a moment that I’m not weak, stupid, or undisciplined. Why then would I choose to quit? Have I not heard about the importance of sticking with it and how, over time, persistence and consistency will yield to results? 

I have. 

It’s just that I don’t think persistence, effort, and consistency are values in themselves. 

It’s all about what you’re being persistent about and if you’re putting your energy somewhere useful. 

And after careful consideration, I don’t think my Podcast is worth the time and energy I put into it. When I look at the opportunity costs, I realized that there are much better (= more efficient) ways in which I could spent my time and energy. 

But here’s the thing: 

quitting often takes guts. 

In many cases, it takes more guts than to stick with a situation that’s not working for you. 

It’s why people stay in jobs they hate or with partners they despise. 

There is such a thing as toxic persistence. And while healthy persistence is a good and necessary thing, toxic persistence will make your life miserable. 

Let’s explore this in more detail: 

How quitting might be good for you — and your health and your career

We’re often told we shouldn’t be a quitter. 

And, sometimes that’s exactly the advice we need. We need commitment to reach our goals. Sometimes, it’s really about pushing through the initial discomfort until we get to a place where we begin to reap the rewards. 

Presumably, that’s what boxer Mike Tyson was referring to in his following quote: 

“Champions don’t quit.”

Other times, not quitting is the worst decision in the world. 

An American sports legends approach to quitting

I’m thinking of Muhammad Ali’s decision to come out of retirement to fight Larry Holmes in 1980. At that point in his life and at the tender age of 38, the beloved boxing legend had already achieved everything

He had won an astounding number of fights, whether against leading heavy-weight champions or against his government itself. 

Ali was called “The Greatest” for a reason…and his jaw-dropping athletic accomplishments weren’t even the most important part of the legacy he had built. (That honor probably goes to his actions as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War.)

In other words, Ali had nothing to prove to anyone. And yet, he retired from retirement to face his former sparring partner, a man eight years younger than him. 

And it turned into a disaster. 

When reading an account of how the fight between Ali and his opponent went, I actually found myself tearing up. Ali didn’t just get beat up. It was way worse than that. 

Sylvester Stallone, who watched the fight live, reportedly described it 

“like watching an autopsy of a man who’s still alive.” 

That’s a terrible thing to witness. It’s even worse when the person this is happening to is one of the most universally beloved and revered people in the world. Ali deserved so much better than that. 

And it could have been avoiding by doing the one thing champion are not supposed to do…quitting. 

A German sport legends approach to quitting

Contrast Ali’s story to another example of a champion, the recently retired German football (or soccer, for you Americans) player Phillip Lahm

While Lahm is not as inspirational as Ali when it comes to his activities outside of sports, his accomplishments on the fields are impressive. 

Lahm was not only the long-time captain of the German national team, he’s also considered one of the greatest defenders of all times. 

And after the German national team won the World Championship in 2014 (something I recall rather fondly), he astounded the public by announcing that he was done with international football. He quit right after reaching his peak. 

Turns out he had the right instinct because in 2018, the German national team got demolished during the World Championship (something I don’t recall quite as fondly). 

By quitting when he did, Lahm preserved his legacy. He retired (or “quit”) as a champion. 

Is there a cultural component to this? 

All this has me wonder if there’s a cultural component to the different approaches these two athletes have taken. As someone who has lived in a number of places, it always fascinates me what impact culture has on how we live our lives. 

Of course, there’s an individual component as well in that they have entirely different personalities. 

They are athletes from different generations and while both were extremely disciplined, they approached their athletic career in different ways. Whereas Ali appears to have been fueled by fire and passion, Lahm comes across as more calculated and measured. 

The differences don’t end there. As a black American born in the 1940s, Ali faced a ton of racism, something Lahm never had to deal with. Ali was willing to risk his sports career for his principles by becoming a conscious objector to the Vietnam War. Somehow, I can’t picture Lahm as a political activist, even if he had grown up in different times. 

Still, even taking into account all these personality differences, I think Lahm’s calculated decision to quit is more in alignment with German culture, whereas Ali’s refusal to pull the plug strikes me as more American in tone. 

This brings me to another important question: 

When is the right time to quit? 

After thinking about it for a while, here’s how I’d summarize it: 

I think the right time to quit is when you realize that it won’t get any better than where you’re currently at.

Here are two situations when that’s the case: 

When you're leaving on a high note

Sometimes, things are so good, they probably won’t get any better. This was the case for Lahm.

His decision to quit reminds me of a German saying that roughly translates to: 

“You should leave the party when it’s at its best.” 

In Germany, people actually sometimes say that when leaving a party that’s still in full swing (well, back when we were still able to have parties)

In a culture like that, it’s okay to leave while things are at their best. 

You know when enough is enough. You don’t have to try to squeeze every last bit out of an experience, ruining it in the process. 

People decide to leave on a high note because it makes sense. 

Now, to be clear, this is not what is happening with my Podcast. I’m not ending it after reaching some mythical peak.

Which brings us to the second situation when it makes sense to quit:

When you're leaving on a stale note

This is certainly the case for my Podcast. 

I’m quitting it because I don’t see it getting any better than it currently is (at least not with the amount of effort and time I’m willing to invest in it). 

I’m quitting it because there are a lot of things I’d rather do instead and because I don't want to take on too much

I’m quitting it because I can use the same time and energy much more efficiently in other ways. 

I do it for the reasons writer Osayi Osar-Emokpae so succinctly describes: 

“Quitting is not giving up, it’s choosing to focus your attention on something more important. Quitting is not losing confidence, it’s realizing that there are more valuable ways you can spend your time. Quitting is not making excuses, it’s learning to be more productive, efficient and effective instead.” 

And is there anything more German than making a decision based on efficiency-considerations? 

So, I’ll put this plainly (both for the benefit of the reader and for my own benefit, lest I chicken out and quit my quitting): 

Sticking with something that you know won’t give you the results you’re looking for is not laudable persistence…it’s madness. 

It’s a waste of valuable resources.

It’s toxic.

Now excuse me while I’m off to publish my goodbye episode

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  • I completely agree with your thoughts here. It is not about “quitting” per se, as it is about where do I choose to invest my time. It makes me think of the investment adage I have heard that say: “A good investor knows when to buy, A great investor knows when to sell.”

    • Oh, I love that adage, Bobby, and how you tied investment advice into seeing time as an investment! And yes, it’s about consciously choosing where to invest our time. Thanks for your comment!

  • I appreciate your facts-based thoughts, underlying again – since we tend to forget – that wisdom comes from our very own values, not from what “others” teach..

    Just one more adage and anecdote I would love to share :
    – In my local dialect, there is a popular saying that goes.. “half the courage is escaping” (word by word translation ))

    – A friend of mine was overwhelmed by her pursuit of perfectionism, taking all kinds of responsibilities in her job until one day… she simply woke up with absolutely no lust to go to the office. Some call it Burnout. That sudden response triggered an entirely new lifestyle and career.

    We should carefully listen to our bodies, constantly!

    • Oh, I love that adage in your local dialect, thank you so much for sharing, Khalil! I so agree that wisdom comes from our own values and that we can’t just blindly accept whatever other people are teaching.

      And yes, perfectionism and taking on more and more can easily lead to burnout, if we’re not careful. Thank you for remind us of the need to listen to our bodies. I hope your friend is doing better!

  • I like to reframe…that’s not quitting that’s ending an experiment after you’ve gathered the data you can… For my personality that helps me know that I can invest in new things….try them out…then if I need to let them go… without worrying…

    • Yes, that’s a good way to re-frame it, Scott. And I agree that it’s so important to give ourselves permission to experiment, gather data, and then move on if the data we get shows that it’s not working. Thank you for your comment!

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