Quitting: When Giving Up is Exactly the Right Thing to Do

This is a blog post about giving up. I know… it sounds weird, right? It’s kind of like “What is this, opposite day?” But stay with me…

I think it is fair to say that everyone reading this post would agree that persistence is important. Persistence is what helps us overcome obstacles so we can reach our goal when things get sticky… when things get difficult. “If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.” We’ve heard it a thousand times if we’ve heard it once. But sometimes persistence is exactly the wrong thing. Sometimes persisting causes more harm than good. Sometimes our best chance of success – or, more importantly, of happiness or peace – is first giving up.

In 2008, the movie Flash of Genius was released, and when watching the trailers for it, I remember thinking to myself how I could not wait to see the inspiring story of a man, Robert Kearns, fighting for credit and compensation for his super sexy patented invention – the intermittent windshield wiper. I have always been a sucker for the hero’s saga, and, man, did this movie ever look like it was going to deliver. Then I saw the actual movie. I almost wish I hadn’t because even though Robert Kearns did ultimately win two separate settlements totalling nearly $30 million, he did so at great personal and professional cost. What price victory? But, although this was not a feel-good story, I did take away an important lesson. And that was that sometimes victory is either not possible or the price will be so high you may be left with only the win and nothing else of any real importance.

And that lesson was important to me because there have been times throughout my life when I have been working on something (a project, a job, a living arrangement, a relationship…) that just wasn’t coming together in the way I wished. In those instances (still happening as of this past Monday), I have become a little overly “focused” (read: stubborn, fixated, determined) about working and working and working until it’s either fixed/finished or I finally reach my breaking point and give up out of sheer exhaustion. I am fortunate because I have great people in my life, who, often on such occasions, have waved a hand in front of my face and said “Anne, enough… this isn’t happening. Take a break… give it a rest. It doesn’t have to be figured out today.” Thank God, I’ve had the good sense to listen, and, in taking that break, I have learned that the world won’t end, and, more importantly, sometimes the time away gives my brain and body just the rest it needs to come up with a solution. Other times, and this happens more than I care to admit, the problem will spontaneously resolve itself (almost by magic… if you believe in that sort of thing…). Consequently, I have learned that giving up the struggle, which could also be described as letting go or quitting, is sometimes exactly what is necessary in order to achieve any kind of meaningful results.

Monday, I was once again reminded of this important lesson when I was having a particularly tough day. There is no need to list out all of the mostly little things that went “wrong” that day… The main thing is that there was a string of frustrations, mishaps, snafus, whatever, and it wasn’t that any one of these things was so bad, but it was more that there was volume.

So I was pretty disheartened when, early in the afternoon, I discovered that this blog’s online shop had stopped functioning to the point that it was impossible for customers to actually buy anything. And that was particularly frustrating because, during the past two weeks, I had been pretty heavily promoting this shop on various social media platforms and in personal emails to friends and family, and I was just learning that there was a problem… who knew how long it had been going on. However, the real frustration was that I really didn’t want to be the one to fix it. Even though I can often figure these things out, I don’t like doing it. I wanted to be writing and designing and taking photos and creating marketing materials, and making things, not playing around with plug-ins and tweaking code.

But, since I have no IT/web development department at annelovescoffeemore.com, I sucked it up and went to work, spending the next 7 hours trying to find a solution to the glitch that had caused the problem. By 7:30 p.m., when I finally quit trying, it still wasn’t fixed. But I decided to give up for the evening, and I took myself and Georgie for a walk. The walk was a good decision, but it would have been so much better if I had done it about 3 hours sooner.

This is what you won’t believe. The next day, I woke up and went to work on this blog, and, I kid you not, the shop was functioning perfectly again. As in… nothing wrong whatsoever, and I hadn’t touched a thing between 7:30 the night before and that next morning. The problem had, literally, fixed itself.

Now, of course, most of the time, problems don’t spontaneously resolve. We usually do need to make some effort to get some sort of reaction or result. That said, I do think sometimes we can create our own problem-solving magic when we decide to give up our attachment to a specific result. Sometimes that “magic” is simply an epiphany or creative idea that pops into our rested and relaxed minds. Other times, it really is something outside of our control that has absolutely nothing to do with any action we’ve taken. The point to notice is that it’s the struggle, that refusal to give up, to move on to something else – whether temporarily or permanently – that cuts us off from having our best chance of coming up with a creative, workable solution to a seemingly unsolvable problem.

And that’s why, sometimes the best way to get ourselves into that creative, resourceful head space is to just quit… to let go of our attachment to the outcome while we go do something fun or calming or mindless for a few hours. Sometimes, we only have to give up for a little while – just enough time to clear our heads and get into a good mental space where we are feeling inspired and refreshed. Other times this means quitting completely – as in, for good – saying good-bye to a friendship that’s no longer working, quitting a job that has become a bad fit, or even giving up on a goal that is no longer meaningful or important to us. This process, though scary and sad because it is a loss, is what opens up space for something new and wonderful – something that feels exciting and inspiring, and is no struggle at all. This is when quitting really can be your best chance of success.

Would love to hear your stories about a time when you’ve realized it was time to let go of something, and the quitting lead you to something better.

Meme of peony with Martha Beck quote On the other hand, when I give up struggling and acknowledge that I have zero control and no more energy, things suddenly begin to work in my favor, as if by magic
One of my favorite quotes from Martha Beck’s “Your Position From The Starting Blocks” post (marthabeck.com), February 7, 2011.

Note: I found the book Quitting: Why We Fear It–and Why We Shouldn’t–in Life, Love, and Work to be so interesting and helpful.

About The Author

Anne Stericker

City-dweller, designer, writer and lifestyle consultant practicing the art of living well in the 21st Century. Fixated with good coffee, great design, and any little thing that makes life better.

4 COMMENTS

  1. paigedoster | 1st Sep 16

    Great piece, Anne! It was of particular interest as just last week I gave my 2 week notice at a job that has made the last month and a half absolute misery for me. Just a bad fit, and fortunately I too have friends and family that encouraged me to find a new path instead of fixating and pushing through in a job that is clearly never going to work for me. Appreciate you sharing your empowering thoughts 🙂

    • Anne Stericker | 1st Sep 16

      Thanks for sharing, Paige. Yes, I’ve personally been in your exact shoes (a number of times) but also, I have watched people quit a job – in the most gracious but firm way, and it is always so inspiring because you see them owning their power. Excited to hear where you land next! Congratulations!

  2. gryffud | 1st Sep 16

    Having done computer consulting for years, I have found this to be particularly applicable to computer related problems. I can’t tell you how many times I have spent hours and days trying to fix something to no avail, until I finally stop and say, I can’t do this, or at least I can’t do this _now_. Quite frequently, it is the mental “unclenching” that comes from letting go of the problem that leads to the solution. Something about relieving myself of the pressure to NOT FAIL allows me to relax, and as often as not, after packing up my gear, on my way out the door, or later that night, I’ll have the flash of inspiration that leads to the solution. Unfortunately, you can’t “fake it” and give up in advance and just wait for the magical resolution to roll in. The trick is to know when to let go, usually long after I should have. Thanks for highlighting this, Anne!

    • Anne Stericker | 1st Sep 16

      Larry, I love so much that you – a computer guru – have experienced this phenomenon. Thank you so much for your comment and the reinforcement that quitting/giving up does work!

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