Photo of me failing the problem in question, courtesy of my friend Kalvin

The Careful Art of Giving Up

Everyone tells you to “never give up”. Sure, I agree that, in the broader picture, you shouldn’t. But in the day to day, giving up is a timely art and it might be worth mastering.

I’m going to frame this in terms of rock climbing, because that’s what brought this topic to mind. But really, this could apply to many other endeavors in life.

Two months ago, I was climbing out in Squamish, British Columbia with a group of friends. For whatever reason, I was dead set on getting this one bouldering problem. I spent hours repeatedly getting on the problem, failing, resting, and then getting up just to fail again.

I was becoming so enraged. In my head I kept telling myself, Don’t give up. You should be able to do this.

But I couldn’t.

And there was just something so arrogant about the way I kept throwing myself at the problem. About why I kept getting so mad at myself. I believed that I was strong enough — a good enough climber — to get this problem. And that may have been the right mindset for the first hour or two. But at some point, it should have become clear to me that I wasn’t capable, and that I needed to give up.

If you’re not giving up, you’re not acknowledging that you have more to work on.

I needed to work on right arm lock offs. I needed to work on controlled dynamic movement. I needed to work on trusting and stabilizing my foot while shifting weight onto it.

Even if you don’t understand climbing terminology, the point is that I had a lot more to work on, and I ignored all those things. By ignoring them, it was almost as if I was egotistically saying I deserved to succeed. Because I felt I was strong enough. Because I felt I was good enough. Or maybe just because I was trying so hard.

I was putting in so much time.

Time is precious, and if you’re not using it constructively, you’re wasting it.

It’s good to push the limits of your capabilities, but only for so long. I stayed at that problem two times, maybe three times, as long as I should have. That time could have been spent working a problem slightly easier, or trying a different problem with a different style. Or even just enjoying myself while shooting the shit with friends.

The extra time I spent there did not make me a better climber. I did not make any progress beyond where I was getting stuck. There were hundreds of other climbs I could have checked out in that forest, hundreds of other climbs I could have added to my climbing repertoire and experience, but I wasted hours tunnel-visioned on that one because I didn’t know how to give up.

Of course, you have to dance that thin line between being too stubborn to give up and giving up too easily.

You’ll never get far if you always throw the towel in too early. I’d say that’s more harmful than not knowing when to give up. The problem with not knowing when to give up is that it will slow you down in reaching your goals. The problem with giving up too easily is that you may never reach your goals.

Still though, the ideal would be to walk that line in the middle. Push yourself to your edge, know when to take a step back, spend time working on your weaknesses, and then push yourself again knowing that you’re better than before.

If you know someone who’s too proud to give up on their own, help them.

Let them know it’s okay. No one wants to seem like they’re not giving it their all, but if you can tell that their performance or enjoyment is suffering from their obstinance, be their voice of reason.

At least in my scenario, I wish one of my friends had told me that it was okay to give up. That they felt I should move on. I know it seems counterintuitive (you want to cheer your friends on!) but sometimes the most supportive thing you can do as a friend is to hold me back from trying to win a losing fight.

So, to make an addendum to the saying:

Never give up… permanently.

Be open to giving up today. But come back tomorrow. Or the next week. Or the next month. Even the next year. Come back after having spent your time wisely, improving your weaknesses, honing your skills.

Come back and crush.