The Psychology of Quitting

Principles to help you be a better quitter.

When you consider all the types of decisions you’ll have to make in your career, probably the most significant is going to be the one where you decide to quit—to jump out of that plane when it’s going in the wrong direction; to take back control over a period of your life’s time and focus. It’s that one nuclear option that can propel you in new directions, give you back time, or allow you to wipe the slate. Ultimately, it can change your life.

During most creative professions, quitting is so inevitable it’s almost a necessity. Those who are more right-brain oriented will tend to experiment more with their talents; whether it’s early on attempting to discover a niche aspect of their creativity and personality, or in the process of innovation or re-invention. Some of the most successful creatives quit and change direction multiple times in their career to get to where they need to be.

‘Behind the most impressive resumes there will be a litany of set-backs, direction changes, and moments of doubt.’ — Christian Jarrett, 99u

With limited time and so many possibilities, most creatives don’t want to spend their entire career doing the same thing over and over again, nor do they want to be restricted in any way. That’s why quitting at some point is near certain, and in some cases frequent.

Be confident in your decision

If quitting is inevitable, then it should be expected, and embraced as a means to keep moving forward. The real art of quitting to progress your career really boils down to knowing the right time to quit. Seth Godin wrote in The Dip that “Winners quit all the time. They just know when to quit the right stuff at the right time.” This seems to be true but it’s also with confidence followed by persistence that will allow success—you simply leverage that confidence to propel you forward.

It can take months or even years to know when to quit, and the desire can build up over time. In fact, it took me 18 months of college, majoring in Business and Product Design before admitting to myself that something didn’t feel right. I had passable grades but I just didn’t feel motivated. I had initially trusted my head, but my heart wasn’t in it — so I packed it in.

While it seemed a little crazy at the time, I felt absolutely compelled to change direction before I went down that path forever. While it’s true that your BA doesn’t necessarily define your career it would’ve required finishing strong in those subjects, which I wasn’t prepared to do. The resulting drive and confidence I had from quitting motivated me to start over and later graduate with a BA first class honors in Graphic Design.

Lacking confidence in your decision to quit can cause anxiety or regret — you need a smidgen of certainty to drive you to where you need to be.

Don’t get flat-lined

I quit two design agencies over the course of 9–10 years, both at the point where I felt my motivation was dropping and I was getting a little flat-lined, creatively speaking. I’m still grateful to my previous opportunities because they taught me a lot, but experiencing new challenges, roles and environments is often only granted by moving on.

Without quitting, I wouldn’t have had the privilege to meet and work with such a variety of talented people in a variety of places or experience different types of projects. I probably wouldn’t have got into writing or created Attack The Front.

Whenever you get too comfortable in any setting or run into situations where you’re not learning anything, it can stifle your growth. That’s not to say you’re not a creative person anymore, but where I think most successful designers, writers, artists, or even musicians are able to get to the next level is when they’re willing to push themselves down those challenging paths, outside of their comfort zone — if for only brief periods.

Doing the same things over and over each day will change nothing in your life. You might be okay today but tomorrow you could lose your spark—finding a new direction is the only way around that.

Avoid getting too attached

In some ways attachment is good. It means you care and have some incentive to stick with it. But to your detriment it can also make the decision to quit much more difficult—even when it’s the right thing to do. When it comes to jobs and projects, you have to consider the possibility that some day it could end. In my experience, the more personal the commitment is, the bigger the attachment.

Cutting ties with groups or clients you have a stake in, or an emotional connection to, is harder because it’s more personal. This is especially true if it’s your own initiatives. It’s your baby. That happened to me when I had to drag myself away from working on a self-produced music project I’d spent over 12 months of my free time on. I desperately wanted it to work, but with the amount of other responsibilities I had, and the amount of effort required to finish, it wasn’t worth it. It wasn’t benefitting me or my family, and the chances of it doing so after I finished were low.

Not every personal initiative you do is worth your time unless you’re learning something and it’s somehow beneficial to your main career focus — no matter how unrelated it is.

I have this constant urge to create and be as productive as possible in various creative mediums; whether it’s design or art, or other fields such as music. But I’ve learned — sometimes you need to let go of things in order to pursue areas you can make the most impact, not only to yourself but others.

Set benchmarks, but be adaptive

Before starting any commitment, it helps to set benchmarks or standards you can be accountable to — that way you can assess progress and periodically check in to see if the commitment lives up to them.

When you commit to anything it’s not a guarantee. It’s a promise. You are trusting in that promise to deliver in the way you hope it will. If it’s not fulfilling that promise it will lead to a moment of doubt. That’s when you start thinking about throwing in the towel.

But some commitments may be fulfilling in other ways you didn’t originally anticipate. If that’s the case it actually pays to stick and not jump ship right away, even when some aspects don’t live up to what you hoped it would be. Don’t be afraid to be adaptive with your goals.

Periodically take a step back and consider whether your benchmark is still viable or even still matters.

Focus on the long-term

If you do have doubts about the current circumstances but your main priorities are being met, just being consciously aware of that fact can help you deal better with the potential short-term trade-offs. It’s surprising how resilient you can be through any set backs and challenges along the way, even when working with difficult tasks, clients, or colleagues.

When you focus on the bigger picture you don’t get too wound up by the short term events. Your long-term values are what motivate you and if it becomes clear that the long-term looks bleak, you should cut your losses.

Don’t focus on the short-term. Try to determine whether the current circumstances have the potential to change for the better. It might not be worth quitting over the short-term issues.

Don’t consider quitting as failure or wasted time

The significance of a quit can affect you mentally in positive or negative ways depending on how you let it. For the most part, quitting will feel like freedom and a weight off the shoulders to be able to pursue other aspirations. But eventually hindsight may leave you contemplating why you didn’t pack up sooner, or pursue something else in the first place.

Whether you realize it or not, all those potential days, months or years with commitments that didn’t pan out as you had originally expected actually paid off in subtle, yet impactful ways. It built on your character — you learned more about yourself and your purpose than ever before.

Whenever you quit, reflect and learn from what you got out of your experience, and always be appreciative of it.

You can’t dwell on what else you could have done with that time, because you can’t get it back. If it’s always on your mind, you need to focus on what you did get out of that time, and let those lessons spur you on. As they say, quitting is not failure, but the realization that your circumstances need to change and be pro-active about it.

Be wary of making it a habit

Once you get into the habit of quitting it’s a cycle that’s irresistible because of the psychological exit signs everywhere telling you it’s easier to quit than hang on; that it’s the answer to everything. I’ve known of people that quit every 4–6 months because they either couldn’t handle the stress or challenges, or were simply too impatient with their personal growth.

As much as it might pain you to go through certain situations, you want to avoid being that person and make a habit out of quitting. Developing that kind of record it doesn’t always go unnoticed and other parties will find it hard to trust your commitment or longevity.

When starting out in your creative career, you should only need to quit when you realize you’re in the wrong industry. As best practice the first couple of jobs should be about getting a good few years of experience under your belt and learning as much as possible, regardless of the cost. Money and ladders shouldn’t be your focus. If you’ve had your foot in the door for a while you can begin to get a little pickier.

Take time. Ask questions.

In moments of doubt, the worst thing you can do is hurry up and quit. It pays to take a little time to contemplate the real reasons behind why you feel like quitting. Ask yourself questions based on your benchmarks, and if you don’t have any, here’s some to get started with:

  • Are you learning anything? Is there room for potential personal growth and development? Are you being challenged? Can you collaborate with a variety of talented people?
  • Are you inspired? Do you have motivation to get up every morning and go at it, or do you dread it? Do you find it interesting?
  • Are proud of what you’re doing? Would you share it with the entire world? Do you get any enjoyment out of doing it? Are you able to flex your creative muscles?
  • Do you have time? Does it give you adequate time to spend on your other passions, or with your family?
  • Is it temporary? Is there a good chance the circumstances will improve enough in the long-term to make it worth pressing on?

If the answer to all of these questions is “no”, congratulations. You probably have the easiest decision to make.

Final word

The truth is, there is no man-made commitment that can fulfill our needs or potential forever. While each and every commitment is only a promise, not a guarantee, it’s exciting to know that we have the freedom to blow it up and go in a different direction.

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