How To Know When To Quit

Quitting has a bad rap, but there are situations where it is the most intelligent thing to do.

Jude King, PhD
May 24, 2019 · 5 min read
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Quitting has a negative reputation. It is often frowned at. “Finish things you start.” “Commit to the process and see things to completion” These are good advice we hear every now and again. This piece of wisdom is even enshrined in an aphorism: “Winners don’t quit and quitters don’t win.”

Such was my thinking at the beginning of my doctoral program four years ago. After six month of immersing myself in a research idea — reading, researching, setting up lab experiment — it became clear it was infeasible given the constraints and experimental requirements.

I was already in love with this mini-project. I’d invested a lot of time and effort already. I wasn’t ready to back out now. I couldn’t countenance not following through on it.

So I kept going, pounding my head against the brick wall (not literally). I finally agreed it was a dead-end. But not until I’ve wasted another roughly 6 months.

I kept at it for too long…

Life’s reality is such that there are times when quitting on an idea, project, or goal is the right thing to do. As much as we often wish life to be straightforward, with every decision crystal clear and knowing exactly where every path leads from the get go. It’s rarely ever so.

So, there are times when soldiering on is the bad option and quitting is more sensible.

To be sure, quitting prematurely is more common. Most times we are just not tenacious enough. We get distracted, we allow obstacles to swallow us and we quit.

But other times, quitting is the better option.

How do you know whether to hold more tightly to what’s in your hand or open your hands and let it go?

Change Your Mind When the Facts Change

The real world is complicated and messy. Causes and effects are more difficult to trace than we would like them to be. What worked yesterday can stop working today and we might not even understand why.

When we read the biographies of successful entrepreneurs. We see people who are committed to the vision, to their goal no matter what. People who never quit in the face of obstacles or what other people think. People who were stubbornly persistent until they reach their goal.

So we then conclude that committing to things, and never changing your mind is the recipe for success.

Yes, maybe. But then you realise many more have failed for the exact same reason.

Their persistence was their undoing.

OK, you’ve not heard so much about them because failures rarely write books or sell biographies. So we only get to hear the few “I succeed because I persisted” and not the many more “I failed because I persisted.”

The truth is that it’s possible to hold on to an idea for too long. Sometimes letting go is the better option. A fast-changing world might demand it or a new development beyond your control.

So how do you know if you should double down or let go?

The answer:

Change your mind when the facts change.

The future is unknowable, so setting a goal or, picking a strategy, or choosing a path out of many is a form of forecasting. You are making assumptions about the future based on what you currently know. So, while being persistent is a key ingredient for goal achievement, the ability to change your mind and let go when the main assumption behind your goals are no longer valid, can be priceless.

Because it will mean you are able to turn away from a dead-end and try other options. It means you are able to release what’s in your hand, so you can pick up other interesting opportunities.

You have to retain the ability to change your mind without feeling beaten or defeated, when you find out that the facts have changed, when you discover that the key assumptions that held up the goal/strategy/method has been invalidated.

It’s the reality of a fast-changing world. And often, the only thing worse than a mind that changes on the whim is one that doesn’t change at all.

Morgan Housel wrote:

You should know the difference between patience and stubbornness. Patient people are willing to wait a long time, but will change their minds when proven wrong. Stubborn people are also willing to wait a long time, but no amount of facts can change their opinion. They come up with new arguments for why they believe something when the original argument is disproven.

The Scourge of Sunk Cost

The “sunk cost fallacy” is the biggest challenge we face when quitting is the sensible thing to do.

Sunk cost is when you refuse to let go and instead stick to a decision just because you look back nostalgically at the time, energy, effort, or money you’ve invested already and you want to make sure those aren’t lost.

But, in situations where the right decision is to quit, falling for the sunk cost fallacy just worsen the situation. The only thing you succeed in doing is to throw good money after bad. Good time after bad. Good effort after bad. You compound a bad situation.

You realized a year into your course that you clearly made the wrong decision. But you decide to persist for the remaining 2 years just because you want to make sure the initial year you invested doesn’t go to waste. So, you throw 2 good years after 1 bad year.

This is the biggest challenge we face when quitting is the right thing to do.

Daniel Kahneman has a very valuable perspective on how to treat sunk cost and persistence. He said:

“When I work I have no sunk costs. I like changing my mind. Some people really don’t like it but for me changing my mind is a thrill. It’s an indication that I’m learning something. So I have no sunk costs in the sense that I can walk away from an idea that I’ve worked on for a year if I can see a better idea. It’s a good attitude for a researcher. The main track that young researchers fall into is sunk costs. They get to work on a project that doesn’t work and that is not promising but they keep at it. I think too much persistence can be bad for you in the intellectual world.”

Quit When Evidence Suggests It’s The Right Thing To Do

Quitting is never an easy decision to make. Our immediate inclination is to associate quitting with failure. And we don’t like to know that we failed. Failing hurts.

But life’s reality is that sometimes you have to quit what’s not working. Sometimes you have to quit a method or a strategy that’s not working or now obsolete. Sometimes you have to quit a path/a goal altogether and start afresh.

It’s never an easy thing to do. But, sometimes, in a complex world, quitting one thing is the only path to succeeding at another.

The Startup

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Jude King, PhD

Written by

Research Scientist | Entrepreneur | Teacher | Engineer driven by a deep curiosity about everything.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +773K people. Follow to join our community.

Jude King, PhD

Written by

Research Scientist | Entrepreneur | Teacher | Engineer driven by a deep curiosity about everything.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +773K people. Follow to join our community.

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