Image by Ben Kerckx from Pixabay

In the past few months, I’ve had several conversations with my coaching clients about quitting—quitting jobs, volunteer roles, draining relationships. Quitting is a word with many meanings. Among the definitions in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary are

·       To give up employment;

·       To cease normal, expected, or necessary action;

·       To depart from or leave the company of;

·       To admit defeat.

I was thinking about this even before Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw from Olympic competition for the sake of her mental and physical health created a firestorm. Biles’ announcement generated important public discussion about mental health, but it also brought home to me that many Americans have a visceral distaste for any form of quitting. Remember the old schoolyard adage “winners never quit and quitters never win”? Or pro footballer Mike Ditka’s saying that “You’re never a loser till you quit trying.”

In the world of coaching and personal development, psychologist Angela Duckworth’s book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, may have reinforced the notion that quitting equals giving up and that giving up can therefore never be associated with success.

But sometimes, the right thing to do is to quit. Quitting can be a sign of profound growth. The late William Bridges, an expert on managing personal and organizational change, observed, “Most of us have been raised to define courage as the emotional fortitude that enables us to hold fast during difficult times, when the courage that is often called for is the courage to let go.” [i]

Some of the most important decisions I’ve ever made—the ones that have brought me the greatest contentment and peace—were decisions to let go of a path that wasn’t right for me. When I was in my twenties, I was halfway through a master’s degree in training and development, a field I had chosen because it would equip me to work in the burgeoning fields of management and leadership development, when I was seized with a nagging sense that I was on the wrong path. 

I dithered for most of a semester about whether to continue. I was working full-time, and I reasoned that I had already invested a year and a half of nights and weekends in the program. My employer was reimbursing some of my expenses, but I had still invested money out of pocket for the degree, so I told myself that I might as well finish. Economists have a name for my reasoning: the sunk cost fallacy.  That’s when a person continues a behavior solely because of the resources that they’ve already invested—time, effort, or money—in other words, the sunk costs.  We often double down on something even when the costs of continuing are far higher than the costs of quitting.

The sunk cost fallacy is related to something that psychologists call commitment bias or escalation of commitment. That’s when we remain committed to a course of action even after it becomes apparent that it’s the wrong course of action. Often commitment bias is driven by ego; we don’t want to admit that we made the wrong choice, and we don’t want to be seen as inconsistent, irrational, or “flaky.” (Organizational psychologist Adam Grant has a great podcast episode about commitment bias that offers good strategies for rethinking bad decisions.)

Although I didn’t know anything about the sunk cost fallacy or commitment bias when I was 26, I eventually figured out that the costs of another eighteen months of night and weekend classes to earn a degree in a field I didn’t want to pursue far outweighed the benefits. I quit the program. That decision put me on the path to graduate school in history and a satisfying college teaching career.

Sometimes the need to quit something grows out of inner growth. I’ve written before about how I quit my university faculty position after 21 years because something inside me had shifted, and I needed to use my gifts in new ways. Quitting my teaching job was a lot harder than quitting that master’s program because I felt guilty that I was letting down my colleagues and my students. And yes, ego made it hard, too. I was afraid people would think I was “crazy” to leave my tenured position.

Harvard psychologist Susan David says, “The ultimate litmus test for any action should be this: Is it going to get me closer to being the person I want to be?” In the end, I realized that I would stagnate if I stayed in my faculty role and that my stagnation would sour my ability to perform well for my students and my colleagues. Moving on and letting myself find a new path would help me be the person I want to be in the next stage of my life. David says that this kind of emotional agility “allows us to let go of those goals that no longer serve us.” [ii]

In the wake of the pandemic, I’ve quit a couple of volunteer roles that overcrowded my calendar without leaving me feeling like I was making constructive contributions. And I’m not alone. Many people are rethinking the ways we spend our time, talents, and toil. My clients are contemplating quitting volunteer commitments, draining friendships, and soul-sucking jobs. Record numbers of folks nationwide, particularly those in professional, technical, and managerial roles, are quitting their jobs. Some are resisting the return to grinding commutes and expectations that they put in face time at the office. Others are scaling back their standards of living so that they don’t have to work so hard. Still others are seeking roles that are more satisfying or a better personal fit. Pundits have dubbed this trend the Great Resignation.

It remains to be seen whether the Great Resignation is a permanent shift, but there’s no doubt that the pandemic has caused many of us to contemplate quitting some of our pre-pandemic behaviors, large and small.  And I don’t believe this kind of quitting is giving up. I believe it’s growth. I just love the way essayist Mary Laura Philpott put it:

Maybe the trick isn’t sticking everything out. The trick is quitting the right thing at the right time. The trick is in understanding that saying “No thank you” to something . . . isn’t failure. It’s a whole other level of success. It takes courage to quit something, but often you get that courage back with dividends.[iii]

Mary Laura Philpott

What about you? What do you need to quit to be the person you want to be? (And don’t forget: If you need some support in thinking through that process, a coach can help.)

Postscript: It’s not lost on me that, in one of life’s little ironies, the courses I took in the master’s program that I quit—organizational behavior, developmental psychology–have been essential to my knowledge base as a coach. More evidence to support the adage that learning is never wasted!

[i] William Bridges, The Way of Transition: Embracing Life’s Most Difficult Moments (DaCapo Lifelong Books, 2001): 79.

[ii] Susan David, Emotional Agility (Penguin Random House, 2017): 182, 185.

[iii] Mary Laura Philpott, I Miss You When I Blink (Atria Books, 2019): 256.