I just finished reading Seth Godin’s excellent book, The Dip. It’s “a little book that teaches you when to quit (and when to stick).” I have been thinking about this problem for several months now.
Mainly, I have thought about it in my yoga practice.
I’ve found that if I don’t push myself I get bored, and of course I don’t progress. But if I push too hard or in a thoughtless way then I tend to hurt myself. There seems to be this very fine balance point of (1) letting go and relaxing, while (2) creating a steady intention to go a bit farther. While thinking of those things, I also have to pay attention to my body’s physical resistance, which is not always the same. Sometimes I can’t go as far today as I have been going for the past week. And that’s when I push, thinking I’m supposed to challenge myself. That’s when I get injured.
There’s an ego thing involved, of course.
Godin’s book is interesting because it suggests that it’s often a good idea to give up, a notion that at first seems completely heretical. Yet he shows that many successful people have become successful by quitting something big. Michael Crichton, after graduating from Harvard medical school, decided he didn’t want to practice medicine (even though he would easily have made a lot of money) because he didn’t think he’d be happy. He didn’t even try it out for a few years. Instead he went on to be wildly successful doing something that he loved doing, but which presented a less certain future when he embarked on it. Smart people know when to quit, Godin says.
He points out that smart people have one big weakness that usually keeps them from quitting at the right time. “Pride is the enemy of the Smart Quitter.” This might be Hillary Clinton’s problem. We all know that she’s very smart, but somehow her campaign isn’t winding up the way she first envisioned it. She’s having financial trouble. The likelihood of her winning the nomination is getting smaller, and the cost of winning it is getting harder even from a non-financial standpoint. And despite it all, she proclaims she “won’t quit.”
Godin offers an interesting thought about the aftermath of quitting: it often feels very comforting. “One reason people feel really good after they quit a dead-end project is that they discover that hurting one’s pride is not fatal.” Obviously everyone wants to win, but it’s true that learning how to lose is important too. Hillary touts herself as ‘the experience candidate’ and yet maybe she hasn’t had enough experience learning when to give up. She’s only run for elected office once (the U.S. Senate), and she won. That’s the only elected position she’s ever held, and now she’s seeking one of the most important positions in our country.
It’s true that a lot of skills can be learned on the job. But I can’t think of too many world leaders who’ve learned the difficult art of quitting after they’ve been elected. That’s probably the main reason so many wars continue even after it becomes clear they’re both hopeless and unpopular.