Thursday, 29 March 2012

Knowing When to Quit

“Winners never quit and quitters never win.”

I hated that quote when I was a kid. I could never understand the point of forcing myself to excel at activities where I clearly lacked the aptitude and interest. The activities I excelled at were the ones I was passionate about, and unlike a smug platitude, passion will give you the courage and dedication you need to work through the rough spots.

I was more driven to succeed when I was a kid because I was much better at distinguishing between passion and futility. I knew when to move on, and when to stick it out. As adults, I think we have a tendency to get wrapped up in the details of how to succeed, which results in an inability to see the forest for the trees.

We also have a lot more pride to contend with as adults. It’s difficult to say, “I’m not good at this,” and walk away. We worry about what our friends, family, and colleagues will think of us. We forget that it’s not their life; it’s ours. It’s our responsibility to recognize our skills and our shortcomings. Walking away from something may be difficult, but the freedom is worth it.

One of the easiest ways to spend too much time on a futile project is the “sunk cost” fallacy. Stephen Dubner, from the popular Freakonomics series, defined the sunk cost fallacy as “the time, or money, or sweat equity that you’ve put into something, which makes it hard to abandon.” The sunk cost fallacy makes us cling to a sinking ship far longer than we should. We end up doing the same thing over and over expecting different results, just as the old misattributed definition of insanity assures us we will.

Together with co-author Steve Levitt, Dubner discussed the Upside of Quitting in an episode of Freakonomics Radio. One of their points that resonated with me was the idea of failing quickly. Levitt explained it beautifully:

“One of my great skills as an economist has been to recognize the need to fail quickly and the willingness to jettison a project as soon as I realize it’s likely to fail.”

Instead of dragging a hopeless endeavor around, drop it and move onto something you can successfully finish. Moving onto something else is really the most important part of quitting. Every hour (or day, or year) you spend on something that’s not worth the effort is time that you could be spending on a successful project. This is called the “opportunity cost.”

We all have those projects in the back of our mind that we’d love to try out “if only we had the time.” This is your time. If you can recognize and let go of the failures, you will free yourself to go after the things you’re passionate about. Where would you invest your time if you weren’t busy proving you’re not a quitter?

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