This post by Jan Bruce, CEO and co-founder of meQuilibrium, first appeared on Forbes.com.
A few weeks ago I attended Arianna Huffington’s “Thrive” event in New York City. Everywhere I turned I saw interesting and accomplished presenters, but one line from Arianna stuck with me. She was talking about how hard it is to juggle too many projects and obligations.
“One way to complete a project,” she said, “is to drop it.”
The crowd roared with laughter, recognition, and resonance. We all carry responsibilities that we would love to quit. That’s part of grown-up life, of course, and part of charting your own course as an innovator and entrepreneur. Perseverance in the face of challenge is a necessary quality for success.
The danger is when the quality of perseverance becomes a virtue unto itself. I think of Boxer, the horse from George Orwell’s Animal Farm. He only had one response to the tyranny of work foisted on him, a response the other animals lauded: “I will work harder.”
Well, spoiler alert: Boxer was shipped off to the glue factory. If you’re persevering because that’s all you know how to do, or because you think it’s the best, most virtuous choice, you’re wrong. The horse should have quit.
Quitting Is Hard
Perseverance is part of our national DNA: “Winners never quit and quitters never win” could be a national motto, and we’re taught to strive, push, and achieve from day one. In our hyper-competitive marketplace, the thought of letting go, of resting, of giving something up often seems foreign.
I believe that scarcity-based fear partially motivates our go-go-go mentality. Fear of missing out on opportunities. Fear of failure. Fear of fighting inertia. Fear of disappointing the authority figures in our lives. Fear that there isn’t enough money, time, attention, employment, housing, love. These are primal fears at least somewhat drawn from reality; it makes sense, then, that quitting feels like a moral failing and a fatal mistake.
Learn to Quit to Stay Ahead
Facebook product manager Bo Ren wrote recently about the powerful nature of quitting. “Persisting is useless if you’re on the wrong path,” she pointed out. Actor W.C. Fields had a pithier turn of phrase: “If at first you don’t succeed, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it.”
Your business will suffer if you can’t quit a marketing campaign, product line, hiring strategy when it’s not working anymore. You’ll lose your ability to think creatively and respond nimbly to challenge and change. Your negative stress will likely push you into an unproductive state as you remain stuck on a futile path.
The truth is, quitting thoughtfully is a powerful act. It’s you choosing, of your own volition, to grow professionally and personally. A conscientious quit gets you closer to your purpose as an entrepreneur. (Read more on finding your purpose at work.)
To become an effective quitter, you need to reframe quitting in two ways.
Quitting is a beginning, not an end. As Bo Ren writes, “All new beginnings come from quitting something.” Quitting is a forward-looking action. You are making space for bigger and better possibilities and connections. A quit opens up energy and resources for whatever new endeavor you have your eye on.
The stress of quitting is productive, not diminishing. Veering off the known path is scary. Your adrenaline is going to kick in. You might get a little or a lot tense. But when you’re beginning an adventure, these symptoms of stress are, in fact, a good thing–excitement, motivation, energy, pressure. As my editor, Terri Trespicio, once wrote, ‘Just the right amount of stress will get you to do amazing things. I wouldn’t accomplish a thing without it.” (Read more about the fascinating research on reframing stress positively.)
So, don’t be a Boxer! Practice quitting. Give it up and strike out in a new direction! Think Magellan not Sisyphus. What we aren’t willing to keep doing is as much a sign of our strength as what we are willing to give our effort and attention to. Steve Jobs talked a lot about perseverence, yes. But he also said he was as proud of the things he hadn’t done: “Innovation is saying no to a thousand things.”