If at first you don"t succeed… give up! Why quitting is the best way to be a winner
If at first you don”t succeed… give up! Why quitting is the best way to be a winner
2:09 AM on 26th May 2011
It”s the opposite of what we”re all told. But from jobs to relationships, psychologists have some VERY surprising advice…
For years, I dreamed of going back to university to study literature. I had romantic notions of days spent in the library, gazing out of a window thinking great, poetic thoughts. I would discover my inner intellectual. And wear a lot of black.
Finally, last September, after years of talking to friends about it, I scraped together the 3,000 to enrol on an MA course in English Literature at Birkbeck College, part of the University of London. I went off to Waterstone’s with a book-list that would make Einstein’s brain bleed and turned up early to sit at the front of class for lectures.
At first, it went well. The books and ideas were stimulating, and I loved the people I met. But, as the weeks went on, it got harder. I started to dread the mountain of work I had to do and fell behind. Far from being a joy, it became another pressure and chore. I realised that when push came to shove, I would rather watch Coronation Street than read Camus.
I quit, therefore I am: Marianne Power is happy to admit she can”t stick at anything from yoga to English Lit courses
So I quit. I sent off an email to my tutor making excuses about work commitments, and have spent the past month avoiding questions from friends about how my course is going.
After all the years of talking about it, to drop out after just a few months was embarrassing. Nobody wants to be thought of as a quitter.
But I am a quitter. When I threw my ludicrously expensive text books into the attic, I was surrounded by the debris of discarded endeavours.
There were CDs from the Learn Italian In 20 Hours course that I invested in five years ago, spurred on by a vague dream of spending summers in a Tuscan villa. Suffice to say, I got as far as ‘Ciao’ and ‘gelato’ and called it a day.
Then there’s the yoga mat curled into a dusty roll on top of a box of photos. I bought it three years ago (along with expensive yoga pants), after deciding I was going to stop being a wine-guzzling worrier and become a happy, bendy, zen person instead. That lasted for all of three months. Well, OK, three weeks. But the yoga trousers did well: I still sleep in them most nights.
Next to the CDs and yoga mat is a box of ‘art supplies’ — proof of an attempt at unleashing my inner genius last summer. After wandering around one modern art gallery too many, I decided that ‘anyone could do that’ and spent 150 on paints of every colour, assorted brushes and ready-framed canvases.
The result One canvas with a blotchy green triangle in the corner.
The truth is, I’ve never really had sticking power. As a child, Brownies, ballet, recorder, the piano and, dear God, the drums, all ended with me throwing in the towel.
As an adult, my quitting has been on a more life-changing scale. In recent years, I’ve left the country twice and resigned from five jobs (without anything to go to).
I’ve even quit two friendships — one because I realised that I always came away from her company feeling worse about myself, and the other because our lives had become so different (she’s the mother of three children under five living in Devon, while I’m the same self-obsessed single city girl I’ve always been).
But it seems I’m onto something. In a movement that’s been dubbed ‘Keep calm — and don’t carry on’, psychologists are arguing that, often, the best thing you can do is to walk away. Whether it’s your dead-end job, an unhappy relationship or a pesky book club that you dread every month, sometimes it is better to quit.
Quit it: Sometimes it”s better to walk away from a stressful job or relationship rather than persevering
‘So often we stick with things that don’t make us happy because we feel we should,’ says Dr Paul Gilbert, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Derby.
‘We live in a country that celebrates sticking with things, regardless, so we don’t really ask: ‘Why am I doing this’ Quitting can be difficult, but in certain circumstances it is the right thing to do.’
He is right: in Britain, quitting is not something we find easy to do.
‘The negative connotations of quitting — of loserdom and cowardice — are opposed to traditional British cultural values,’ says Dr Robin Gilmour, psychologist at Lancaster University. ‘There is still pride in the stiff upper lip and not making a fuss, and value attached to staying with the known.
‘It’s very different from a country like the U.S., where they don’t talk about quitting, they talk about moving on. They’re not quitting; they’re starting something new.’
And women, Dr Gilmour points out, might find it especially hard to call it quits because we are biologically programmed to look after our family and stay with our children no matter what. And this staying power translates into all areas of life.
Dr Gilbert agrees. ‘Women are more guilt-prone than men. They don’t like to let people down — which can lead them to stay in situations they don’t want to be in.’
But no matter what gender we are, there’s one aspect of quitting that terrifies us all: fear of looking bad in front of people.
When I dropped out of my course, the first thing I worried about was what my friends would say. Would they think I was flakey Or not clever enough to do it
‘A lot of our behaviour is about maintaining reputation in front of our family, friends and colleagues,’ says Dr Gilmour. ‘We don’t want to be seen to chicken out, or for people to think less of us.
‘But if we’re not careful, we become puppets and our life is not our own. We need to realise we don’t have to be approved of all the time.’
What’s more, people don’t always respond well to our quitting — not because it isn’t the right thing for us to do, but because of how it reflects on them.
For example, leaving your job might ruffle your colleagues because it challenges the staus quo and makes them think: ‘What am I still doing here after 20 years’
But often our fear of quitting is a much more deep-rooted fear of admitting to ourselves that we are in the wrong relationship or job.
‘A lot of the time, we don’t want to admit to ourselves as much as to others that we’re in the wrong situation, so we throw good money after bad trying to fix it,’ says Dr Gilmour.
‘Quitting is attached to a perceived sense of failure, which we don’t tolerate in this country. Actually, what you should be saying is: “Great, I tried that. It didn’t work out but it was a great learning experience. Now it’s time to move on to the next thing.”
‘We’ve been brought up with this focus on perseverance rather than purposefulness. If you’re sticking with something just to prove something to others or yourself, but you’re not enjoying the rewards, then it’s a bit pointless.’
This, of course, is the crux. It’s why I have dusty yoga mats and paintbrushes in my attic.
Dr Gilmour says: ‘When you try something new, you’re not buying the guarantee that you’re going to enjoy it. You’re buying the chance to find out. And if you don’t enjoy it, then there’s no failure there; it’s a lesson learnt.’
Sometimes we’re not up to the task we’ve set ourselves — and the smartest thing to do is move on.Researchers in the U.S. have found that people who give up on unattainable goals are physically and mentally healthier than those who persevere against all odds.
Quitters suffered less indigestion, insomnia and headaches than so-called ‘Bulldogs’, who persevere. They were also more likely to get back on track and try new things after a set-back.
So is quitting the best way to be a winner
‘You have to know the difference between quitting and running away,’ says Dr Gilmour. ‘There are people who never stick at anything and have the “grass is always greener” philosophy. They have unrealistic expectations, so they never stay in jobs and hop from one relationship to the next.
‘Others want to run away when the things get difficult — but actually the initial effort of learning the piano or driving a car is a worthwhile investment. Quit too early and you’ll never be happy.’
And as for the big decisions, such as leaving a job or a relationship, it’s not something to be rushed.
‘Blaming a job or someone else for your problems can be all too easy,’ says Dr Gilmour.
‘Sometimes, the right thing to do is to stay where you are but to make small changes.’
So where does this leave me Could I have been an artistic genius if I’d stuck with the piano, the painting and the literature course
I doubt it. To use the words of W.C. Fields: ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it.’