On Quitting

It all started with a parenting newsletter in my inbox. This particular newsletter focused upon what to do when your kids want to quit an activity, sport, or extracurricular. Like much of the advice on quitting, the newsletter cheerfully suggested that you shouldn’t let your child quit, even when their misery appeared in slumped shoulders and frowns on face. Instead, parents, you should encourage your child to stick around, in spite of their misery. Quitting, it seemed from the newsletter, could only be read as failure. And the implication was that parents surely don’t want their kids to be quitters or failures.

As I read the newsletter’s parenting advice, I got angrier and angrier. I promptly deleted the email and almost unsubscribed (is that quitting?). I couldn’t quite pinpoint what made me so angry. Then, it occurred to me that the assumptions about quitting and failure bothered me. The newsletter assumed that quitting was somehow bad and sticking around was somehow good. Sticking around signaled success, but quitting could only be failure. This is a terrible way to imagine quitting, but it’s a remarkably common one.

People equate failure with quitting all the time, and I really hate when they do because quitting isn’t inherently a failure. Quitting is but one choice out of many. We make many, many choices about our lives each day, but quitting is one choice that is consistently presented as a type of failure.

Claiming that quitting is only failure misses the fact that quitting can be so much more. Quitting has many possibilities.

Quitting can be brave. Quitting can be knowing your boundaries and limits. Quitting can be an affirmation that your time is valuable, so you care about how you spend it. Quitting can be about what matters to your life. Quitting can be about what doesn’t matter to your life. Quitting can be about shifting priorities. Quitting can be about respecting your values. Quitting can be about dignity. Quitting can be about economics. Quitting can save your life. Quitting can be about leaving abusive spaces. Quitting can be about walking away from abusive people. Quitting can be about what you need or don’t need. Quitting can be about what you want or don’t want. Quitting can be more mundane or ordinary. Quitting can be a radical declaration that you are done with one way of living and you’re trying out a new way. Quitting can be a claim about who you are or who you are striving to be. Quitting can just be a choice.

And quitting is one choice among many. Again, quitting is not inherently a failure.

More than that, there’s nothing inherently heroic about sticking around. (Suggesting that kids stick with activities that make them miserable is bad advice. Suffering isn’t heroic. It’s just suffering.) Sticking around is not necessarily a success. Sticking around doesn’t make us virtuous or good. It’s just one choice. Sticking around can be a very bad choice that has consequences for your life.

Sometimes, we quit. Sometimes, we don’t. One choice isn’t magically better than the other. Choices have contexts and histories. Choices happen withing the structures of our lives. We can’t assume that all quitting is about failure. We can’t assume all sticking around is about success.

We all make choices about our lives. We all do. Quitting happens to be one of those choices, and it’s not guaranteed to be bad. Quitting can sometimes be the best choice for your life. More importantly, it’s your choice to make, narrate, and live.

There’s a culture in the U.S. that proudly proclaims that “winners never quit.” Don’t come at me with this nonsense. Everyone makes decisions to quit things (even the so-called winners), and yet, that’s not the message we receive over and over again.

There are lots of ways to live our lives. There are lots of choices we have to make. Quitting is one of those choices, and quitting isn’t bad. No one should tell you it is. If someone tries to tell you that quitting is always a bad choice or a sign of failure, please feel free to call them on their bullsh*t. Or maybe, gently remind them that your life is yours, so you get to make decisions about your life regardless of what they might think.

Also, you don’t have to explain yourself to anyone, especially those people who only imagine and understand quitting as failure.

And I must confess that I used to be one of those people who equated quitting and failure. I assumed that if I just stuck around long enough, things would change for the better. If I only would bear a little more suffering, I would be on the cusp of success. If I never quit, success was would be the reward. I suffered through a whole lot of terrible jobs, terrible people, and terrible systems because I was afraid that quitting meant failure. Now, I’ve learned when to cut my losses. My suffering isn’t worth the mere possibility of success defined by someone else’s rules.

I’ve quit lots of things, and quitting helped rather than hindered me. Hell, I’ve failed at lots of things too. And guess what? I learned more from those failures than I did from my successes. I’ve quit and failed. And yet, I’m not a quitter or a failure. How strange! (Not at all really).

Quitting set me free. It can set you free too.

The next time someone tries to rail against quitting, please remember that quitting is not bad, but just a choice. (And I’ll promise to try and remember this as well.) Knowing when to walk away is a healthy habit to have. Sometimes, things just don’t work. Why stay around? More than that, sticking around can be more harmful to us than quitting. Folks tend to forget this. Some things aren’t worth the costs. It’s good to figure out what those things are.

As for me, if I hadn’t quit my lecturer gig and left a dysfunctional department, I would have never have become a the writer and editor that I am today. I would have stayed at a toxic job in pursuit of academic dreams that we’re never going to come true. Quitting was the best choice. But, quitting is not the narrative we tend to celebrate. Folks are too caught up stories about winning (whatever that really means) and success that we tend to excise out all the stumbles and failures from these stories. Successful people just succeed, right? Well, no, but that makes a tidier story. Narrating all the things we quit would make a more complicated story, perhaps a better one.

What I know is that quitting improved my life dramatically. When I decided to quit academia, people were aghast that I would even consider quitting. You don’t quit academia, even if all it does is fail you. These folks were horrified, absolutely horrified by my choice. I quit anyway.

My life was never theirs to decide. Your life isn’t either.

So, quit if you want to quit. It’s your choice. (If you need permission, I’ll give you permission.) Quitting doesn’t mean that you’ve failed. Instead, quitting means that you’ve decided to live how you need to, which is the kind of choice that all of us should strive to make.

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