January 16, 2014

(+++) I QUIT! YOU DO?

Mastering the Art of Quitting: Why It Matters in Life, Love, and Work. By Peg Streep and Alan Bernstein, L.C.S.W. Da Capo. $24.99.

     “Quitters never prosper.” “Winners never quit, and quitters never win.” Everybody knows that quitting is a bad thing – it marks you as “not up to the task,” inadequate, a failure, someone unable to “hang in there” and persist until you actually accomplish something and get things done. Remember the Little Engine That Could, the refrain of “I think I can, I think I can,” the persistence that overcame obstacles? That is the route to success!

     Except when it isn’t. “The ability to quit fully is as valuable a tool to living well as is persistence,” argue Peg Streep and Alan Bernstein in Mastering the Art of Quitting. Yes, they say, tenacity matters, but so does recognition of the fact that not all endeavors succeed: persisting in some things will lead only to frustration, pulling energy and focus away from projects that have a greater likelihood of working out. “Quitting is a healthy, adaptive response when a goal can’t be reached or what appeared to be a life path turns out to be a blind alley,” say Streep and Bernstein, and in fact persistence can hold a person back from success – often by engaging such fallacious thinking as the sunk-cost fallacy, which says that quitting somehow “wastes” all the energy, money and/or time already invested (all things that, however, are gone already – throwing “good money after bad,” or good energy for that matter, will scarcely improve the situation).

     Many people are hard-wired, or at least culturally conditioned, to persist even in the face of multiple reversals – the authors argue that Americans, in particular, often have a difficult time quitting. But conditioning can be overcome, they say, offering yes-or-no statements to allow readers to develop their own “persistence profile”; another set of statements to show how you set goals and handle setbacks; and still others to determine “your quitting aptitude.” Stating that “setting a performance goal isn’t necessarily a good thing,” Streep and Bernstein suggest goal-setting using a series of organizational categories (life goals, career goals, relationship goals and learning/achievement goals), then “using flow to assess your goals.” They provide examples of “goal maps” that include short-term and long-term goals in each category, then explain how to quit and, after doing so, how to manage internal fallout such as regret.

     There is an element of “the authors doth protest too much, methinks,” in Mastering the Art of Quitting. The self-tests, self-evaluations and write-it-down exercises are rather tiresome, appearing as they (or similar ones) have in so many change-your-life self-help books. And when dealing with genuinely thorny issues, such as regret over the path not taken, Streep and Bernstein tend to lapse into unhelpful statements: “Understanding how big a role avoiding regret plays in your life facilitates artful quitting and helps elucidate the reasons behind your patterns of persistence.” It is certainly true that most of us try too hard, some of the time, to attain goals that we will never reach. It is true that most of us would do better to let certain matters go and redirect our energy, time and money – all of which are limited – toward things we can accomplish rather than ones that we cannot. But it is not always easy to tell the difference – certainly not as easy as Mastering the Art of Quitting suggests. Streep and Bernstein suggest, early in the book, that we would not admire Thomas Edison’s invention of the light bulb as much if he had gotten it right the first time rather than after thousands of failures. This is likely true: to many people, overcoming adversity to reach eventual success seems somehow “better” than having things come “easily.” But the authors do not pursue this matter: would it have been better for Edison to abandon the light-bulb project, wholly and without looking back, after, say, a thousand failures? Two thousand? Knowing when to quit is just as important as knowing how to quit. And that when differs not only from person to person but also from circumstance to circumstance within every person’s life. Streep and Bernstein are right in asserting that well-managed quitting is a life skill worth learning, one that can free up our limited internal and external resources for better use elsewhere. Knowing just how and when to employ that skill, though, is a significantly more-complex issue than the authors acknowledge.

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