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When to give up

[ 2 ] September 7, 2011 |
a guy slogs through thigh-deep mud

Image by Rennett Stowe via Flickr.
Used under Creative Commons license.

Sometimes you just want to give up. The question is, should you?

Our society looks with disfavor on giving up. We’ve all heard the saying, “Winners never quit and quitters never win.”

If you think about it, though, that’s bullshit! There are only two ways to never quit:

  • stick with everything you start, whether you like it or not, or
  • never start anything.

The idea that you’re stuck with something once you start it is a big part of why it’s so hard to get started.

It’s still hard to make the decision to give up on something, though. We don’t like closing the door on opportunities.

In fact, I just read Predictably Irrational, and one of the experiments in there gave participants the opportunity to earn money based on mouse clicks in a game. In the first version of the experiment, there were three doors. The participants earned money for clicking behind any of the doors. The payout varied, and some doors paid better than others. Each player got 100 clicks total, and the object was to earn as much money as possible.

It cost a click to switch doors, so most participants clicked around a little until they found the one with the best payoff, then stayed there. That part makes sense.

But then, the experimenters changed the game slightly. They made it so that if a door wasn’t clicked for too long (12 clicks), it would disappear.

This change made a big difference in how participants played the game. Instead of finding the best payoff and sticking with it, they continually spent clicks to prevent doors from disappearing. Even when they were told up front how much money each door would yield so there was no reason to ever click any door but the one with the highest payoff, people still spent clicks to keep the other doors from disappearing.

In fact, even when it cost actual money to keep the doors open, they did the same. Even changing the rules so that a disappeared door could be brought back at any time for no cost made no difference. People couldn’t stand to see those doors disappear, so they did whatever it took to keep them open, no matter how little sense it made.1

Hesitating to give up when it would be beneficial

I’ve seen plenty of examples of this behavior in my own life. I hate to give up on something. What if I change my mind later? So I hang onto it long after it’s stopped doing me any good.

The worst example of this was my second marriage. To say it wasn’t working would be an understatement; I was perpetually anxious and miserable. I knew it was a huge mistake, and I had no doubt that I would be happier on my own.

In fact, during this time my husband went on travel for two to three weeks at a time every month or two, so I could contrast the experience of being around him with the experience of being alone. When he left, I’d feel weird for a few days until I got reoriented, then incredibly happy until I noticed how happy I was without him. Then I’d get depressed because I had obviously wrecked my life by marrying him. And then he’d come home and everything would suck again.

Even though it was blindingly obvious to me and everyone around me that I would be better off if I got out, I remained paralyzed for months. I still felt like I had to give it more chances to turn around. What if the badness was only temporary?

In the end, I waited until I absolutely couldn’t stand the guy any more. When every shred of fondness or respect was gone, only then did I finally call it quits.

When it comes to giving up something that sucks the life out of you and makes you miserable, giving up is a good thing, not bad thing. Even if you’re just doing something so-so, it’s better to give up than to keep slogging in meh when you could be doing something great.

Giving up too soon

Even though I have a strong aversion to loss and stick with plenty of things long past the logical giving up point, I also have the impulse to give up all the time.

For example, you may recall the sale back in June. I did a ton of work to make that happen, including a lot of late nights in the last week before the sale. In fact, I did two 40-hour weeks on that while still working at my job, mostly by staying up until 2 am every night.

I was handling customer service and coordination for the sale as a whole, and I had the goal of selling 33 copies of the sale package. I was driven by the prospect of cash to fuel my dream of quitting my job. Pride was also on the line.

Finally, the day of the sale came. For most sales, the first day and the last day are the biggest, and this one was no exception. Tons of sales rolled in that first day.

Not for me, though. By evening, all of my frenzied labors had amounted to one sale. Just one.

What bothered me most about it was that I had done absolutely everything I could to make it a success, but it didn’t seem to be working. If Day 1 was the big day, followed by a lull and another big day at the end, then I could expect, what, two sales total after all that work? And if I couldn’t get anybody to buy this ridiculously good deal (basically buy two ebooks and get 20 more free), then how was I ever going to sell anything that was a normal value?

I gave up. I decided I just wasn’t cut out to run a business. The only good thing was I hadn’t yet turned in my notice at work, so I could still keep doing the same dull but safe things I had been for the past four years.

I soldiered on with the remaining two days of the sale, despite having given up, purely to keep my word.

A funny thing happened, though. As time passed, I made a few more sales. On the second day, which was the lull overall, I made a good handful. And on the last day, I made a whole bunch. I ended up outselling a ton of big-name affiliates. I didn’t hit my goal, but it still turned out to be a big success.

Imagine that! I gave up on giving up and decided to stick with the business after all.

What to make of it all

Sometimes, giving up on something is right, maybe even necessary. Sometimes it turns out to be premature. Obviously, the strategic approach would be to give up exactly when needed–neither too soon nor too late. It’s closely related to knowing when to quit.

I think the important thing is to entertain all of your thoughts and always be willing to reconsider. Don’t be afraid to change your mind, and also don’t be afraid to change it back. Keep collecting data, including your own feelings about what you feel pulled toward.

Of course, if you change your mind too much, quitting and unquitting every ten minutes, you’ll never accomplish anything. But changing it once or twice won’t hurt anything.

The inspiration for this post was a post on Advanced Riskology, talking about his list of life-changing goals, and how, although he loves music, his music-related goals are going to have to take a back seat to things that are even more important to him.

We all know that life is finite–we have limited time and it’s physically impossible to do everything. Yet we don’t really accept that. At least, I don’t. I may have stopped trying to do everything, but I’m still trying to do two weeks’ work most weeks.

One way or another, you have to choose, or life will choose for you. If you don’t cut things out of your to-do list, that doesn’t mean you’ll finish everything. You’ll still run out of time and leave things undone; it’s just less of a conscious decision. If you make the cuts yourself or do things in order of importance, at least you have some control over what gets done and what doesn’t.

Even if you love doing something, if it takes away time you need for something that’s even more important to you, it makes sense to cut back or drop it. The key is knowing what’s most important to you and acting accordingly.


1 Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. Harper, New York, 2008, pp. 143-150.

About Cara Stein: I'm a Breakthrough Coach and Creative Director On Demand. I'm also an idealist who has stopped trying to play it cool. I offer alignment, clarity, and unshakeable belief in yourself—and then I help you bring your vision to life with great sales copy and graphic design.

Comments (2)

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  1. There’s a popular saying that loads of people quit or give up their dreams right before the dream is fulfilled. Your story about the Only72 sale illustrates this perfectly!!

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