Don't Think of It as Quitting, Think of It as Letting Go
In a new book, Pulitzer Prize winner Julia Keller talks about the positive aspects of quitting what isn't serving you
Try harder. Never give up.
In our culture, which celebrates self-sufficiency and pull-yourself-up-by-your bootstrap stories, we're indoctrinated with these messages from childhood on.
Effort and perseverance are essential to success, we're told. Grit will help us adapt to the curveballs life throws at us. If we just keep trying, we'll get to where we want to go.
But what if this isn't a reliable narrative?
What if giving up is sometimes the right thing to do, especially when we're not happy with our current circumstances? What if letting go is liberating when we're stuck and unsatisfied? What if quitting can change our lives for the better?
What if giving up is sometimes the right thing to do, especially when we're not happy with our current circumstances?
Julia Keller, 66, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, mystery writer, and author of young adult science fiction novels, explores these and related questions in her new book, "Quitting: A Life Strategy. The Myth of Perseverance – and How the New Science of Giving Up Can Set You Free."
Quitting was a theme that Keller grew up with. Her father tried, unsuccessfully, for many years to give up smoking, and died at 51 of lung cancer. "When I think of how frequently he felt like a failure because of smoking, that makes me sad," she told me.
Quitting isn't easy, but it can make room for other possibilities in our lives, Keller argues. Retire from a demanding legal job, as one of my family members did, and there's time for singing lessons and volunteering with community organizations. Move to a senior living facility, as my 93-year-old mother-in-law is doing, and find new opportunities to connect with people. Jettison the belief that growing older is mostly about loss, and a more positive view of your potential in later life can come to the forefront.
Keller's conversation with me, below, has been edited for length and clarity.
Judith Graham: What's the difference between quitting and letting go? Or quitting and giving up?
Julia Keller: I don't really think there is any difference. But I will tell you, people really don't like the term quitting. They associate it with being cowardly or lazy.
I recently spoke at a senior center in central Ohio, and at first the people there were downright hostile. They said 'what do you mean, quitting can be good? I've worked hard my whole life. I've always persevered.'
And I said, 'I'm sure you have and I'm not arguing otherwise. I'm just saying there are times we need to stop and pivot to something else.'
"My point in this book is that we change our minds all the time and that's actually positive because it helps keep our minds nimble and flexible."
Where does this negativity about quitting come from?
It dates from the middle of the 19th century, during the Industrial Revolution. That's when a man named Samuel Smiles wrote a book called "Self Help, With Illustrations of Character and Conduct." He argued that sticking with a single path, never swerving, never changing, was the key to success. That gave quitting a bad odor.
My point in this book is that we change our minds all the time and that's actually positive because it helps keep our minds nimble and flexible. Because our brains crave action and motion, like our bodies do.
Does quitting assume some kind of privilege, either economic or social privilege, or the privilege of good health?
I don't think so. Quitting requires us to ask ourselves 'how do I really feel about the way things are working out for me?' If the answer is 'just OK,' then the question becomes 'is OK really enough?' I don't really see why anyone in any situation can't try to make their life better.
Sometimes that means making a big change – leaving a job or a marriage – and sometimes it means changing a few things here and there, something that I call a 'quasi-quit' in the book.
You believe quitting has positive potential. Why?
Quitting is about abundance – about a belief in a better tomorrow and choosing hope, rather than fear.
When you listen to people, really listen to them and try to figure out why they're reluctant to make a change, it invariably comes down to fear that something new isn't going to work out.
And what if things don't work out?
Things aren't always going to work out. There are no guarantees in life. However, you just make another change. And go on from there.
"Everybody has a quitting story. It's actually a great ice breaker and I recommend it even in casual conversations."
Let's return to that senior center you spoke at. Did people talk about quitting as it relates to decisions they had to make as they became older?
Very much so. Most of the people there were in their 70s and 80s and they pointed out that if anything, quitting becomes more important as you get older. Because you have less time and the less time you have, the more important your decisions are. And the less it makes sense to stay with something that isn't working.
Did people want to tell stories about quitting?
Absolutely. Everybody has a quitting story. It's actually a great ice breaker and I recommend it even in casual conversations. Just ask 'what's something that you quit? Did you regret it? How did things turn out?'
I did nearly 200 interviews for this book, and I found people expressed much more regret over things that they didn't quit but wish they had than the changes they found the courage to make.
What about you? Have you quit something recently?
I come from a very cynical family — people who think that if you look at the bright side of things, it means you're not smart enough to see the inevitable doom. And I've had to really, really fight against a kind of dark cynicism in my own self. That's something that I struggle with all the time.
Each time I've quit something — jobs, relationships that weren't working out — it's a challenge and I approach it with complete trepidation. It's always difficult. It doesn't get easier.
And that's something I want to emphasize: we come to these moments in our lives when we need to reassess how we're doing or make important decisions again and again and again. It's not just 'I did this, and I'm done.' Because we're constantly changing. And this may be aspirational, but I really do believe that we're at our best when we embrace that.