Readers, I want to give you permission to quit things. Not reading this column (oh how we laugh), but all that obligation detritus that builds up over a lifetime of doing one’s best.
If you’re anything like me, you grew up with strong parental and pop culture messaging to the effect that quitting was perhaps the worst thing a person could do. Quitting was weak, was failure. To quit something an earlier version of you had chosen to pursue was to betray that earlier self, and possibly also your country.
I know what they’re getting at with that message – that things worth doing can be difficult and unpleasant at times, and success requires persistence – but it also has a dark side, or even many dark sides. The most obvious is that not all pursuits have value and many end up hurting us over time, and another is that sometimes it takes going a little way down a road to see that that way be dragons, at which point it is perfectly correct to quit that particular quest. To have a lifestyle centred on “never giving up”, regardless of the substance of the thing we’re not giving up on, is to risk a life centred on unnecessary toil and suffering for suffering’s sake. I don’t care what the puritans wanted; it’s no way to live.
Another insidious dark side is that unfinished things take your M&Ms and hold onto them for dear life, while not giving much back. We humans are prodigious self-deluders in this regard; we think we have all the mental space in the world, and that abstract things like projects and memberships and books we believe we should read before we’re 25 do not have to be stored somehow. But in truth, we only have so many M&Ms to go around. Refusing to quit small things simply because we believe quitting itself is wrong is a shortcut to fatigue and anxiety, plus that low-level hum of “I haven’t done enough”.
So, let’s all become expert quitters.
An expert quitter is not, as you might think, a person so good at quitting that they quit everything, all the time, before they’ve even taken something on (although, to that point, they are a little bit. We’ll come back to it.) An expert quitter is a person selective about the things they take on and an expert in knowing when and why to quit. In my imagination an expert quitter wears very big sunglasses and is always looking off to the horizon with a martini in their hands, like they know things we don’t. I don’t think you have to adopt this look to be one though.
No, an expert quitter is a person who knows why they do things and can fairly assess when a thing is no longer meeting that need. They know all about mental capacity and M&Ms and protect theirs like they are precious gemstones (which they kind of are). This person knows full well that things worth doing can sometimes be difficult and unpleasant and that persistence is a virtue, but they also believe not all things are equally worth doing. To them, quitting is a neutral thing.
The expert quitter knows the difference between quitting big things and quitting small things, and she does not use the same metrics for both. The big things are the boulders in her life: her central pursuits like career or study, her main relationships, and maybe a longstanding hobby. When the question over whether to quit comes up here the expert quitter is diligent and patient and methodical, looking at the question from all kinds of angles and referring back again and again to her values and to why she does the thing to start with.
The small things are the things the expert quitter took up for joy, meaning, or entertainment, so the question of whether to quit them is much cleaner. Things like teams and clubs that don’t serve him, hobbies that cost too much or otherwise weigh him down, projects that seemed fun that one Saturday but now sit at the end of his dining table like a sad rescue dog he does not want to rescue. The expert quitter abandons weekend afternoon books that are boring and lets herself not become an expert at sewing even though she thought she might be for two weeks last January. She is not bound to her leisure activities, and she happily throws them off like people shedding towels in an ice block ad.
Which brings me back to my very funny exaggeration that an expert quitter is so good at quitting things he quits them before he starts them. In truth, the better at quitting you get, the more you are able to do this, simply because you know your capacity and why you do things better. This leaves you with more space and time to pursue and enjoy other things. I would suggest an expert quitter might also quit things after they have started them, since we cannot always see the dragons from the garden gate.
I like reading books and articles about quitting, especially the ones where people acknowledge that quitting can feel a bit sad while also the best choice overall (I love me a bit of nuance, I do). Before I quit reading books where it felt like an author was telling me off, I read Seth Godin’s The Dip. He says that after the initial excitement of starting anything there is usually a dip. A dip in fervour, in drive, in desire at all to do the thing. This is normal homeostasis in action. He argues, with what I consider to be unnecessary force, that if you are likely to quit at the point of the dip, you should not start the thing at all. To start a thing only to quit or abandon it at the time of the dip is to waste your time and resources. Seth Godin thinks any waste is bad and it’s all very intense. But I do like this idea he proposes: that if you can you should let yourself quit things before you start them.
Part of me feels wobbly about advocating expert quittership, but I feel safe in my audience of law students and lawyers. We are a cohort at low risk of quitting what we should and at high risk of not quitting what we should. We feel beholden to everything we’ve committed to and our lives get full to bursting because of it. Proper human functioning requires more space than that. So please, dear law students and graduates, give yourself permission to quit things, and perhaps in time we will together join the league of expert quitters.
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Katie Cowan is a former commercial litigator who now runs a legal consulting and coaching practice, as well as writing for the Law Society’s “Law Talk” magazine and presenting her own podcast, The New Lawyer, available at thenewlawyer.co.nz. Check out her website for more details at: symphonylaw.co.nz. Katie’s recommendations and opinions are her own, do not represent the views of LexisNexis or its affiliates and are of a general nature. None of Katie, Symphony Law Limited or LexisNexis are responsible for any loss or damage suffered by a party as the result of following this advice, so please seek independent professional advice before relying on it. Please click here for full website terms and conditions.