When to quit

Posted in: Applying Wisdom

Be picky about what you stick to. Persevere in the things that matter, that bring you happiness, and that move you toward your goals. Quit everything else, to free up those resources so you can pursue your goals and stop sticking to things that slow you down.

– Annie Duke, Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away

I recently read a book by Annie Duke, titled Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away.

It’s a fun read that teaches you how to make decisions about when to quit something. Often, we persist in a pursuit or activity for bad reasons that lead to bad outcomes.

Some examples from the book:

  • A Mount Everest expedition, close to the summit, continues the climb despite bad weather and reaches the top…at the cost of their lives.
  • An entrepreneur continuing to invest in a failing business because it was once successful and going bankrupt.
  • A doctor who joined a doomsday cult continuing to be a member even after the original doomsday date passes

Annie Duke herself had to make decisions to quit a few times.

First, she quit a Columbia PhD program due to a health issue and then fell into professional poker. During her poker career, she had to know “when to hold them and when to fold them.”

Then she had to make a decision to quit professional poker, even though she was at the top of her game.

These decisions have worked out for her. She has had a successful career, but she couldn’t know that at the time she had to make those decisions. That’s one of the reasons why quitting is so hard; it’s the uncertainty of the outcome, the fear of the unknown.

The book explores a number of reasons why we choose to persevere instead of quit. To those familiar with the pop psychology genre, you’ll encounter a fun take on concepts like sunk-cost fallacy, status quo bias, escalating commitment, and cognitive dissonance.

What I kept thinking about though was a concept I first encountered when reading about the Jesuits: disordered loves.

A disordered love or affection is when we become too attached to a good, to the point where it hurts us.

  • Making a living is good, but the pursuit of money to the exclusion of all else is disordered.
  • Loving your partner is good, but clinging to and controlling them is disordered.
  • Attaining respect is good, to chase prestige is disordered.
  • Seeking counsel and advice from others is wise, to live out some one else’s desires is disordered

That’s why Ignatius counseled people to avoid disordered affections. They block the path to detachment, to growing more in freedom, growing as a person, and growing closer to God. If that sounds surprisingly Buddhist, it is: that particular goal has long been a part of many spiritual traditions.

James Martin, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything 

How many of our pursuits and our failure to quit things are because of our disordered loves? How can we know if our loves have become disordered, and are leading us astray?

Duke’s book is great, but it only scratches the surface of exploring our motivations and most importantly, what we value (and should) value.

For those deeper dives, the ancients have much more to offer.