Limits, Quitting, and Learning
Whether you make them or not, decisions that impact you will be made.
(This article is part of an on-going series dedicated to developing Agile mastery. Each post offers value to students on this journey, however, there is an advantage to those who start at the beginning.)
"Winners never quit and quitters never win," coach Lombardi tells us. "If you believe in yourself and have dedication and pride - and never quit, you'll be a winner," says coach Bryant. "You're never a loser until you quit trying," coach Ditka informs us.
It seems there's really only one word in common usage to describe what happens when we either fall or step off The Path: Quitting. The connotations around the word are almost always negative. Quitting means we've failed, came up short, lost, and are weak. There is a finality implied with having quit something. Unless someone has quit a harmful behavior, like smoking or gorging ourselves on what the news media feeds us, no one wants to be known as a quitter.
I selected the opening quotes from sports coaches for a reason. In the context of sports, action is timeboxed, clear scores are kept, rules followed, and when the clock runs out everyone knows who won and who lost. On the playing field, "to quit" is associated with an end state beyond which no one who has quit can go. They are shut out. No one has time for losers.
Understanding what it means to quit in this sense isn't necessarily a bad thing. There are many difficult or even adversarial circumstances in life for which having played sports prepare us - challenges that require us to know and push beyond our limits, work as a team, and persevere while struggling to get what we want or, in some cases, literally survive. Learning these skills is easier when we are young and the stakes aren't as high as they will be later in life. The problem with mapping the sports version of "quit" into the everyday endeavors of adult life is that it can significantly limit our success in surprising ways.
The language of sports works for situations where the rules are well defined, boundaries are acknowledged, the goal is clear, and the rewards are immediate. But this doesn't apply to all circumstances. In the business world, the aura that surrounds the idea of quitting in sports has become tangled with self-esteem, how we gauge our self-worth, and how we measure up in the eyes of our peers. The idea of quitting according to the sport model can affect our judgement and negatively impact motivation.
When the rules are undefined, the goal is fuzzy or far into the future, and the rewards hidden in a fog of speculation, a much different set of skills must be brought onto the field of life. And one of these skills is the ability to know when to quit - deliberately, intentionally, and with awareness of the consequences. Let's call this "intelligent quitting." Consequently, having often been avoided and seldom used, quitting in this way is an underdeveloped skill and becomes itself a weakness and something to avoid.
People from The Greatest Generation on through to the early Baby Boomers - the generations that won World War II, cured polio, and put a man on the moon - haven't updated their understanding of quitting beyond the sports version. Raised in the parental pedagogy of "winners never quit" and shame if they do, they keep their noses to the grindstone, work long hours, and pass up vacation time. For most of them, quitting is still never an option. "Company loyalty" and "dedication to work" were phrases not yet replaced by "workaholic." Maybe they weren't Grand Master Danielle Steel level workaholics, but the pattern had been set.
The late Millenials and early Gen Z'ers seem to have been taught something entirely different about quitting by the adults that raised and educated them. My "lived experience" has revealed a significant shift in how the younger generations approach problem solving and critical thinking. The decisions they make and the actions they take have been stripped of accountability, responsibility, and any hint of consequences. If things aren't working out, they quit early and often. The follow-up strategy is to search for someone to blame, someone to bail them out, or someone to rewrite the rules and redistribute points to protect the feelz.
I want to be clear on this point, so I'll repeat it: They learned from the adults around them. Children are amazing judgement-free learning machines, full of trust and curiosity. They learned what they were taught by a vary narrow slice of the population entrusted to prepare them for being healthy, happy, and productive adult citizens. This narrow slice of thought leaders has led the younger generations toward catastrophic failure and left them emotionally unprepared for a cruelly indifferent world of 8 billion self-interested human beings.
Closely related to an undeveloped skill for intelligent quitting is something psychologists describe as "failure deprivation." Lacking important experiences of failing during formative years - when the stakes are much lower than in adulthood - many in the younger generations have difficulty learning from their failures. As a result character attributes of resiliency and tenacity are limited. These are vital for overcoming failure and, ultimately, finding satisfaction and happiness.
The savvy youth figures this out early and works to acquire and strengthen the skills they need to survive and thrive in the world. Those that do will engage in healthy cooperation and build amazing things. So, what's the workaholic or savvy youth to do?
In the game of life, where the rules change frequently and the goal is always fuzzy, it's important to include a highly developed skill for quitting in your set of Tools for Life. It's a useful tool to have available for when circumstances warrant its use. Sharpening this tool begins with knowing whether you actually have a problem with knowing when it's time to quit and how.
Time to find out. On a scale of one (Not me!) to ten (Definitely me!) rate yourself on the following:
Fear of failure or being judged for failing
Blaming others for failures you were involved with and/or...
Struggle with making decision due to procrastination, lack confidence, or impulsive behavior
Uncomfortable with new patterns, unexpected situations, or changes to the familiar
Overly focused on defined plans or outcomes
If your score for any of these traits is seven or greater, the odds are good you will benefit by strengthening the skills related to knowing when and how to quit.
Good news: Your practice begins immediately. To succeed with in this effort, you've going to have to quit a few things. It's the odd thing about quitting that most people don't consider. In order to succeed at something, you have to quit other things. Usually a lot of other things.
"The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything." Warren Buffet
Following Buffet's suggestion, your first exercise for developing an ability to quit intelligently is to quit thinking about things you haven't committed to starting. Write those things down, get them outside of your head and set them aside. You can always consider them at a future time. For now, quit thinking about them. This will reduce your cognitive load and free up mental space to consider other options that build your capabilities for:
Flexibility and Adaptability
Humility and Gratitude
In the follow-up post, I'll go into more detail on what you may want to focus on specifically as you begin to strengthen your intelligent quitting muscles. If you have any questions, need anything clarified, or have something else on your mind, please use the comments section or email me directly.