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Quit v. Grit

Quit v. Grit

So very, very synchronistically, the week I posted Winding Down These Posts, a friend sent me the link to a BBC4 podcast interviewing Annie Duke about her new book Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away. Annie shared many stories that illustrated the yin-yang of grit v. quit.  One of the most famous: 

Guides leading groups of people to summit Mount Everest know there is a turn-around time of 1pm; no matter how close you are to the summit, you must turn around by 1pm to descend safely to base camp. In 1996 three men, 300 feet from the summit, “obeyed” that “rule” and lived to climb another day. One of the most experienced and well-respected guides in the world, Rob Hall made it to the summit by 2pm but waited for a straggling client to arrive. They both perished on the descent. The two men who died were seen as somewhat valiant for not giving up; the three who lived by being cautious became largely invisible to the public. Not heroes, but quitters.   

By the time I checked the book out of the library, my friend Michael Kerman at Leading Edge Seminars emailed me this story:

Mahatma Gandhi started to lead a march to protest against the British and after a few days he saw that it was going to have some bad consequences… and he stopped the march. His lieutenants came up to him and the say: Mahatma Ji, you can’t do this, people left their jobs, they’re taking great risk, they are here behind you… you can’t stop now. And Gandhi said: “I have a misunderstanding… I’m only human, I don’t understand all. My understanding of truth changes from day to day. My commitment is to truth, not to consistency… I’m sorry if that upsets you.”

Duke begins the book Quit with the clear acknowledgement that the mantra of our success-oriented, you can do it! culture is winners never quit and quitters never win. Grit is valued as a virtue and quit as shamed as a vice. The English language favors grit: steadfast, daring, having back-bone, tenacity, and pluck. And disparages quit as aimless, weak-willed, fickle, undependable, shirkers who give up, waver, and abandon. 

Annie learned the art of quitting when she was a world-class and very successful professional poker player. Knowing when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em was essential, for every hand, for every game, for eventually leaving the game.  She is now an independent cognitive-behavioral decision scientist and coach. Many of her examples of resilient or missed opportunity for quitting are from the business world, but the stories she shares and the principles she teaches are easily applied to quitting a dead-end job, leaving a toxic relationship, letting go of an entire life identity. (Impeccable timing as I more and more fully retire.) 

We’re familiar with many mental patterns that shape our behaviors. The negativity bias – we will react to and remember negative experiences more than positive ones. The confirmation bias – we tend to believe new information that confirms what we already believe and dismiss what does not. 

Duke offers great research and insights into the common cognitive biases that keep us from quitting, even when we know we should.

Loss aversion: the emotional impact of a loss is greater than the corresponding impact of an equivalent gain. People tend to quit easily while they’re ahead but will stick with something, even when losing catastrophically, hoping to re-coup their losses. 

Escalation of commitment: when “in the losses,” people universally tend to double down and escalate their commitment; rational quitting becomes more and more remote. 

Sunk cost effect: Once we’ve invested in something, especially if it’s not working out or paying off, we fear “wasting” all that we have invested already and wind up investing even more in a lost cause. 

Monkeys and pedestals: a mental model used when prioritizing behaviors: if you’re wanting to train a monkey to juggle flaming torches while standing on a pedestal in a public park, focus on whether you can train the monkey (the hardest part of the task) before you spend/waste time doing what is easily done (build a pedestal).

Endowment effect: we value something we have created/own more than something equivalent that we have not. Quitting means not just quitting a project but relinquishing an identity.

Omission-commission bias: we tend to stick with what we already know rather than risk what we don’t know. Also known as the status quo bias.  

Duke also suggest skills to become a skillful quitter:

Exploration: even when things are going well, keep exploring. Stay open to new interests and opportunities. The diversity of interests and skills provides a back-up plan or a fresh start. 

Setting goals: “Inflexible goals are not a good fit for a flexible world.” Have intermediate goals other than an endpoint, finish line, pass-fail goal. 

Kill criteria: what are the markers that it is time to quit the project (1pm turn-around time on Mount Everest) Establish these markers before you begin the project. 

Quitting coach: It’s hard to quit something you’re “in” or have already invested a lot. An outside observer can see things more objectively, and be helpful if they have permission to tell the truth. 

Duke illustrates all of these principles with stories of real people in real time who either knew these rules and followed them, or even knew these rules and didn’t follow them. Many good lessons here; easy enough to carry forward into a balanced, resilient life.