It’s ok to quit – just never give up

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As we emerge from the pandemic, an unprecedented number of people are quitting their jobs. In, fact, there’s so much quitting going on that employers in some sectors, such as hotels and restaurants, are complaining about a labor shortage — there are more open, and necessary, positions than there are people willing to take them.

Admittedly, the wave of quitting might be bad for a hotel that can’t hire enough night clerks or a diner that doesn’t have an extra busboy. But is the actual quitting a bad thing?

What Does It Mean to Quit?

Quitting is often highly stigmatized. Motivational slogans like “winners never quit, and quitters never win” or “winners are not people who never fail, but people who never quit” explicitly announce that “winning” can never coexist with “quitting.” But that is simplifying the act too much, making it — in typical 2021 fashion — too binary. To quit literally means to leave, vacate, cease or stop: where you are, what you are doing. There is an immediacy and acuteness to the act. It’s often contained to a singular moment, rather than a thing, or activity: You quit your job, quit your workout, or quit the daydreaming you are doing during that monotonous zoom meeting.

One of the problems is that quitting is often used interchangeably with giving up (and usually in some of those same motivational quotes). But to give up is different. It’s resigning oneself to failure. To give up is to cease making an effort, and the implications are broader. Quitting your job is one thing, but giving up on working is something else. And quitting today’s workout isn’t the same as giving up on trying to be healthy.

Does Quitting Equate to Losing?

During the Olympic games this summer, gymnast Simone Biles abruptly withdrew from four Olympic events that she was favored to win. She was, quite predictably, met with jeering from the peanut gallery. People who couldn’t do a cartwheel said she was weak. They called her a quitter, and they said it like a slur. The fact is, quitting is sometimes perfectly okay. In some cases, it’s necessary, because to not quit could be downright dangerous. “I don’t think you realize,” Biles said in response to the criticism to withdraw, “how dangerous this is on hard/competition surfaces.” She’s capable of extraordinary physical feats that also require intense mental focus. If her mind and body aren’t working together, mistakes can happen, and one of those mistakes could easily end her career.

Or consider my area of expertise, Navy SEAL training. It's notorious for the number of candidates who quit: Usually upwards of 85 percent of candidates who begin never finish. Some of that is because of injury, but most guys just quit, plain and simple. In fact, the most common piece of advice bestowed upon those wannabe SEALs by actual SEALs is a blunt “don't quit”, which feeds the mythology that Navy SEALs are infused with a “rather-die-than-quit” mentality.

SEALs who’ve actually been to combat know that’s a ridiculous and dangerous statement. Those SEALs know that quitting is sometimes a requirement, a strategic choice based on an accurate read of the current situation. Pushing forward in a bad situation will yield bad, often deadly, results. And you can’t accomplish a mission if you’re dead.

When is Quitting the Right Thing To Do?

In 2006 I was in Afghanistan with my Navy SEAL Troop, preparing to conduct our very first mission in country. It was a bit more for me though: it was my first mission with this SEAL Unit, and the first mission where I was the Officer in Charge. I was excited. I’d been a SEAL for 10 years already, gone through a specialized selection, and even done a few staff jobs for the Unit while waiting my turn to be in charge. The mission was a good one to start with. The objective was not too far away, the terrain was simple and flat, and the plan was straightforward. A perfect break-in operation for the Troop.

But hiccups started during the mission planning. Small ones at first. Intel wasn’t lining up correctly and had to be rechecked, switched radio frequencies had to be corrected, some of the gear that we had anticipated using turned out to be unavailable. None of these were insurmountable. We simply adjusted and moved on.

When we left base and started heading toward the objective there were a few more slightly bigger hiccups. The vehicles hadn’t received the communication corrections — we needed to pull over and get that sorted. The route that had seemed navigable during planning turned out to be the opposite. A switch to a secondary, then tertiary, route had to be implemented. These delays weren’t a huge deal, except they all slowed a carefully planned timeline. Daylight was never optimal, and sunrise was getting closer. But we pressed on.

Yet, I had been mentally keeping count. Whenever things go bad on a military operation, the post-operation reviews rarely end up pointing to one big thing that went wrong. Rather, it’s a series of little things that added up to the overall tragedy. I knew that there is never a “magic number” of little things that trigger tragedy —the best you can do is be aware, and constantly assess.

It was while we were on our final approach to our target that we hit “too many” little things. We heard whistling.

We had read reports of other units that had been ambushed in the area previously. On several of them, soldiers had reported hearing whistling just before the ambush—an enemy signal, obviously, to get ready.

We halted our patrol, and I took a few moments to confer with my Troop Chief. There was another way we could get there, but it would burn a lot more time, and we couldn’t be sure that route wasn’t tarnished as well. The math finally added up in my head and I made a decision.

On my very first operation as a Troop Commander, with this unit that I’d worked so hard to get to, I decided that we were going to head back to base. We were going to quit. Certainly, a nicer way to put it would be a “tactical withdrawal” or “change in plan.” I could dress it up however I wanted, but when I radioed my commander to tell him what I was doing, it felt like quitting.

However bad it felt, though, I know now it was the right thing to do. And it wasn’t the last time I quit a mission, either. I’ve conducted hundreds of combat missions overseas and have quit and returned to base on three. On all three I had the same counter going in my head; on all three the situation wasn’t reading in a way that predicted success; and on all three it was a hard call to make, one sometimes met with real anger and frustration from some of the Troop members.

Quitting or Giving Up?

So how do we know whether you’re quitting or giving up? It comes down to two questions.

First, would quitting in this moment get you closer to your long-term goal? Think carefully, because the answer isn’t necessarily binary. In the pursuit of any long-term goal, there will be times when it feels like you’re moving backwards. Consider the rock climber who sometimes must move down on the face of a rock to find a better hand or foothold. Just because that climber is moving down, doesn’t mean they’re not still trying to get to the top.

Second, why are you quitting? This question should be engaged with as little emotion as possible. If you are upset, angry, frustrated, or in pain just because it’s hard, that’s usually not a good reason to quit. Many of the candidates who quit SEAL training later regret the decision and cite the fact that they were lost in their pain and not thinking clearly. So it’s important that you make any decision to quit with as clear a head as possible. The good news is simply the act of pausing, taking a deep breath, and asking why can, in of itself, have a calming effect on your emotions.

Everything about our world today seems uncertain. It’s hard to predict what tomorrow is going to look like, let alone next month or next year. But that can’t stop us from charging forward on our goals and objectives. This means that we are going to make mistakes. We are going to find ourselves on paths that aren’t working.

My advice when that happens? Quit what you are doing. Reassess and try something different. If that doesn’t work, then quit again and try again. Achieving what we want is rarely about “never quitting”—it’s actually about quitting as many times as you need to until you find the right path. Don’t just quit because something is hard—quit because it’s not working. And never give up searching for what does work. This is, in fact, the elemental secret to success in a long-term goal. Quit when you have to, but don’t ever give up.

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