Many years ago I bumped into an old friend of mine, an actor I’ll call Matt. He had devoted his life to his craft but had never quite been successful. He’d had jobs here and there, but work was patchy at best, and in his middle age he seemed defeated and sad.
I thought of his dogged perseverance. Was it admirable or foolish? What could Matt have achieved had he quit the dream of acting and moved on? Our culture does not look kindly upon quitting. Failure is perfectly acceptable, even championed, as long as it eventually results in success.
JK Rowling persevered enormously, but it is difficult to know how long to keep pushing yourself in pursuit of ‘success’.Credit:BBC/Tom Hayward
We chant “Winners never quit” and “If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again,” and “You need to fail if you want to succeed.” We lap up stories of persistence, of the author who received 100 rejection letters before her novels were published, of the couple who had 20 rounds of IVF before falling pregnant, of the athlete who trained since childhood to win gold at the Olympics.
Persistence certainly pays off when it is rewarded with success, but, sadly, it does not reward every person with success. For every JK Rowling, there are thousands of aspiring writers who will never get published. For every couple who succeeds at IVF, there is at least one couple who will not. For every Olympic athlete, there are innumerable others who trained every day of their lives and never made the cut.
We all agree that doing things over and over again expecting a different result is unwise (if not necessarily "insane"). So why do we believe that persevering through failure after failure is a good idea?
Well, for a start, we consider quitting in the face of failure to be weak. Quitting calls into play the sunk cost fallacy, the idea that the more you have spent (in time, money, energy), the more you should persist. But the sunk cost fallacy is just that: a fallacy.
Success has many components and perseverance is only one.
Persevering through failure after failure can be devastating. It can destroy self esteem and burn through energy and resources. Secondly, we cling to the idea that perseverance is the key to success. This, too, is a fallacy. Success has many components and perseverance is only one.
You need talent or skill, as well as passion and drive. And, crucially, you also need luck. Malcolm Gladwell explains this beautifully in his book Outliers, highlighting the ways in which luck and timing are key to any great success.
Thirdly, our society maintains a collective delusion that anything and everything is possible, as long as you "believe". Just watch any Oscars speech, and see the winner thanking God (who, sadly, has forsaken all those who didn’t win), claiming "This is proof that anyone can make it!"
But not anyone can make it, and a dogged pursuit of an unattainable outcome can be a waste of time at best, and soul crushing at worst. Quitting when you’re not ahead is sometimes the smartest thing to do.
Now, obviously, if you enjoy a pursuit, regardless of its outcome, you should continue. The question to ask yourself is whether the activity brings you joy, independent of the outcome. If you knew your novel would never be published, would you want to write? If you could never be a champion swimmer, would you still want to train? If your podcast never becomes profitable, would you still want to record it?
If the pursuit isn’t enjoyable – if it is, say, a painful struggle to break into a particular field, or a to make a failing business profitable, or to keep a difficult relationship alive – you need to be free to let it go.
There are some things you should never quit. You shouldn’t quit trying to get sober. You shouldn’t quit trying to get healthy. You shouldn’t quit trying to be a good person, or trying to be content.
But knowing when to quit is important. Whether it’s little things, like giving up on a bad movie, or big things, like knowing when to leave a marriage, it is wise sometimes to say enough is enough. Move on. Put your energy into something else.
Failure is not always the path to success. Sometimes, failure is the door to something new.
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