When to Grit and When to Quit

By Susan David

The world has likely instilled in you the importance of passion and persistence. Grit is embedded in our cultural aphorisms, from British “Keep Calm and Carry On” to the American adage “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” 

Success—in life, in work, in creative pursuits—is synonymous with keeping our noses to the grindstone as we rack up the requisite 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell popularized.

There are many reasons to celebrate grit. The things that we value most, from meaningful relationships to professional triumphs, require us to persist through challenging times. Thomas Edison churned out more than 1,000 unsuccessful prototypes before inventing a working lightbulb. Where would we be if he threw up his hands after failure number 500?

Despite its many virtues, though, it is possible to overvalue grittiness. Just as important as the discipline to grit is the self-awareness to know when to quit

Perseverance is a necessary ingredient for human thriving, but we must be thoughtful about what we’re persevering at and why. There’s nothing admirable about working doggedly toward a goal that no longer matters to you, and there’s nothing shameful about reevaluating your path.

Both history and life experience tell us that an unwavering grittiness can bring as many negative consequences as positive ones. As early as 1965, Lyndon Johnson privately admitted that the Vietnam War was unwinnable, yet his stubborn determination not to “be the first American president to lose a war” pulled him deeper into a conflict that dragged on for another bloody decade. 

On a more personal level, think of all the sons who spent their lives pursuing the careers they thought most likely to earn the respect of their fathers, and all the daughters who buried their own dreams to fulfill homebound duties. No one can doubt their strength of will, but what did they sacrifice along the way?

Whether it means ending a relationship that you’ve invested years in, shelving a screenplay that’s just not working, or just choosing not to be the last person in the office the night before a big presentation, the choice not to grit it out can be a very difficult one. 

No one wants to feel like a quitter, and it’s especially hard to step back from something we’ve come to see as integral to our identity. But not all goals are attainable, and many can cost us too dearly in other aspects of our lives.

If a longstanding commitment no longer feels rewarding to you, do yourself the dignity of taking those feelings seriously.

Consider what is no longer resonating with you.

Is your work process no longer pleasurable? Is the future you’re working toward no longer the one you want? Then consider what kind of future you do want. Consider who it is that you do want to be, and where it is that you do want to go. Quitting can be a hard choice to make, but often it’s a brave one, as well.

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