Transition isn’t failure, if it makes you happy


A Wave reader from South Bethany emails,

Dear Dr. Hurd,

My father used to tell me, “Don’t be a quitter.” But sometimes, when I’m trying to get something done, and I realize I’m fighting a losing battle, I feel guilty just ‘letting it go.’ At what point does ‘being a quitter’ end, and ‘common sense’ begin?


Dear Wave Reader,

‘Not being a quitter’ is a valid sentiment—as far as the virtue of persistence is concerned. But the question remains: Persistence at WHAT? Does what you’re doing make sense? Are you seeing progress? If so, then by all means carry on. But if your efforts are floundering or failing, stop and figure out why. Make corrections, if possible. And if the corrections don’t work, there’s nothing wrong with cutting your losses and chalking the whole thing up to a ‘bad idea.’

My experience has shown that some people persist in ventures or relationships they should long since have terminated. They operate on the silent premise, “Don’t be a quitter,” and then regret it later on. Bottom line: Stick to your goal, but only when it makes sense and the facts support it.

Sometimes, people will use ‘don’t be a quitter’ as a way to manipulate others. Years ago, between college and graduate school, I left a job that I found boring and unfulfilling. The owner disagreed with my decision, pronouncing in an ominous voice, ‘It’s not good to be a quitter.’ I was flattered that he wanted me to stay, but I knew that I was making the right decision. I couldn’t have cared less about his ‘words of wisdom,’ but I realized that they could be used to control someone, especially in family and personal relationships. Let the buyer beware when it comes to the notion of ‘not quitting!’ Whoever is telling you not to quit just might have an agenda of his or her own. There’s nothing wrong with personal agendas, but they should be honest and not automatically imply that you’re the one making a mistake.

In marriages and love relationships, I’ve noticed that many people hang on for the wrong reasons. One of the most common of these is the false belief that, ‘If my relationship fails, then I have failed.’ Now, I don’t mean to minimize the difficulty and pain of a decision like this, but if the rational conclusion (i.e., the one that brings you happiness) is to break up, then how is that a failure? Most relationships end because the people outgrew one other or changed in some significant way. People often admit that the change was favorable and certainly inevitable. So what are they supposed to do—stay stagnant, living in misery and hypocrisy with someone they no longer love? Accepting the truth and refusing to live a lie is not a failure.

It’s always interesting to hear why people are reluctant to end friendships, business associations or personal relationships. I knew someone once who was thoroughly disgusted with the bad treatment he received from a long-time friend. Eventually there was a ‘last straw’ incident, and he knew that this was it. Yet he hesitated to call it off. I asked him why. ‘Because we’ve been friends for more than 15 years,’ he said. ‘But is that the only reason?’ I asked. ‘I can see why that makes it more emotional, but do those 15 years undo all that he’s done?’ His answer was a resounding ‘NO.’

Endings are not the end of the world. They’re just endings. Americans change jobs multiple times in their lives, and some even change careers once or twice. Most will move numerous times. Divorce happens with at least half of the population in the first marriage, but most seem to get the second one right, either because they’re more mature, or it’s just a better match. Ending usually means transition, and transition often means growth. Growth is the American way and, indeed, the human way.

I don’t want to knock the value of persistence, but we need an alternative to ‘Don’t be a quitter.’ How about: ‘Persist unless the facts get in the way—then reevaluate.’ There’s a difference between abandoning what’s important to you, simply because the going gets tough, versus realizing that what you’re seeking just isn’t going to happen. Reality trumps persistence.

I think one of the reasons why people equate change with failure is that their expectations were thwarted. They expected their marriage (or their job, or their friendship) to last forever, but it didn’t. OK, it’s disappointing, and it hurts at the time. But many admit that the bulk of those years were good, and that they don’t regret the entirety of their former relationship. More often, I hear people say they regret ‘how long I stayed.’ Well, this would seem to argue the case for a more rational approach to endings—and not wasting precious time being afraid of them.

Change isn’t failure. It’s part of our inexorable passage through life. In order to change for the better, sometimes you just have to stand up and be a quitter.