The Value and Limits of Persistence

A Delaware Coast Press reader emails that her father used to tell her to “not be a quitter.” But when she realizes she’s fighting a losing battle, she feels guilty just “letting it go.” She asks at what point being a quitter ends, and common sense begins.

“Not being a quitter” is a valid sentiment, as far as persistence is concerned. But the question remains: Persistence at what? Does what you’re doing make sense? Are you seeing progress? If so, then carry on. But if your efforts are failing, stop, figure out why and make corrections. And if that doesn’t work, cut your losses and chalk it up to a bad idea.

My experience has shown that some people persist in ventures or relationships they should have long since terminated. They think, “Don’t be a quitter,” only to regret it later on. Stick to your goal only when the facts support it.

Sometimes, people will use this “quitter” stuff to manipulate others. Years ago, between college and graduate school, I left a job that I found boring and unfulfilling. The owner pronounced 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. Beware! Whoever is telling you not to quit might have an agenda of his or her own.

In marriage and love relationships, I’ve noticed that many people hang on for the wrong reasons. One of the most common of these is, “If my relationship fails, then I have failed.” I don’t mean to minimize the difficulty 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 people change or outgrow one other. 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 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. “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 to you?” His answer was a resounding, “No.”

Endings are just endings. Americans change jobs multiple times, and some even change careers. 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. Ending usually means transition, and transition often means growth.

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 re-evaluate.” There’s a difference between abandoning what’s important simply because the going gets tough, versus realizing that what you’re seeking just isn’t going to happen. Reality trumps persistence every time.

I think one of the reasons why people equate change with failure is disappointed expectations. They expected their marriage (or their job, or their friendship) to last forever, but it doesn’t. OK, it’s disappointing, but many still admit that the bulk of those years were good, and that they don’t regret the entirety of the former relationship. More often, I hear people say that they regret “how long I stayed.” Well, this would seem to argue the case for a more rational approach to endings.

Change isn’t failure. In order to change for the better, sometimes you just have to proudly stand up and be a quitter.


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