Personal Growth

Why Quitting Is Underrated

Our culture glorifies perseverance. "Don't be a quitter" is the unofficial motto of youth T-ball leagues, inspiring songs, and dads. They're all right, in a way. Hard work is a key to success — but so is strategically giving up.

Related Video: The Negative Side of Positive Thinking

Sunk Costs vs. Opportunity Costs

Often, perseverant people, go-getters, people with "grit" — there are a lot of terms for these folks — look at their life in terms of what economists call "sunk costs." Minor league baseball players are a great case study in this mindset. They've been drafted by major teams, but there's a roughly 11 percent chance they'll actually make it to the big leagues. Still — how can they quit? They've put so much time and energy into their dream already! They're almost there!

As Steven J. Dubner notes on his Freakonomics podcast, thinking this way means constantly looking backward, into the past. The focus is on what you've already done, which can't be changed. This often leads to what's known as the sunk-cost fallacy — keeping at something because otherwise, the time you've already spent on it will feel "wasted."

Trying to justify resources you've already spent, or "sunk," often leads to ignoring the "opportunity costs" of your decisions. Whenever you pursue something, whether it's minor league baseball or dishwasher repair, there's an "opportunity cost," as economists put it. You're abandoning all the things you could have done with that same time and effort. When you think in terms of opportunity costs, the central question of your life isn't "What have I done so far?" — it's "What's my most compelling option right now?"

For minor league baseball players, the answer is rarely baseball, at least from a financial perspective. Dubner talked to sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, who studied minor league players. He found that 10 years after going into baseball, minor league players usually make about 40 percent less than their peers from similar backgrounds.

Venkatesh also found that quitting is so difficult for these baseball players to talk about, they had what amounts to a code word for it: "shutting it down." It feels less permanent than quitting — you can reboot a computer you shut down! — but of course, some minor leaguers quit for good.

The Perks of Quitting

Here's the thing: Quitting can be awesome. It's not just economists who think so — the Harvard Business Review also has positive things to say about quitting. For instance: Perseverant people tend to dig into "worthless tasks," but quitting can set you free from mundane busywork with minimal payoff.

Quitting also opens you up to opportunities better suited to your talents. Calling obvious failures "failures" early on — by "failing quickly," as economist Steven Levitt encourages his students to do — allows you to try more things, and ultimately find that elusive fit between what you're doing and who you are. It also helps you avoid sinking tons of resources into fatally flawed projects, like, you know, flip-flops that grow grass for no reason.

That's not to mention the health benefits of quitting. Research shows that when you can let go of impossible dreams without beating yourself up, you're less stressed and you're less likely to experience a variety of health issues, both mental and physical. In a 2007 study, participants who successfully dropped unattainable goals experienced fewer headaches and less constipation, eczema, and even depression. They also slept better, likely thanks to the fact that their body's store of cortisol, a stress hormone, had leveled out.

Certainly, quitting isn't the answer to every problem. But never quitting is nothing to be proud of, either. The real goal is to know when to give up and when to keep going. Sometimes, success is just around the corner; other times, the only thing around the corner is stress and constipation.

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For more from Levitt & Dubner, check out their blockbuster book "Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Mae Rice February 1, 2019

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