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What Will You Stop With In 2022? Thoughtful Quitting As Recipe For Success

Persistence is heroic. Quitting is not. Persistence sells. Quitting doesn’t. But, quitting is just as much part of success as persistence.


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Jeroen Kraaijenbrink

4 months ago | 3 min read
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Persistence is seen as a recipe and hallmark of success. Michael Jordan is awed for his willingness to fail again and again and never give up during his basketball career. Elon Musk is awed for his endless optimism and effort to build an electric car company from scratch.

And Tolkien’s Frodo Baggins is awed for his heroic quest to and through Mordor to destroy the Ring. Accordingly, people awe many other athletes, entrepreneurs and protagonists for their undestroyable perseverance—and buy international bestsellers such as Grit (Angela Duckworth), Mindset (Carol S. Dweck), and Relentless (Tim S. Grover).

Persistence is heroic. Quitting is not. Persistence sells. Quitting doesn’t. But, quitting is just as much part of success as persistence. Michael Jordan was persistent, but he also quitted his basketball career in 1993 and quitted his brief intermediate professional baseball career to return to basketball in 1995.

Elon Musk is persistent, but he also left Zip2 and PayPal before launching Tesla. And Frodo Baggins is persistent, but he also had to leave behind the safe surroundings of the Shire to embark on his fearful journey.

When Quitting Is Accepted

It is accepted that quitting is good when it concerns bad habits or routines that are not fit for purpose anymore. People that quit smoking, drinking, drugs, gambling, or any other addiction are applauded.

And in organizational change management, we see people that resist as a burden and appreciate those that embrace change and let their old habits go. So, it is known that quitting can be good.

Also from cognitive psychology it is known that persistently sticking to something is not just a good thing. Human beings are sensitive to numerous cognitive and social biases that can be unproductive or even harmful.

There is escalation of commitment, the tendency to stick to something for the mere fact that we have already invested so much in it. There is consistency bias, the tendency to remain consistent with what we thought, said and did in the past.

There is effort justification, the tendency to value something more just because we have put more effort in it. There is the bandwagon effect, the familiarity principleloss aversion biasanchoring bias, and so on and so forth.

Each of these biases reflects a strong commitment to the things we are used to, to the beliefs, habits and relationships that are familiar.

But, they are called biases for a reason. They make you stick to something more than is rationally smart or good for you. If people were rational and smart, they would quit more often. But they persist, because of their built-in persistency bias. 

Thoughtful Quitting As Path To Success

So, from research and experience it is very evident that there are downsides to persistence and upsides to quitting. Yet, the persistency myth prevails, especially when it concerns people that are “truly” successful.

Apparently, people just want to believe that it is primarily persistence that has gotten them where they are.

Of course, persistence is important. The evidence is out there. But, it is not the whole story. It is persistence and quitting that, together, lead to success.

Pure persistence without knowing when to quit is unproductive because it leads to dead ends. It is thoughtful quitting that makes the persistence productive.

Thoughtful quitting doesn’t mean giving up all the time or jumping from one unfinished task to the other.

It means stopping with something before it becomes a burden, at the right time, when somewhere deep inside you, there is this feeling and voice that the time has come to move on to something else—to baseball, to producing electric cars, to any new adventure.

Quitting is not a sign of weakness. It requires strength. It requires breaking through our built-in persistency bias and deviating from the widely shared persistency norm.

Quitting is not self-serving or egocentric either. Of course, it may disappoint some people when we quit. But in the long-run, we, and they, are better off than if we persist until we realize we should have quitted earlier.

Quitting is as good as the starting that follows. Undirected quitting followed by random starting is not necessarily a recipe for success. It may lead to unexpected and amazing success, but we generally call this luck. Thoughtful quitting means quitting with the next, better step already in mind.

What counts as better will be different for everyone. It may mean a possibility to have a greater positive impact, learn, have more fun, get better returns, or anything else. But, what these goals have in common is that it is often quitting, and not merely persistence, that is needed to realize them.

So, when you make your New Year’s resolutions, think about what you can (or should) thoughtfully quit with in the coming year. And don’t just focus on the usual suspects—smoking, eating too much, and so on.

Think particularly about your professional life and the things to which you may have committed too long. Reconsider and dare to quit with the next step in mind.

Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn. Check out my website or some of my other work here

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Jeroen Kraaijenbrink

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Strategy consultant, mentor, writer and speaker

Dr Jeroen Kraaijenbrink is an accomplished strategy educator, speaker, writer and consultant with over two decades of experience bridging academia and industry. Drawing from cognitive psychology, humanism, Saint Benedict, and a wide range of other sources, he is the author of numerous articles on strategy, sustainability and personal leadership and five books: Strategy Consulting, No More Bananas, Unlearning Strategy, and the two-volume practical guide to strategy The Strategy Handbook. He is an active Forbes contributor where he writes about strategy, leadership and how to embrace the complexity and uncertainty of this world. Jeroen has a PhD in industrial management, teaches strategy at the University of Amsterdam Business School, and has helped many midsized and larger companies across the engineering, manufacturing, healthcare and financial services industries.


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