So there’s this whole lost of self-help books advising everyone to follow their dreams. Giving up is for losers (insert any expletive you may think of). Yet, throwing in the towel is useful in many cases.
I thought it is high time someone breaks this notion of perseverance is awesome since often it is not. And it can have disastrous consequences with respect to entrepreneurial ventures and career options.
Sometimes it’s ok to give up
‘Never give up’ is bad advice
Why do we hate giving up? Sunk costs, social norms and cognitive consonance
For starts, it is social pressure. All those heroic novels and stories of people who made it good. It is ingrained in our culture and media. Interestingly, perseverance is ingrained in the ethos of our culture. There is some basis for it. If you do not try something, it is hard to say if you will like it or even be good it in.
Unfortunately, both liking and being good in something can be correlated and the causal direction is ambiguous.
Let’s say that you wake up one fine morning and decide you want to be really good at playing ping pong. Now, if you are have some sort of natural skill (in this case better hand-eye coordination) at playing ping pong, you might end up liking it.
Or, if you like ping pong, you will play it often and enough and you dedicate enough energy to be better at it. But gathering evidence for either requires you to stick around for a while. That’s the causal ambiguity.
Which then brings us to sunk costs. Since you stick around, you have already invested time (and money perhaps) and now there is too much to lose by giving (let’s just say ping pong) up. Of course there is that added pressure of being branded a failure (he who hath playeth ping pong for the last decade may not give up).
You start convincing yourself that with even more time you will get better and that you have actually started liking the sport. And your brain might tell you that you are except objectively you might still suck.
So you continue in your quest to be a ping pong champion. Now ping pong is so familiar to you that the opportunity to try out something with bigger balls (no pun intended) like soccer goes unheeded. You need to be the ping pong guy (or girl) and starting soccer after you have invested so much in ping pong is just so pointless.
On why giving up is so awesome at times: Opportunity costs, self concept
Now the problem is that there is no guarantee that you will succeed in something only if you give it time. If you don’t like playing ping pong and you truly suck at moving fast enough, you might become a bit better at it with time but not enough to really matter.
The other, and perhaps bigger problem, has to do with opportunity costs. The time and effort you are spending on ping pong could have been spent elsewhere. Yes, you could be the basketball player or even give those mental faculties a chance and try your hand at chess. Easier said than done of course, but who know — you could just be that next Alekhine.
A different but equally important issue is that of concept of self. Some ‘perseverers’ hope to achieve that level of excellence which never comes. That slowly but surely starts to affect their personal life.
This is fueled by the unfortunate media hype about survivors. We all know about the billionaire actor who made it from scratch and who never gave up on his passion for acting. What about those who crashed in their efforts and are now penniless?
In economic terms, this is a classic case of survivor bias. On the flip side, some ‘perseverers’ start getting used to their ‘not liking and not getting any better but still gotta do it’ status. So they get stuck in a rut and time flows by.
Now substitute ping pong for balance sheets and that accounting degree you are invested in. Or that PhD in evolutionary biology. Or that digital printing business. Or really becoming the ping pong star.
When is it ok to give up?
I believe there are two main deciding factors for discontinuing something.
- If you are disinterested: It could be a job, a particular area of study or a degree. You have tried it for a while and you do not like it. Life’s too short so unless there is a necessity, do something you really enjoy.
And when it is a career or a business which takes up a large portion of your waking time (and future), interest becomes even more important. Also, remember that reverse causal thingy we talked about before.
- If you continue to underperform: This is somewhat controversial and is more of a personal opinion. In this day, we are taught to really pursue what we like. I feel there needs to be a combination of the two — it has to be something you like and something you feel you can be good at.
Or not just feel, something you are getting good at, objectively with time, as judged by someone who is not your mother (except those moms who are awesome critics). In our era of competition and until we are all replaced by AI, I feel this combination is a key to success.
Why giving up can be good
You give up on that digital printing business and start up a coffee shop. You find out that you like that environment more and that interaction with people is more your thing. You also start earning more money. In other words, you get to something better.
You give up on that PhD in evolutionary biology and do an MBA. Or go the other route and give up on going for an MBA and instead study why natural selection rules (again no pun intended). You discover that the whole effort is rewarding and enjoyable. In other words, you switch to something you want to do more.
On the art of giving up
I am going to sign off with a few words on how to arrive at a decision of change. The most important is the word ‘change’. Don’t just give up and do nothing. Or at least not do nothing for too long (how many negatives in a sentence make a positive?). Change to something and have some idea (or formulate one along the line).
The second bit of advice is to have courage and tranquility. Courage, since starting something different requires a departure from familiarity. Tranquility, since roadblocks will inevitably need to be overcome and since you have given up once already, it only too easy to brand yourself a failure if you do not find immediate success.
Guess what, giving up multiple times is also not a bad thing.
So, here’s to giving up! Eager for your thoughts.