A Lesson in Quitting

We are tasked with making thousands of decisions a day. That’s right, I said thousands. They may not seem like decisions, but the subtle decision to stay here and finish this paragraph, or get up, walk to the next room and use the bathroom has been one that I’ve had to answer in the back of my mind at least 4 times since writing this lesson. It doesn’t seem like a decision because you hardly know you’re making it. I need to pee, but it isn’t that bad, and I’m afraid I’ll lose my train of thought if I get up now, so, I keep writing.

Other decisions might occupy a little more of the forefront of your mind – do I cook tonight or pick something up on my way home? Are we going to watch a new movie tonight or reruns of The Office? And still, other decisions require your full attention – Do I stay another year training for the Olympics, or move home and start a career? Do we send our kids to private school or public? Do we continue with couples counseling or call it quits?

Decisions big and small, seemingly trivial, or potentially life-changing are being made all day, every day, by everyone. So if I have trouble deciding what to wear each morning, how am I capable of making thousands of decisions, big and small each day, without going crazy? Over time, your mind creates shortcuts for processing information, and it treats making decisions no differently. Our team physician and nutritionist, Dr. Ryan Lazarus would be talking about neuroplasticity and synapsis to describe these decision short-cuts, but for application sake it boils down to two words: Suffering and Sacrifice.

Every time you are making a decision, no matter the importance, you consciously or subconsciously weigh, how much you will suffer and what you will have to sacrifice. For small, seemingly insignificant decisions, weighing these two variables is done subconsciously, but as the decision becomes more critical, the consideration of suffering and sacrifice becomes more apparent. And what is the measurement of each of these variables? For each individual there is an amount of suffering and sacrifice that we are willing to endure to pursue what is important or interesting to us. But once one or both of those variables crosses the threshold which we are no longer willing to endure, then it is time to quit, or to pivot to a new goal. The complicated part of all this is that thresholds for suffering and sacrifice are different depending on the parson – and even within an individual – are constantly changing based on what’s going on with the rest of your life. Below is an example.

Let’s say that I am actively recruiting you for my next trans-ocean rowing race, and you are deciding whether to accept the invitation to the team or not. Assuming, for the sake of this example, you are not an ocean rower, the first thing you begin to consider is the suffering. Your suffering to both train for, and complete this adventure will be immense. Even if you are a great athlete, because you’ve never trained or crossed an ocean, you will have to change your normal training routine to something unfamiliar. You will be sore. You will get in the boat for training trips and get beat up, your hands will be blistered, and your body riddled with salt sores. You’ll make rookie mistakes, no matter how much I teach you, and you will come out of those training sessions beat up and in lots of pain. This will inevitably lead to emotional suffering as a result. You will second guess yourself, and have large bouts of insecurity. You’ll be scared of the ocean, the weather, and all the elements that come from taking weeks to cross a large body of water. You’ll endure sleepless nights of wondering if you have what it takes. All of the above falls under suffering.

In contrast, my suffering will be far less. I’m trained for this type of race, and have the experience to give me confidence. Where you have blisters, I’ve developed calluses. The sore muscles you have are trained up for me, and I sleep like a baby each night knowing that I certainly have what it takes. My suffering threshold for ocean rowing is high, and in this particular scenario, the suffering I will endure will not get close to exceeding it. Your threshold, however, is much lower and you may find that while training you constantly creep close to it, or even exceed it at times. But now let’s talk sacrifice. Here you will find the tables to be turned in your favor perhaps. Again, for the sake of this example, let’s assume that you are single and otherwise unattached. You have a good job, but one that is either supportive of you taking this journey, or a job that you would not be sorry to have to let go if given an ultimatum. Financially, you have plenty in savings so to take this time off would not be a burden to you, and you have no other major obligations in the foreseeable future that would prohibit you from not only taking time to train properly, but to also be away and unreachable for over a month.

In this example, my situation is quite different. Not only am I married, but I have an 13-month old at home, our first. We have friends willing to help, but overall we live away from our families and therefore have a hard time getting childcare when we need it. In addition, I own my own business, and this particular race happens to leave during my companies’ busy time. That means we will have to turn away business while I’m gone, cutting into our profits and limiting some of the things we had planned as a company this year. The last time I rowed an ocean, I was married but without any children, we lived closer to our families so my wife had more emotional support while I was gone, and that particular race left during our companies’ slowest month of the year.

Just by virtue of my new family situation, and race timing, the amount of sacrifice, or what I’d have to give up in order to row this ocean, is incredibly high. Less time with my wife and son, less time toward my company, and the money I will have to give up as a result of this. The threshold for my sacrifice has lowered, and I’m already reaching what I’d be willing to give up. You, on the other hand, have a high threshold for sacrifice and don’t see any situation coming into play that would put that at risk.

In this example, we both have some serious consideration. On the surface, most would expect that there’s no way I would quit the team, but would probably not be surprised if you decided to bail. However, once you and I start on our respective paths toward analyzing and testing our suffering and sacrifice thresholds, we may find that while you have decided that the suffering is worth the glory of getting to row and ocean, I have decided that the opportunity cost of being away from my family and business is not. I have stepped down as the captain and asked someone to take my place. In this example, if either one of us decided that one or more of our thresholds was more than we were willing to endure, this would be considered a healthy quit. We both weighed what we’d have to suffer and what we’d have to sacrifice and made our decision based off of that, instead of simply saying, “I can’t”, and quitting as a reaction to something being hard.

Lastly, I will reiterate that healthy quits, as seen from this scenario can surprise those not intimate with the suffering and and sacrifice that an individual is weighing. We hear people retiring in their prime, or changing careers and think they must have gone mad. From my experience, those people are usually the ones who make intelligent quits, and we must not be quick to judge just because they have deprived us of their talent too soon.