Muhammad Ali was a winner who should’ve quit after the Rumble in the Jungle.
Ali would’ve retired as the heavyweight champion after knocking out the younger, bigger and stronger George Foreman in October 1974.
But Ali went back in the ring for seven more years. Ali’s fight doctor quit when he couldn’t convince the boxer to retire. Madison Square Gardens stopped booking Ali for fights.
“The same grit that helped Ali become such a great champion – admired and revered almost without equal – became his undoing when it drove him to ignore signs that were obvious to anyone on the outside looking in that he should quit,” says Annie Duke, author of Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away.
“All those punches he absorbed after vanquishing Foreman unquestionably contributed to the 1984 diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease and his physical and mental decline thereafter.”
Like Ali, we’re blind to the signs that we should quit jobs, careers and relationships.
Why do we ignore the obvious? We’ve bought into the myth that winners never quit and quitters never win. If we’ve been knocked down seven times before, we’ve been told to get back on our feet and soldier on. The eighth time might just be the charm.
Grit’s a virtue and quitting’s a sin. Successful people stick with it and stay the course. And should they ever make a change, they haven’t quit – they’ve made a pivot.
Meanwhile, quitting is for losers, cowards, wimps and wusses.
But what if we’ve been following bad advice?
“People stick to things all the time that they don’t succeed at, sometimes based on the belief that if they stick with it long enough, that will lead to success,” says Duke.
“Sometimes they stick with it because winners never quit. Either way, a lot of people are banging their heads against the wall, unhappy because they think there is something wrong with them rather than something wrong with the advice.
“Success does not lie in sticking to things. It lies in picking the right thing to stick to and quitting the rest.”
While grit is the stuff of TED Talks and bestselling books, Duke says a convincing case can be made for quitting early and more often.
“There is a rich universe of science studying the human tendency to persevere too long, particularly in the face of bad news. The science spans disciplines from economics to game theory to behavioral psychology and covers topics from sunk cost to status quo bias to loss aversion to escalation of commitment, and much more.
“And what the science is telling us is that every day, in ways big and small, we act like Muhammad Ali, sticking to things too long in the face of signals that we ought to quit.”
According to Duke, the hardest and most painful thing to quit is who we are.
From an early age, we’re asked what we want to be when we grow up rather than what jobs we want to do. It’s a difference with a big distinction, says Duke.
“When your identify is what you do, then what you do becomes hard to abandon, because it means quitting who you are.”
We also worry too much about what family, friends and even strangers will think of us for quitting. “We assume that if we quit, even if it’s obviously the right thing to do, other people are going to think that we failed. That we’re capricious or weak. We don’t believe there’s going to be any empathy or understanding of why we might have made the choice that we did.”
But Duke says the research shows most people won’t judge us for quitting. “Those worries we’ve projected onto others are just head trash we’re carrying around.”
So if you have a suspicion that it’s time to walk away, Duke offers the hard science to help you make a tough, yet necessary, decision. Life’s too short to keep getting knocked down and out.
Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton, has quit five jobs in his career and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.