The Upside of Being a Quitter

The key to success lies not in never quitting, but in knowing when to quit. Here's why quitting can actually be better for your happiness -- and your health.
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As women, we are constantly told, "don't give up:" Don't give up on love, don't give up on believing in your dreams, don't give up on getting that dream job.

But what if cutting your losses and walking away is your best option? A recent Freakonomics podcast explored the "upside of quitting," showing that all those messages about "waste not, want not" may just waste more of your time -- and actually harm your health.

The "sunk-cost fallacy" is the false belief that you can't quit something because you've already invested too much time, energy, or other resources towards it, rather than recognizing it as a lost cause and walking away. And many, many of us are susceptible to this fallacy: How many times have you stayed in a job you knew was wrong for you telling yourself you'd learn to love it? How many times have you hung on to that bad relationship, hoping the person would change after all those years you invested in trying to make it work?

Even more disconcerting is the fact that our proclivity to keep pursuing failed experiments isn't ingrained -- it's something we develop somewhere along the way. A study conducted by Hal Arkes and Peter Ayton found that children and animals don't fall for the sunk cost fallacy, implying it's something we are conditioned to accept.

The "sunk cost fallacy" doesn't just apply to your wallet. Iris Krasnow, author of The Secret Lives of Wives, was about to get her wedding dress altered and on a vacation with her husband-to-be when she realized the man she was about to marry wasn't right for her. Ultimately, she realized the material cost of plane tickets and printed invitations couldn't outweigh the emotional costs of marrying someone wrong for her, and so she "quit" before the wedding. She is now happily hitched to a man she adores and with whom she has raised four sons.

Krasnow isn't alone. We tend to feel so much shame around quitting anything -- a job, a book club, even a yoga class -- but if you look around, you probably know more "quitters" than you think, and they're probably doing okay. Over on BNEt, Suzanne Lucas reacted to the Freakonomis podcast by describing her own personal story of becoming a "quitter." Lucas described how, from a young age, she was determined to be a political science professor. She attained her masters and received a full scholarship to a top Ph.D. program before realizing it wasn't the path for her and would never make her happy. In her post, she mused: "What if I stuck it out? And then wanted to change careers? It would have been harder to move into an entry-level Human Resources job with a Ph.D. than with a master's degree." Lucas says she is happy that she quit and became a writer, and while it was difficult to walk away from her former dream, she's glad she cut her losses before even more time had lapsed doing something that wasn't right for her.

As Krasnow and Lucas found, it's okay to change your mind, and the ability to identify what's working for you and what's not -- before investing time and energy into an enterprise that will lead to unhappiness or lost time -- can be a skill that can lead to success. Steven Levitt, co-author of the book Freakonomics, argues that learning to "fail quickly" was a key to his success as an economist: "ever since the beginning, my mantra has been "fail quickly." If I started with a hundred ideas, I'm lucky if two or three of those ideas will ever turn into academic papers. One of my great skills as an economist has been to recognize the need to fail quickly and the willingness to jettison a project as soon as I realize it's likely to fail." What if former Ebay CEO Meg Whitman had continued on the med student track instead of graduating with a degree in Economics and running eBay and now HP?

And being willing to cut your losses and change course doesn't just affect you in the present: Studies show your ability to move on from past events may impact your judgment when it comes to future investments of time and self. A study by Marijke van Putten, Marcel Zeelenberg and Eric van Dijk found that people who have a tendency to ruminate about past events and have a hard time letting go of them (a mindset the researchers refer to as "state orientation") were especially prone to fall in the sunk cost trap later on, while people who were more easily able to let go of past events (those with "action orientation"), were not as susceptible to the sunk cost effect. Don't let a bad relationship or a bad business decision come back to haunt you; look to what makes sense for the future, rather than turning back towards the past.

But abandoning unattainable goals has benefits beyond saving money and time or sparing yourself further heartache. Carstan Wrosch, a psychology professor at Concordia in Montreal, found that quitting can be good for your health.

Wrosch conducted a study of 90 adolescents and told Freakonomics listeners:

People who are better able to let go when they experience unattainable goals, they have ... less depressive symptoms, less negative affect over time. They also have lower Cortisol levels, and they have lower levels of systemic inflammation which is a marker of immune functioning. And they develop fewer physical health problems over time.

The key to success, it seems, lies not in never quitting, but in knowing when to quit. That can be a tall order for people who like a concrete set of rules to follow, including "Never quit" and women who still grow up -- and live -- under a lot of pressure to play by the rules. The data on quitting may just be further evidence of that so hard to swallow truth, that the only hard and fast rule of adulthood is to make your own rules, and even then be open to changing them.

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