Michael Jordan celebrating the Bulls’ sixth NBA championship.
AFP via Getty Images
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 principle, loss aversion bias, anchoring 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. …….