When Do I Give Up?

Talking at a bank the other day about corporate entrepreneurship, someone in the room asked, “when do you give up?” Early in my career, my answer would have been a raised fist and a bold rallying cry of “Never!” In fact, a few years into my first job, working for Dr. Henry Kissinger, I asked his secretary why I’d gotten the job. “You seemed dogged and relentless, like a mule who would carry the heaviest load to the top of the mountain.” Not the impression I was going for, but not far from the truth.

"Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals", says Angela Duckworth, psychologist and author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, in her TED talk.  

Commitment, diligence, resilience…what’s not to love? There doesn’t seem to be a lot of downside. Grit is a now popular metric to assess your career potential, your character or even your team but it has some flaws. The discussion about it is partly powered by a big demographic shift. When I started, a first job was about “paying your dues”. With shifts in technology and tenure at work declining, younger people don’t always see the point of investing in a company for the long term.

When managing projects or managing your career, there is something to be said, however, for knowing when and where to quit.

“You gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run”, so goes the old country western song about playing cards.  One of the hardest things you will do in life is decide whether to walk away or try harder, but either way, you’ll learn from it.

Military leaders have known this for centuries in order to preserve their forces and be willing to “lose the battle to win the war”.  Now the University of Southern California has done research that shows that perseverance at all costs is not always the most successful option. In one experiment of 426 people, they were given 20 minutes to solve as many anagrams as possible. “Grittier” people spent more time on the unsolvable challenges. The winning strategy was to skip the hardest and move on to solve the easiest problems. 

So when do you give up or at least change course? Taking time to think about the outcomes you hope to achieve from a job or project is a good start. My business school professor, Bruce Greenwald, used to say, “It’s harder to kill a puppy than to buy a puppy.” List your expected goals prior to going by the pet shop window.  Then review at an agreed upon point: If you haven’t met your objectives, can you meet those goals with additional or different resources?

Harder is knowing when something just isn’t working for you. It’s boring or not what you expected or you feel like there must be something better just around the corner. These days, between dating sites, job boards, and meetups there is a sense of endless options just a swipe away. Why settle? But remember, when you are ready to quit, it’s a perfect time to revisit what you hoped to achieve and strive to make it happen, but be ready to work for it.

Which bring us back to grit and commitment. Perseverance through difficulty…in relationships, business challenges and career choices is where growth happens. And if you are not growing, you might feel like you’re moving ahead at light speed, but you’re just a flea on a fast dog.