First came the sobbing – a great gust of tears that successively overwhelmed my shirt sleeve, an entire box of tissues and an extra-large bath towel. Next came a prolonged period of sitting cross-legged on the floor and staring blankly into space while a single question – infused with equal parts sorrow and self-pity – tolled in my head: “What will become of me?” At last came the desperation-fuelled gesture I dreaded beyond all others: I quit.
I was certain that dropping out of graduate school, and giving up the teaching appointment that funded it, would ruin me. Surely it would mark me as a snivelling loser, a lazy bum, a spineless coward. But I had no choice because my misery was so acute. (And I was running out of towels.)
I had started the programme with optimistic brio – I was destined to become the world’s greatest Virginia Woolf scholar, wasn’t I? – even though, at 19, I was younger than the typical grad student. In fact, I was younger than most of my students. Barely a month in, however, I was bereft. Everything – the school, the apartment, the town, the timing – seemed catastrophically wrong.
Looking back, I believe that what ailed me was a combination of emotional immaturity and a crippling shyness that prevented me from reaching out to anyone at the university who might have helped. By the time I quit, I was at the end of my emotional tether. Cringing with shame, I fled to my parents’ home.
Things eventually worked out. I lurched and bumbled my way into journalism, although I’d never taken a journalism course. (As an English major, I knew more about Absalom and Achitophel than Woodward and Bernstein.) I ended up at the Chicago Tribune, where my work won a Pulitzer prize. Along the way I returned to grad school as a side hustle, earning a doctoral degree in English from Ohio State University, with a dissertation on – you guessed it – my old pal Virginia Woolf, who had waited patiently for me to get myself together.
What sticks in my mind, though, and what inspired me to write my latest book, is the terror and panic I felt at the prospect of withdrawing from school. The negative connotation associated with giving up was, I realise now, a more dastardly foe than anything else I was battling, from loneliness to fear.
I had fallen prey to the insidious myth of perseverance. Like so many of us, I believed that grit is always golden, that hanging in is always superior to dropping out, and that when you quit, you lose.
Nowadays, I don’t think any of those things are true. Having conducted more than 150 interviews with people who quit something – a job, say, or a relationship – and culling the insights of neuroscientists and evolutionary biologists, I know that quitting is a valuable tool for survival, and that quitting is like aerobics for our brains. It keeps them limber and flexible.
Yet we still berate ourselves when we give up and choose another path. We nod automatically when we hear slogans such as “Quitters never win and winners never quit!”
Where did the belief that grit is an unalloyed good come from? Ideas have origin stories, just as superheroes do. And the notion that perseverance is crucial for success and wellbeing really took off in mid-19th-century London, when a Scot named Samuel Smiles published Self-Help; With Illustrations of Character and Conduct, the first of a series of books chronicling the lives of great men who toughed it out. Smiles is the father of the self-help movement – the dubious institution that’s stronger than ever today, and insists that your destiny is in your own hands, as long as you don’t quit. Never mind factors such as being born into intergenerational poverty, or with profound physical, emotional or intellectual challenges, or on the receiving end of ordinary bad luck.
No: it’s all down to whether you gave up or persevered. Such a cockeyed philosophy aids and abets those in power, encouraging the demonisation of struggling people as “quitters” – ie unworthy of help. Yet we don’t question the special breaks afforded to wealthy people. And we chalk up their success to “hard work”.
Granted, some kinds of quitting – such as ditching cigarettes or carbs – are applauded. But most are reviled. To leave a job or a relationship before you have another one lined up is to court scorn and incredulity: “You did what?”
Having written a book that praises throwing in the towel, I’ve become a sort of connoisseur of quitting, a guru of giving up. Yet I often have to clarify that quitting doesn’t always work out. Sometimes, in fact, it’s a disaster, because nothing in life is guaranteed. Nonetheless, no matter how things turn out, quitting is one of the most creative, dynamic and optimistic gestures we perform.
I wouldn’t have believed that back in grad school as I sat on a cold floor and sobbed. I was certain that quitting would destroy my life.
In the end, it created it.
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