WARNING: THIS POST IS LONG. PROBABLY TOO LONG. IN FACT, IT’S THE LONGEST ARTICLE I’VE EVER WRITTEN. IT’S OVER 3000 WORDS AND CONTAINS SEVERAL INTELLIGENT READER COMMENTS, AN IN-DEPTH STORY AND MORE INFO ABOUT MY LIFE IN THE LAST 10 YEARS THAN YOU PROBABLY CARE TO KNOW. I ALSO USE NUMEROUS REFERENCES TO THE 90s BULLS DYNASTY. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.
Last week Reader David asked me a really thought provoking comment on twitter:
@ joelrunyon – question: at what point does one admit, ” this thing IS impossible,” and give up? And how does one regroup after failure?
Since this whole site concept is about doing the impossible, I was taken aback a little at the question, but as I said last week, “If you’re worried about someone questioning your beliefs or voicing their own, maybe your beliefs weren’t really that strong to begin with.”
With that in mind, I understand a lot of people don’t like being questioned, but when I realized it was an honest question, I really wanted to take the time to answer this question thoroughly since I think it is valid, so last week I asked everyone on the blog for their thoughts. Don’t worry, I have my own thoughts, but here are some of the comments that really made me think:
If what you are doing turns out to truly be impossible, perhaps there is a detail that you have tied yourself to emotionally that is preventing the dream. Wanting to be a millionaire in a year? People have done that so it IS possible. Wanting to be a millionaire in a year while sitting on your ass doing nothing? Might be a detail that doesn’t quite jive with the overall dream. – David Crandall
When do you quit? One quits when one realizes that whatever s/he is doing is not adding positive value in their world or our world at large. Or, if it’s merely just not the right timing for the person. But one should never, ever quit just because the task at hand seems loomingly difficult, long, and treacherous. In fact, those are the journeys we MUST take for it will change us as a person, for the better. – Nina Yau
I am a mathematician, I know a bunch of things that are impossible (like having a non-commutative finite field, for those of you in algebra, or writing an elliptic function in terms of simple functions, for you in calculus), but unless you can prove something is impossible, and if you have some kind of evidence it may be possible, you should NOT stop trying. – Ruben
If you can no longer find a compelling reason to continue, by all means walk away. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with changing your mind or resetting your goals. Just make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. If your reason involves “this is too hard and I’m not good enough”, you know you’re asking lousy questions and you need to change your mindset. – Lach
Thanks everyone who commented. If you have time, you should really go back and read all of them [man you guys are smart!]. I would include them all, but they get pretty lengthy and this post is already pushing 3000 words as it is].
I’d like to say that I have a two different beliefs that create an interesting dynamic which I have to navigate every day:
First, each one of you are way more capable than you give yourself credit for and the majority of people give up on things WAY too soon.
Second, There are times when ‘quitting” is the best thing you can do.
I know, these two statements seem to contradict each other. I say “don’t give up” and follow it up with “just quit.” I’ll explain what I mean, but I think it’s easier if I do so by telling you a story from my own life.
A Story About Quitting [Or Not]
Ever since I was a kid, I played basketball. Growing up in the 90s outside Chicago, it was basically mandatory that I was a Bulls fanatic and perfectly normal that I wanted to be Michael Jordan when I grew up.
Over the years, I went from playing in our driveway to every single public league I could find. Then came middle school. I was so pumped to try out for the team, but after the team was posted and I saw my name wasn’t on the list, I was really really upset. I remember going through the rest of the day trying to shake off the feeling and walking out of school that day holding back the tears.
Why didn’t I make the team? I couldn’t understand. [I was in 7th grade after all].
I came home and that sadness turned to anger and then to determination. I was pissed and I was determined to do something about it.
I worked my butt off that next year and made the 8th grade B-team. I kept working and made the travel team for the incoming high school “feeder” team. The next four years, I spent working my butt and while I kept “making the team”, I found myself relegated to the bench most of the time. Here’s a 30,000ft view of my middle school & high school basketball career.
8th grade – B-team
9th grade – Freshman B-team
10th grade – Sophomore B-team
11th grade – Varsity Benchwarmer & JV Regular
12th grade – Varsity Benchwarmer & JV Regular
I went to a larger school (2000+) and while I wasn’t a Michael Jordan scoring 40 points a night or a Steve Kerr draining three pointers all day, I was a good player who worked his butt off. I was a Dennis Rodman before the tattoos, hair and Carmen Electra and general bad attitude.
The problem? Defense, rebounds and hustle aren’t sexy. No one noticed Dennis Rodman before the tattoos, hair, Carmen Electra and bad attitude. The hard work and dirty work is really hard to quantify in basketball and unless you start being outrageous, people don’t tend to notice you.
The result? Lots of time as the practice squad and not that much time on the actual court during games.
But I didn’t want to give up. I hated the sound of the word “quit.” Even after four years of working, working, working, I didn’t give up.
Not playing varsity meant I didn’t get any offers from colleges so I ended up in college at a small private school in Northern Indiana mostly because of an academic scholarship I received. I found out they had a team and ended up playing basketball 3 years on our college’s …wait for it… JV team.Didn’t know colleges have JV teams? I didn’t either, but apparently they exist. Our schedule consisted of community colleges and junior colleges with the occasional prison game thrown in every once in a while for good measure (yes, prison as in we played against inmates, but that’s another story for another time).
In college, I resumed the all-too-familiar-cycle. Work my butt off. Sit the bench. Get upset. Work some more. At this point, there were 2 other guys from my senior class that went on to play ball in college, but after a few years, I was the only one still “playing.” I couldn’t help but felt a smug sense of “accomplishment” at the fact that I outlasted all of them.
Nevertheless, at the end of the second year of college ball, I was done. I was tired of being burnt by basketball like I had been over the last 8-9 years. It seemed that no matter what I put into it, all I would ever get back was a very familiar seat on the bench. I was done, tired, frustrated, annoyed, angry and on top of that, I was upset with myself that I was even thinking about “quitting.” How could I quit now that I had outlasted every other person on my high school team that had played above me and I was the only one still “playing” at a collegiate level?
I wasn’t about to give up yet.
So. Even though I was burnt out and dreading basketball, I went back for my third season. It was hell. I hated going to practice and was mad after every single game. To top it off, we weren’t even winning, so the game continued to spiral downhill for me. I got fed up in the middle of the season and thought about quitting, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. The “Q” word just wasn’t something I could fathom doing. I was going to stick it out of the rest of the season if it killed me.
So I stuck it out. And I was mad the rest of the season. When it finally ended, I knew that that was it. That was my last basketball season. I had plans to go abroad the following year, so there was no way I could play the next year anyways. Even though that made the decision easier for me, it was still hard for me to admit that I was “done” for good.
A few weeks after the basketball season ended that I ran into another problem…I’m way too easily bored.
Without another basketball season coming up, I had nothing to train for and nothing to do.
My roommate was a track stud, and tried to convince me to try out track and field. He had been trying for a couple years, but I was stuck in my “can’t mentality” and focused on basketball. I kept telling him:
- I’m not strong, I can’t throw those heavy things.
- I’m not super athletic, I can’t do jumps.
- I’m not fast, I can’t do sprints or long distance (a little ironic, huh?).
Then he brought up javelin. He somehow convinced me to try it by telling me “Don’t worry, it’s all technique.”
That registered with me. “Technique. I can learn technique. If I work hard enough at something, I can learn anything.”
I started to make the transition to Track & Field and everything changed. The first thing I noticed about Track & Field is you either have the times & distances needed to compete or you don’t. It’s objective. It’s you vs. your mark. Yes, there are other people with other marks that you need to beat in order to win a meet, but you’re completely in control of it. You don’t have to worry about a subjective opinion determining who plays, who “does” well and who competes. You either have the mark or you don’t. End of story.
The other benefit of this is that you’re not competing against other people as much as you are in other sports [like basketball]. You’re each trying to compete and do well, but you’re not trying to make other people look bad or play politics in order to hold a starting position. You’re all doing the best that you can individually while pushing each other to get better. As Chris Guillebeau likes to say, you’re making a bigger pie. Of course, not every team (or competitor) is like this, but my team was, and they were phenomenal.
- My junior year, I placed 3rd in conference.
- My senior year, our mens team won a national championship. Indoor and Outdoor [did I mention we didn’t even have an actual track]
- I was a part of two of the best teams, I’ve ever had a chance to be a part of.
I had more fun in those two years of track and field than I had in all of my years of basketball combined and I was more encouraged in two years of track than I ever was in basketball.
Proof that I”m not just making this up
So What Does It All Mean?
I wrote that story to say this:
“Sometimes the best thing you can do is quit.”
Persistence can take you far. I was the only senior (out of about 12) on our team that year that played basketball in college for more than a year. That’s pretty good for some kid with not a ton of natural athletic ability who played on the B-Team his entire life.
I was persistent as all get out, but I wasn’t adapting. I was pounding my head against the wall until it bled and then taking pride in the fact I was bleeding. I was more than persistent, I was stubborn [even stupid].
I was playing a game with no way to win. My best characteristics [hard work & persistence & teamwork] were incredibly hard to quantify in the game I chose and I kept trying to find a way to make it happen, when it just wasn’t going to.
The best thing I did was give up and quit [and I wish I would have done this sooner].
I said “no more” and I started something else.
I would have never thrown javelin if I didn’t quit basketball. I know that. I had no reason to. I was focused on basketball so much I couldn’t see anything else. I’d been asked before and I always turned it down because I was focused on my self-imposed punishment of basketball season, year in and year out.
Because of that, I not only missed the opportunity to compete in two extra years of track in college, but countless other opportunities as well.
Back To The Question
So back to the question: When do you give up?
Like most things in life, there are no rules. Very few things work 100% for everyone’s situation and as much as I wish things were black and white, life is unfortunately filled with endless shades of gray. With that in mind, here are a few guidelines:
First of all, You should never quit because of fear. Fear is the worst reason to quit. Ever.
- Fear of getting out of your comfort zone.
- Fear of failure.
- Fear of the road being difficult, long, or treacherous.
- Fear of losing something.
- Fear of looking stupid.
Fear is a crippler. It will always tell you can’t do. Never what you can do.
Never quit because of fear. However, there are times when it may be wise to quit.
It may be wise to quit when:
When the costs are worth the payoff.
- This comes back to WHY you’re doing anything in the first place. if you don’t have a good reason why, you might want to rethink things and reevaluate if the time & energy you’re putting towards something are really warranted by the financial, emotional, physical, or spiritual payoff.
When you’re playing a losing game.
- You’ve picked a game, like me, that you can’t win. You’re banging your head against the wall and taking pride in the bleeding. You’ve been set up for failure. Stop playing a losing game and find something that fits you better.
When you’re doing something you hate that doesn’t align with your overall life goals.
- As much as you want to “design your life” to only do things that you’re 100% excited about, chances are you will do some things you hate. That’s okay…if it plays into your bigger vision and purpose. But, if you’re just doing stuff you hate to be a martyr, stop it and find something you enjoy.
When it’s physically impossible
- Having a non-commutative finite field, for those of you in algebra, or writing an elliptic function in terms of simple functions, for you in calculus [hat tip to Ruben].
When your goal is a bad goal.
- Becoming richer than Bill Gates is a goal, but not necessarily a “good” long-term goal. Of course whatever “good” means is completely subjective term, and will be different for everyone, however; if your end goal isn’t something worth the time, energy or money you’re putting towards it, maybe you should rethink this [this is another version of the costs vs. payoff].
When your priorities change.
- Just because you thought owning a home was the best idea in the world two years ago, doesn’t mean it’s still a priority when you realize that what you really want to do is travel.
When there’s no long term value
- What are you going to get out of accomplishing this goal? Is it something you actually value?
When the end result of you winning is another person losing.
- Tyler put this well yesterday “If someone else has to lose for you to win, you’re playing a shi**y game.“
Putting it all together
I said at the beginning that there are two contradictory statements that you’re going to have to wrestle with:
- 1. You are capable of so much more than you think you are. Don’t give up so quickly.
- 2. Sometimes, when you’re banging your head against the wall, the best thing you can do is quit.
One of those two items probably comes very easy for you. If you’ve made it this far, you’ve got the persistence thing down. Good job. You’ll probably have to work on the quitting thing. If you skipped to the bottom, you’ve probably got the quitting thing down, and have to work on the persistence thing [just kidding…sort of :)].
Unfortunately, like I said, there aren’t rules for this. I’d be lying if I told you there was a secret formula to decide when to quit and when to keep going. I’m sorry to break the news, but there isn’t one. Hopefully, you’ll learn a little from my experience, but the best way to learn this for yourself is to live it and learn how you react in your own experiences. It’s not always fun, [sometimes you bang your head against the wall for close to 10 years] but the great thing about the school of life is that once you learn something, you don’t easily forget it.
It’s a strange dynamic to balance but a tension that you’ll have to learn to live with if you truly want to do the impossible.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this in the comments. Also, if this made an impact on you, please share it using one of the buttons below. It only takes a few seconds, but it makes a world of difference to not only your friends you share it with, but me as well. Thanks for continuing to rock my world.
p.s. David I hope this helps answers your question =).[photo by paulgi]
Dude: Well done. I think there is a message here that a lot of people desperately need to hear. Letting go of one particular goal does not make you a failure. In fact, it’s often life giving you exactly what you most need. I can certainly see this in my own life time and again. Persistence can be a virtue; but without openness and flexibility it becomes self destructive.
Besides, often the thing that we’ve pinned our self esteem to is not the thing that ultimately matters. Basketball, track and field—they are just vehicles. What we are really reaching for is self actualisation. To be the best we can be. To let our light shine. There’s a million paths that lead there. Why get stuck on one?
Joel Runyon says
That’s very well put. Nicely done.
Ruben Berenguel says
Wonderful post Joel! I loved your basketball history. I started playing basketball at… 22 (I had played rarely with friends before) in public leagues with a team of friends and acquaintances. And I was also the defend+sweat it off. I got to play a fair share (we just spread the minutes and if we could win switch to the “starting team” in the last half of the last quarter). Two years ago I was pretty much convinced to let go, but kept trying… But also started training in karate. It felt so much better! It was just me and my technique (Shito-Ryu, my style is mostly non-combat, more technical). It felt wonderful, sadly I had to stop this year because my schedule was really tight… But I hope I had started earlier and given up on basketball the year before. Maybe now I could be brown belt instead of green!
Latest in my blog: Overwhelmed With Projects? Declare Task Bankrupcy!
Joel Runyon says
Sometimes our end goal isn’t too far off from what we were trying. It wasn’t like I quit basketball and took up ballet. It was more a shift of degrees. Going from Basketball to T&F was still athletics, but just a different type. Being able to be flexible gives you that ability to switch things up.
You can’t change the past, so just keep focusing on what you can change. The here & now. Now go get that black belt =)
Wow. Thanks for taking the time to write. I can identify scenarios on each side (bad excuses to quit vs. quitting when you should) that I’ve found myself in and just recently began identifying them. The big one for me is quitting before I even start something due to failure. Too long to post my life example here but I’ve found it’s much easily to quit after attempting rather than writing it off from the start.
Joel Runyon says
Jason, I’d love to hear your life example. Feel free to shoot me an email if you want 🙂
Nice post Joel! I answered the question the same way as you did with your basketball example (except with baseball). There comes a time when you put everything you have into a goal, a dream or something and you reach a max-out point. It’s an interesting point in time because you reflect on all the hard work you put into this goal and why you were doing it in the first place? For me, I loved playing baseball; it was, and still is, my passion. Although I’m not playing in the big leagues, the things I was taught and the things I learned about myself while trying to attain that goal are what matter in the end.
P.S. So I was walking down the hall and coach Nazos looked at me……
Joel Runyon says
So I was walking down the hall 🙂 [worst story ever]
I completely agree. It’s easy to look at something as a “waste” but when I see everything I learned from those 10 years, I’m not sure if I would actually change anything.
Outstanding. It’s best to give it your all and when your heart isn’t in it try something else. At least you know that you gave it an attempt unlike people who failed to try.
Joel Runyon says
Thanks Omar. I gave my best and learned a lot and moved on when it was time [okay, maybe I took a few extra years :)]. But, that’s what you do and you find the next great thing.
Leah Williams says
I’m going through whether or not I should quit basketball right now I’ve always been a good player and am playing in college now but my hearts just not in it like it used to be, I’m just worried I’ll regret quitting something I’ve put so much effort into the past 8 years, I’m really confused and haven’t made a decision yet, I appreciate your story. It’s good to know that quitting is okay and I’m not the only one struggling with this.
Joel Runyon says
Hey Leah, My story is my story and hopefully it helps you make your decision, but your decision is just that, yours. I know a lot of people who just kept playing because they didn’t know anything else and I’m not sure that’s always a good idea, but like I said, only you can make that decision for yourself. Good luck with your decision and I’d love to hear what happens with you :).
Epic post, Joel. “Sometimes the best thing you can do is quit.” This requires a degree of self-scrutiny and some honesty to do, but it is well worth it. Quitting something you’ve been involved in for a long time is not easy, but the effects can be life changing… I think it is an extension of the general principle to maximize your efforts where a real difference can be made, and to avoid giving your time and energy in directions where you can’t really make an impact.
Joel Runyon says
Thanks for the comment Ryan. I think the idea of “sunk costs” causes a lot of people to keep doing things they don’t necessarily enjoy because they’ve “invested” so much time & energy into it already. Just because you’ve been doing something one way, doesn’t mean you have to keep doing it. Analyze what’s happening and if it’s not conducive to get you to your end goals, don’t be afraid to say no.
Stephanie M at Together In Food says
Joel, Thanks for taking the time to write this; it really spoke to me. As someone who was brought up to work my butt off too and never give up–and who has evolved that mindset as I’ve lived more life–it’s refreshing to see someone offer a framework that can help people answer, for themselves (since that’s usually the only way you can do it!), when to stick with it and when to throw it in. I wrestled, for a year, with a decision to quit my fundraising job; I loved the mission of my organization but the job content and lifestyle wasn’t fitting with my newfound priorities and desires anymore. I finally decided to leave, and it’s been one of the best decisions of my life because I’ve been able to reawaken old passions, cultivate new ones and figure out a whole new type of life to live!
The one thing I’d say in response to your list about “when it’s right to quit” is that you may go through phases in life where you don’t know exactly what your bigger vision and purpose in life are, or what your specific priorities are — and THAT IS OKAY. If you give yourself the space and energy to do things you love, use your power to stop doing things you hate, and persist in things you think have potential to make you happy, you’ll figure it out as you go along. It’s a lesson I’m learning daily right now. Thanks again for writing and building this community!
Joel Runyon says
Thanks you Stephanie for reading :). Thanks for sharing your story. Sometimes quitting can be a good decision.
You know what’s nice about this article… it was a bit of a slog to read but I didn’t quit 😉
I write for a living and I’m not sure if I could start an article with a “this is going to be really long – read at your own risk” message and then keep a new reader interested for 3,000 words. Kudos!
Joel Runyon says
🙂 Thanks for making it through Sam. I know it’s a long haul, but I’m glad you got through it (and hopefully got something out of it)…might be easier to digest in a format other than a blog post *runs off to the laboratory to think*
Patrick Hitches says
I’ve been clicking through your site for the past 20 minutes or so and stumbled on this article… I can definitely empathize with everything you said in my latest “halting” of the Trek and having to come to grips that the dynamics of how things began and what they came to be created a scenario of needing to stop. As you came back year after year to play ball, I too went back on the road 3 times to continue to make something happen that the world obviously was telling me “now is not the time”. I think it’s all about listening to what the world is trying to tell you and being introspective enough to piece through the messages.
You are the man. Keep doing your thing!
Joel Runyon says
Dude, thanks for sharing man. Glad my story was able to help you out. Sometimes the line between determination & insanity (doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results) gets blurry and the only way to figure it out is to live it yourself.
Thanks man 🙂
First of all, I really liked this article and it certainly has a great message! As a college student it resonates with me. In middle/high school I played sports I loved but I was never number 1. I “knew” I wasn’t good enough so I didn’t even bother trying to continue in college. My first year didn’t go well. By grades we’re low, and I was only moderately happy. I’m looking forward to my second year and having the opportunity to prove myself as smart enough. I also was recently given the opportunity to try out and see if Im athletic enough to become a diver. I have so much ahead of me, but all I can think about is my past failures and disappointments. How do I move forward to take advantage of everything? I’m afraid my grades are too low to salvage, and I won’t be abke to get into PT or PA school. A health profession has been my goal for as long as I can remember. What if it’s time to move on and find something attainable. How do you come to terms with “quitting”, when it has always been your greatest fear?
Great post. I have been struggling with how to counsel my 13-year-old on basketball, and this really helped. He is extremely talented in many things, including rock climbing, archery, and academics, but I think always had a vision of himself shooting that 3-pointer. in spite of 6 years of playing public leagues, and training with a trainer, however, he still struggles on the court and has lately been saying things like, “I think everyone has their sport, but I don’t think I’ve found mine yet.” You have given me some great questions to ask him to help him decide his next move. Thanks so much!