Why quitting is a skill we all need to get better at

Written by Annie Duke

In an extract from her book, Quit: The Power Of Knowing When to Walk Away, Annie Duke explores why the terms ‘grit’ and ‘quit’ are two sides of the same coin.

Despite the way the terms ‘grit’ and ‘quit’ have been pitted against each other, they are actually two sides of the exact same decision. Anytime that you are deciding whether to quit, you are obviously simultaneously deciding whether to stick, and vice versa.

In other words, you can’t decide one thing without deciding the other.

Mountain climbers offer a good way to think about the grit-quit decision: Grit is what gets you up the mountain, but quit is what tells you when to come down. In fact, it is the option to turn around that allows you to make the decision to climb the mountain in the first place.

Just imagine if any decision you made was last and final. Whatever you decide, you would have to stick with it for the rest of your life. Think of how certain you would have to be before you could ever make a choice to start anything. Imagine if you had to marry the first person you ever went on a date with.

Having no option to change course or change your mind would be disastrous in a landscape that itself is changing, where mountains can become molehills, and molehills can become mountains. If the mountain you’ve been scaling turns out to be a glacier that’s starting to melt beneath you, you want to climb down it before you’re washed away. 

That’s why, if I had to skill somebody up to get them to be a better decision-maker, quitting is the primary skill I would choose, because the option to quit is what allows you to react to that changing landscape.

Any decision is, of course, made under some degree of uncertainty, stemming from two different sources, most of our decisions being subject to both. 

First, the world is stochastic. That’s just a fancy way of saying that luck makes it difficult to predict exactly how things will turn out, at least not in the short run. We operate not with certainties but with probabilities, and we don’t have a crystal ball that tells us which among all the possible futures will be the one that actually occurs. Even if you know for sure that a choice will work out for you, say, 80% of the time, that means, by definition, that the world is going to hand you a bad outcome 20% of the time. The problem for us as decision-makers is that we don’t know when, in particular, we are going to experience the outcomes that make up that 20%.

Second, when we make most decisions, we don’t have all the facts. Because we’re not omniscient, we have to make decisions with only partial information, certainly far less than we’d need to have to make a perfect choice.

That being said, after you’ve set out on a particular course of action, new information will reveal itself to you. And that information is critical feedback.

Sometimes, that new information will be new facts. Sometimes, it might be different ways to think about or model a problem or a set of data or the facts you already have. Sometimes, it will be a discovery about your own preferences. And, of course, some of that new information will be about which future you happen to observe, a good one or a bad one.

When you take all these aspects of uncertainty together, it makes decision-making hard. The good news is that quitting helps make this easier.

Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away by Annie Duke (Ebury Edge, £14.99) is out now. 

Images: Getty

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