In a culture that perceives quitting as a last resort and urges us to hang in, Mastering the Art of Quitting tackles our tendencies to overanalyze, ruminate, and put a positive spin on goals that have outlived their usefulness.
Bestselling author Peg Streep and psychotherapist Alan Bernstein demonstrate that persistence alone isn't always the answer. We also need to be able to quit to get the most out of life. They reveal simple truths that apply to goal setting and achievement in all areas of life, including love, relationships, and work:
- Quitting promotes growth and learning, as well as the ability to frame new goals.
- Without the ability to give up, most people will end up in a discouraging loop.
- The most satisfied people know when it's time to stop persisting and start quitting.
- Quitting is a healthy, adaptive response when a goal can't be reached.
It is a beautiful July day in 1984, sunny, warm and a little breezy when I receive an invitation to an interview for a new job. I have been teaching in private and public schools for some twenty years, and this is the second time this particular position has been offered. The first time I turned it down. On this occasion, there is a family "meeting" to talk about whether or not to go to the interview, and also whether or not to take the position if it is formally offered. My then spouse and three young children and I are sitting on a beach on the shore of Georgian Bay just prior to my driving some 100 kilometers north for the interview.
It is our thirteen-year-old who speaks first and most memorably.
"You are a teacher and no matter what you do you will always be a teacher!" she pleads, not wanting any disruption in her or our lives. The eleven-year-old is more detached, preferring to support whatever it is that I really want to do. The six-year-old plays blissfully in the sand on the beach, without voicing either support or opposition. My then-spouse is a little sheepish, believing that, since I rejected the offer the previous year, and now seeing it back on the family horizon, perhaps there is something more to the cosmic forces, is diplomatically weighing the options, the risks and the opportunities.
After some considerable rumination (quick and easy decisions have never been my strong suit) I attempt to calm the fears of those seeking the status quo while opening the door to disclose my own natural instinct to "move forward" into something new and different.
"I know that I can teach," I begin, "but I do not know if I can do what is required in this new position. It is a public relations job where I will be required to write and to present the college's position on issues to the public. While I have been free-lancing as a journalist for a few years, I have no specific training for this job, except my experience. So there is some risk that I will not have the required skill set for the job, although it is still in 'education' in the broadest sense. So, if I were to be offered the position, I would think it would be a smart idea for me to take a leave of absence from the teaching job and keep that option open, in case I want or need to return to the classroom."
"Does that mean you are going to take the job, if it is offered?" inquires the teen-ager.
"Probably," I reply, hoping that her fears are not so high that she will reject me or my decision.
Resigned, she sighs, and looks off onto the waves blowing onto the beach from the west wind.
When the meeting ends, I get into the car for the 90-minute trip to the interview, where the job is formally offered, and where I formally accept. Subsequently, I apply for and am granted the leave of absence from that teaching post.
For three years, I performed the tasks in the new position, modestly successfully, while ruffling a few political feathers from some others in the college employ who act as if they believe that I have been given special privileges in the leave of absence. However, following a college administrative re-structuring, during which process, I was encouraged to apply for two of the new positions, and upon foreseeing that the incumbent president, to whose office my position was attached, would be retiring within a short time, probably not more than two years, I became quite restless about whether or not a new president would be even remotely interested in retaining my services instead of hiring his or her own Assistant.
My life has changed over the thirty-six months, having learned more about myself through multiple interactions, exchanges, encounters, including supervising an office staff that grew from one to three as the volume of the workload increased. I became much more conscious that the marriage was in difficulty, entered into joint therapy without much success, and learned from my sister that she would be interested in sponsoring a return to graduate school.
The last several months of the three-year college appointment was a period of considerable reflection, especially about choices to pursue going forward, about "quitting" the marriage, "quitting" the college employ and returning to the classroom, or potentially petitioning for an extension of the leave and going off to grad school. When I learned that I would not be appointed to one of the new positions, outside the president's office, receiving the reason that the president wanted me to continue working in my current post, and upon some reflection that my life had been one series of actions without much time or attention paid to my "inner life", (what I considered then, and still do to be my 'spiritual life'...including my relationship with God, with death, with the universe and with my part in that picture) I began to reflect on the words of the president of the college in a private meeting in which I inquired about being supported as a doctoral candidate in college administration.
"I will send you anywhere where they will teach you patience!" came the rather abrupt and yet frank response.
A life of action, without reflection, I was finding, felt like a gnat must feel flitting over the surface of a still pond: busy, difficult to catch or to reach or to get to know, and fairly short-lived. One, not even an insect, cannot sustain such a constant flitting for very long, and the "patience" lecture was deeply embedded in my thought process. I did learn that I wanted change in a large bureaucracy much more quickly that was possible to achieve. I had attempted to bring about a cessation of smoking in a community of some 3000, of which 500 were faculty and staff many of whom smoked, and 2500 of which were students also many of whom smoked and I was impatient that the change was not happening fast enough. I also fought for an increase in the college offerings in the French language, believing that there was a substantial student base in the considerable francophone population in the region served by the college. That too was taking longer than I would have preferred. A third initiative that I worked actively to achieve was a substantial increase in the ratio of female to male hires in the college administration, again with only marginal progress in those three years.
Was it time to "quit" once more?
After much thrashing, many sleepless nights, several months of therapy and the realization that my life had to change substantially, I drove to my office one early morning in March, typed out my letter of resignation and placed it on the desk of the president. I did not know what was going to happen next, but I knew that I had to "quit" and move on with my life. Generously, the president amended my termination date, extending my stipend some three months.
It was during those three months that I applied for and was granted admission to theology school, after discussing my leaving the marriage with my then spouse on the basis of the question, "If I were to leave the marriage, which I plan to do, would you prefer me to continue to live in this city or to move out of it?" Her unequivocal response was, as I recall, "I would prefer you to leave here; I think that would be best."
Quitting a marriage, however, is much more complex and traumatic than quitting a job. I recall arranging, by phone, my decision to pick up my belongings from the house, at a time and on a day when my then spouse agreed. I would arrive on a Tuesday afternoon, at approximately 2 p.m. and would require not more than one hour. Just prior to my arrival, I picked up a U-Haul trailer and hitch for the Subaru I was driving, and then nervously drove to the house, backed into the driveway and with a prepared list in hand, proceeded to remove only those things like clothes, books and a few kitchen items from the house, throwing them in large plastic garbage bags. It was both eerie and exhausting, almost frightening, now that I look back some twenty-seven years later. I did not see a single person in the neighbourhood while making that last stop, before leaving the city. It was almost as if I was preparing to drive the car and trailer off some cliff alone without knowing what was at the bottom of the escarpment. By the time I picked up a few things of a young man who had requested residence, I continued to drive south on highway 124, at 2.00 a.m. The time is significant because I recall vividly twice falling asleep and driving on the wrong side of the road before waking and stopping the car, slapping my face a few times, in order to keep going safely. It was the last week of August when the temperature dips from its summer highs, the moon is clear and the air brisk. There were, thankfully, no cars on the road that night, and I made it to my destination, grabbed some sleep and proceeded to London, some six hours more driving the next day.
Separated, but not yet divorced, is not how one would normally seek admission to study ministry, especially in the Anglican church, as it both frowns on and suspects such a candidate. In 1987, the church was not accustomed to knowing how to integrate such a candidate; in fact, there was considerable consternation from the chaplain to such candidates, as he urged me to "get out of theology and return home and to into therapy" unceremoniously. Feeling urgings to discern and to follow these long-held intimations of a "call" I resisted to the chaplain's great displeasure. I learned new things about my strengths and weaknesses that would not have surfaced had I not taken these steps. I also met others, females, who too had left their marriages and families, to enrol in theology, although their "acceptance" seemed much more readily available than that of a male candidate among the church hierarchy.
It took the better part of two years to complete the divorce and there are still deep and seemingly unchangeable ramifications to that decision, a quarter century later. Some of the those ripples of rejection, especially from two of those daughters from the "beach" discussion continue to this day. Nevertheless, life has found and taken me down roads through death vigils, marriage preparations, funerals, an autopsy (probably the most moving spiritual experience of my life, outside of the birth of three daughters!) opportunities to work outside my own country, encounters with the most frozen people on the planet with whom I naturally came into significant conflict, requiring, once again, the decision to "quit" or to die psychologically.
But that is another story for another time.
There is merit to learning to quit, although it is never an easy decision. For those considering it, I would strongly and respectfully suggest a confidant, friend or professional, a thought-out strategy and some deep and lengthy reflections, including prayer if that is your tradition, as you discern your motives, your goals, your aspirations and your capacity to withstand the inevitable shocks.
Looking back, especially at this time of year when the movie The Sound of Music is on too many channels to be missed or avoided, I have reflected that, to some extent like Maria in that movie, I was using my enrolment in theology as an escape from my broken marriage, not so much out of guilt, but more out of protection of those left behind and a process of seeking space and time for contemplation and for growing self-awareness of who I am as a child of a God, Himself beyond knowing and comprehension. There had been too few mysteries and too little time spent on penetrating those mysteries in my life, as I had attempted, like so many others of my acquaintance, to prove my worth to the world, and lost my soul in the pursuit.
Looking back, I am profoundly grateful to have taken the "road not taken" many times, and found, to my amazement, there were actually people who supported my eccentricities and my exploration. It may not be as exciting as the Life of Pi, on a physically stormy sea with large dangerous creatures; nevertheless, it had its own disrupting and disquieting storms, conflicts, enmeshments and embarrassments, without all of them, the journey would have been both bland as white bread and virtually useless and without purpose. I learned especially that I do not "do" abusive authority very well, and in an institution built on the authority of a hierarchy that operates literally with impunity, as well as immunity, I do not and did not "fit". And that has been the greatest gift of all...that I no longer play the role of sycophant to a single person, a single party or a single cause! And that is the most liberating of experiences I have found in these seven decades, for which I am eternally grateful to God and to all those whose support sustained me throughout, especially Michelle and Sarah!