Generally, society tends to prize that workers should never quit. The idea like “never give up,” and “stick it out” are common phrases meant to encourage people to just keep going.
As far as maxims go, they are not wrong. Resilience is crucial to success. However, I’d like to draw a distinction between sticking it out for the sake of not giving up or not wanting to look “wrong” and sticking it out because you are 100% committed to what you have chosen, because it aligns with your values and strengths.
If it’s for the sake of the first reason, I’d like to introduce the idea of “strategic quitting.” Seth Godin talks about this in his book, The Dip, when there is nowhere to grow, it’s time to get out and reallocate your resources. Quit quickly, until you find the thing that you love and are committed to 100%, and then, stick it out, until you become the best in the world.
How does that work in a business context? Decide on a goal and vision that you are 100% committed to. I mean the big picture goal, about what impact you want to have on people. Then, be prepared to change and pivot the steps you take on the way, to get there. If you’re constantly on the treadmill, and not getting the results you want, change the how.
For me, quitting was a matter of what made the most sense for me, at a unique inflection point in my life.
As I strode through Heathrow airport, in Spring 2019, on my way to catch a flight to Istanbul, my mobile phone rang. “We did it.” The voice on the other end of the line said. My startup co-founder. “He’s going to invest into the business.” At a time when I should have been elated at huge investment, my heart sank. The few months prior to that phone call, I had actually started to regain my sanity, after more than two years of chronic stress, anxiety and near burnout. It meant that if we took the investment, I was tied to my startup for the next few years.
A month after that phone call, I shut down my business. Other people found it hard to understand. They said, “You’ve put so much time and money into this”; but “look at everything you’ve achieved so far.” Listening to them, I still felt it wasn’t right. At that point in my life, I had founded two startups—the first one, still flourishing today, with my co-founder at the helm; and the second, I started a tech startup on my own, determined to prove that I could do it. And, like many decisions in my life, up until that point, it was done for the wrong reasons.
I strategically quit, so I could find what I really wanted. What I could become best in the world at and create maximum impact, and through that a profitable business. So, how do you know when to strategically quit? Start by asking yourself some priority-aligning questions.
Are you trying to prove a point?
Ever since I remember, I was always trying to prove something to someone. If someone told me I couldn’t achieve a certain grade or get into a certain school; I would go to tremendous lengths to prove them wrong. Most of the time, I did prove them wrong, through sheer force of will.
I didn’t realize how much I took that conditioning forward—everything became about proving to myself and other people that I COULD do something, regardless of whether it made me happy. For leaders, that might look like not wanting to be seen to be wrong or a failure. That is not the best basis for career or business decision making.
In trying to prove a point, I did not stop to ask myself, if this is what I wanted and whether it was the best decision.
The “always on” hustle culture that we live in says that, if we’re not getting the results we want, we need to try harder. In fact, constant “busyness” is worn like a badge of honour. It’s the only addiction that people actually celebrate.
How often do we look at the reasons WHY we’re not getting the results we want? Often, that involves taking a step back from doing. Get off the treadmill and look at what’s really going on.
When you are great at something and love doing it, you naturally want to do it more and become better at it. You have the drive to be best in class.
Ask yourself, are you not achieving what you want, because you’re not fully committed, or because you need to change the HOW you get there?
Is your heart in it?
My heart was never in my tech startup. I did it to prove I could, I did it for the prestige, I did it to make money, I did it because other people had done it.
None of those reasons were good reasons by themselves. The way I talked about it, should have been a clue for me. I was always one foot in, one foot out, of that treadmill.
I’m not saying that if your heart is in a project, that it will be 100% smooth sailing. It won’t be. But at least, you will always know your why for engaging in a new undertaking. And that powerful why, can carry you through the hard times. When you’re all in, you’re committed. You find the best way; pivot the steps you take. When you’re really committed to something, you’ll overcome what’s blocking you.
It’s not easy to walk away from a success-laden commitment, but with the right understanding, it may be the best step for you to move forward.
Sara Sabin is a coach to executive and entrepreneur leaders. She is a business owner who has started many startups of her own.