We’ve been watching a lot of The Amazing Race lately. Alastair is not typically a big fan of reality shows (I am; few things give me more pleasure than when Gordon Ramsay calls someone a “donkey”) but he’s always been intrigued by The Amazing Race because of the travel, adventure and exotic locales, so we gave it a shot, and were, of course, immediately hooked. We’re through about five seasons of a total twenty-one, and it’s gotten to the point where at the beginning of a season, we try to predict what episode someone will say, “I didn’t come here to make friends.” Usually, it’s somewhere between episodes four and six, for those of you who want to play at home.
But the one thing that comes up even more than that old saw is the married couple saying, “We’re here to show our kids that you never, ever quit.” Hand to God, at least once a season, a married couple who left their kids for six weeks to romp around the world (hey, no judgment, a million bucks can put a reliable roof over a lot of little heads) makes it some kind of moral lesson for their kids on quitting, as though there is no lesson in the world more valuable than, “Never, ever quit.”
I’m not sure I agree with that. I mean, “Keep going even if it’s hard,” is a good lesson, sure. I want my kids to stick with things even if they’re hard, because if something’s worth doing, it’s worth working for. It’s the “never, ever” that gets me.
Sometimes, you should just quit. When something ceases to be worth the pain of attaining it, you should quit. Life’s too short. Do something else. Don’t ever stick with something just because you said you would. Yes, there’s the giving-your-word thing, and you should take that seriously, of course, but not to the detriment of all parties involved. Not when keeping your word becomes more important than what’s best. There comes a time, no matter what you said when you started, when finishing something isn’t just unfulfilling, but downright hazardous, and at that point, quitting is absolutely the moral, proper and correct thing to do.
I’ve quit untold jobs, various endeavors, and one faulty marriage and looking back, I don’t regret quitting. I’ve also kept at it when things have become impossibly hard. I’d put writing in that category. But the reason I never quit writing isn’t because of some misplaced sense of commitment, but because writing never stopped being worth it. I’ve promised myself I would quit publishing a number of times, but I’ve stuck with that, too, because on the whole it’s been worth it. But there are times when something not only stops paying off, but it’s actively detrimental. When that becomes the case, for God’s sake, quit. Let it go. Release. Move on.
And there’s no shame in it. When I moved into Jenny’s attic, she had a wall hanging with a quote from E.M. Forster. We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us. Boy, was that ever true for me, and it wasn’t until I let go of my old, dysfunctional life that I was able to find the life that was waiting for me, which is pretty damned good. Last year, Jenny shared with me an insight she had: When something isn’t working, don’t do it harder. Yes, absolutely. Hallelujah, sister.
In general, any quippy motto that claims to tell you how to live your entire life should be handled with latex gloves and extreme suspicion. But if the words “never” or “always” show up, instantly disregard it.* “Never, ever quit,” just seems too simplistic to me, so here’s my alteration:
Don’t quit because it’s hard. Don’t quit because you’re afraid. Don’t quit because you think you’re not good enough. That’s all nonsense. Quit when it stops paying off. Quit when not quitting will hurt you or someone else. Quit when staying will prevent you from doing something better. Trust your own judgement about what is right for you, and don’t ever stay with something for any reason other than it’s giving you something back.
And sometimes, if you can pull it off, quit for a day or two. Writers do that all the time. What we do, despite all appearances, is actually really hard, and sometimes, in order to not quit, you need to say you quit, just for a little while, just to try on quitting and see if it really feels as good as you think it will. For me, it has always felt great the first day, okay the second day, and on the third day I wrote again. Sometimes no one else ever even knew I quit; sometimes my agent did, although she knows me well enough not to take me seriously when I quit.
So, yeah. Go ahead. Quit if you need to, and trust yourself to figure out if it’s right or not. But if you’re dead last in The Amazing Race, and your ankle is swelling up twice its normal size, and you’re being forced to run on a super-fast treadmill then jump up and grab a rubber chicken in front of a live studio audience on a weird Japanese TV show… maybe now’s the time to walk, or in your case limp, away.
*With the exception of “Always look both ways before crossing the street,” and “Never eat the yellow snow.”