Winners DO quit. They just quit rarely, selectively, intelligently, and for the right reasons. There is even scientific terminology to cover the topic: “Practicing Selective Goal Disengagement.”

The concept that quitters are losers is deeply embedded in the American psyche. Quitting is seen as failure, almost a betrayal of self or team. Perhaps it springs from Vince Lombardi’s words, “Winners never quit and quitters never win.” The problem is that never is an awfully strong word, particularly if taken literally. Circumstances change, people change. Goals should change, too.

There is a proper way to disengage from a goal. We all are members of one community or another, often members of various teams. With that membership comes obligations. Obviously, it would be considered a grievous breach of social etiquette to quit a football team in the middle of a game. One’s sense of duty, one’s social or moral or legal ties would compel one to at least finish the game. Two weeks is considered the minimum time to give notice to quit a job, to respectfully disengage from the organization’s goals and align one’s loyalty to another group.

A quitter in the pejorative sense then is not someone who merely chooses other goals or decides to pursue new goals, rather a quitter is someone who gives up too easily, who abandons goals readily and too soon, perhaps in the face of surmountable obstacles. In a group setting, a quitter is someone not skilled in the social arts of proper goal disengagement, who does not pay sufficient respect or attention to the ties and obligations that bind groups.

In the September 2007 issue of Psychological Science, Professors Gregory E. Miller and Carsten Wrosch wrote on the positive aspects of quitting in the article, “You’ve Gotta Know When to Fold ‘Em.” The conclusion of the article is “when people are faced with situations in which they cannot realize a key life goal, the most adaptive response for mental and physical health may be to disengage from that goal.”

People who quickly jumped back into the fray and chose new goals had a greater sense of purpose and mastery than those who did not, according to the study.

Persistence is a valuable trait in life but when does it become self-destructive? When is persistence tilting at windmills? When is continuing on a form of self-sabotage? When does one decide he is fighting a losing battle? When does prudence dictate that you cut your losses, cash in your chips, and go home? Perhaps to start anew with the next dawn but at a different task, toward a different, more attainable goal?

Determining that tipping point is a personal decision that requires wisdom. Still, I think we all can agree that such a point does exist where we are better off recognizing that a given obstacle is insurmountable, or a certain goal is unattainable or achievable only at too high a price, a quixotic triumph or a pyrrhic victory.

It is important that we know it is okay to choose new goals, new directions. Our persistence must be intelligent and rationally related to the rewards we seek and the lives we wish to live. Blindly pursuing goals that no longer serve our original purpose is dumb. I call it the “Bridge Over the River Kiwi” syndrome or the Vietnam Quagmire. At some time you must have the courage to realize that sunk costs are just that, sunk. So say goodbye and take joy in the fresh future you have just freed up!

I am a TREMENDOUS believer in persistence. I think many goals have been achieved by those who were able to “force their heart and nerve and sinew to serve long after they are gone.” I believe that many people pack it in too soon when just a bit more would have carried the day. I believe optimists exceed more than pessimists simply because they try a bit longer and harder (plus optimists are often nicer to be around so they attract more support). I know I often have won a racquetball game simply because I refused to give up, because I was able to will my body to continue just a bit longer than the other guy.

I also know that “there is a time to hold ‘em and a time to fold ’em.” Sometimes being true to ourselves, to our true purpose in life, means moving on when the time comes and then letting go. Knowing when takes maturity, balance, and much wisdom.

But I suggest for every ten times, every hundred times our minds tell us to quit, most often we are better off soldiering on? Why? Because while I KNOW that LOGICALLY there are times when it is the smart thing to quit, to selectively disengage from a goal, my heart and gut cry out against it.

I’m thankful General George Washington did not selectively disengage at Valley Forge. History’s greatest heroes are often the “foolish” ones who persevered long after it appeared all hope was gone.

Closing quotes:

“The secret of success is constancy to purpose.” — Benjamin Disraeli

“Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all.” — Dale Carnegie

“The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night.”
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

This is a classic from the NSC Blog archive, originally posted August 28, 2008.