Everybody knows we’re supposed to have the ‘serenity to accept the things we cannot change’—but it’s one thing to tell yourself this in moments of quiet meditation, and quite another to make that gesture when something you care about depends on your continuing courage and engagement.
It could be a professional commitment, an artistic project or a love affair. Knowing when to quit is a million times tougher when you’re personally involved. You count the cost of what you’ve already invested—the years, the sacrifices, the cold hard cash!—but there are hidden costs you might not have considered. There are also hidden advantages to accepting that it’s time to put that commitment to bed and redirect your strength and determination towards new ideas.
A space for growth
One such advantage is that acceptance is a form of release that creates a space for growth. You learn a lot of practical stuff while driving forward towards a goal, but slowing down and stepping away gives you a chance to develop spiritually. Changing direction exercises your emotional agility.
As psychologist Susan David puts it, adjusting your targets and values—rather than pursuing unattainable goals—is an indication of adaptability and can open up new opportunities.
Lose the emotional baggage
Quitting can also be a way of jettisoning negative emotional baggage. In one example, researchers found that women who gave up the idea of having children at the age of 40 reported greater emotional well-being than those who continued to pursue their dream. They felt less depressed.
Of course, it’s up to each of us to balance our emotional toil against the possibility of our desired outcome, but this study is another indication that we can benefit from reflecting more deeply on our goals before deciding whether or not we should continue to strive towards them.
The power of choice
Another advantage of ‘jumping before you’re pushed’ is that the self-determination of choosing when to abandon a project may have a more positive impact on future success than if you allow the project to fail.
Simply put, failure damages your morale and your confidence. It’s tougher to feel like you’re in control of things if you have a string of failures behind you, than if you’ve made strategic decisions to step away from lose-lose scenarios.
The other side of goal-setting
This concept has an interesting connection with the idea of goal-setting. Setting yourself specific goals that you might demonstrably miss can be counterproductive, due to the toll it takes on your emotional well-being. What we quantifiably achieve is often less impressive than what we can say we’ve learned or felt. Targets can help provide a framework for a project, but they tend to draw our attention away from the experience itself.
Take Harry Harlow’s monkey experiments, for example. The monkeys were happy to play with and solve puzzles when there was no reward offered. Once a reward was connected to the challenge, they started to make more mistakes and solve fewer problems. You can’t help but imagine that the creatures were playing more mindfully when they didn’t have one eye on a bunch of bananas!
We see the same effect with many of the artists we celebrate. Their early work, created for fun and experimentation in their own time, is free, inventive and unusual. When they get a record deal or a gallerist, they start to second-guess the market, or they quit their day job and become dependent on finishing each piece in order to get paid. The point isn’t that they should walk away from their contract, but that finding a structure that’s less goal-oriented might help them be more creative.
The connection to health
This hypothesis—that process is more important than productivity—was borne out by eating behaviour research completed at the University of Zurich.
Participants who were focused on the process rather than the outcome of dieting not only lost more weight overall, but felt better about their progress on a day-to-day basis. The goal-oriented dieters were more likely to deviate from their plan, and were more likely to binge following lapses. For the latter, it seems, success and failure were binary opposites, while the process-oriented dieters were able to accept and adapt. In short, they were more mindful.
Whatever the unattainable goal is that keeps you awake at night, it’s likely that your sleeplessness has a negative effect that’s directly impacting your pursuit of that goal.
It’s also possible that the goals the dieters set for themselves were unrealistic. It’s common sense that living with difficult goals is stressful, ergo bad for your health, but this idea is backed up by science, too: researchers have linked living with difficult goals to headaches, eczema, constipation and the daddy of poor health regulation—bad sleep.
A disrupted sleep pattern is, in turn, connected to susceptibility to obesity, and a whole range of other physical and mental health issues. Whatever the unattainable goal is that keeps you awake at night, it’s likely that your sleeplessness has a negative effect that’s directly impacting your pursuit of that goal. It’s a vicious circle!
Enlarge your world
How this manifests when you quit a losing game will differ depending on your nature and your circumstances. Maybe you’ll notice the people and nature around you and appreciate them afresh.
Quit that toxic relationship and you’ll get out of the house more, meet new people and spend more time with your family. Quit vying for that promotion and you’ll notice how much you love your present position—or would actually prefer a lateral career move into a new discipline. Put that unfinished novel in the drawer and you’ll free up so much mental space for fresh ideas.
Quitting isn’t always the best option, and the ‘courage to change the things you can’ is an admirable asset. But realigning the way you think about and experience your pursuits and passions, and learning when to let go can be the beginning of a positive transformation of your health, wealth and well-being.