Letting go- failure or quitting? what's the difference?
August 17, 2014 2:14 PM   Subscribe

I am having a hard time letting go of something. I have been told that I have an amazing ability to persevere and I can, unfortunately, keep on trying to make things work- for ever! Needless to say, letting a current bad situation go is proving to be near impossible because I see doing that as outright failure, not to mention a complete waste of 1+ year. My friends say its not failure, and I don't think I understand the difference. So I am hoping that maybe you can explain with personal anecdotes?

If you have been in a tight spot, personally or professionally (say, deciding to divorce or leaving a bad job), how did you decide whether it was failure or quitting? If you have as much trouble as I seem to have with letting go, how did you learn to overcome it? And finally, if something is affecting your health adversely, what is the tipping point- losing sleep and/or appetite, a trip to a psychologist, getting cancer or getting admitted in a mental hospital?? How would you know that your health is really, truly, definitely being affected adversely, and its not a function of not getting your act together and dealing with whatever life throws at you?

Thanks in advance!
posted by xm to Grab Bag (22 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I thought about the sunk cost fallacy and whether I would be better off doing something else. The answer was yes. In the case of a grad school program I quit, it was really helpful to hear from other people who had quit and were still satisfied with the decision.

The search for a "tipping point" seems arbitrary and unrealistic to me. It depends on you. There is no hard and fast line here.
posted by wintersweet at 2:21 PM on August 17, 2014 [8 favorites]

I think if you're asking all these questions, the time to quit has already passed. Let go. Move on. You shouldn't keep doing things voluntarily that cause you this much angst and self- doubt. Our lives are so, so short and it doesn't have to be like this.

As far as not viewing it as a failure - you've learned something, haven't you? The times in my life that have been the worst to go through have without exception given me the most insight into who I am, what I'm capable of, and what I really want.
posted by something something at 2:26 PM on August 17, 2014 [6 favorites]

Best answer: "Failure" and "quitting" are really just arbitrary negative labels we sometimes slap on a situation.

If we're talking about a bad job, "failure" becomes irrelevant because, unless you're the CEO, the things that make the job bad are out of your control.

I've stayed at jobs where the company was run by idiots. I kept hoping it would get better, that next time they wouldn't make the stupidest possible decision that made everyone's life worse, but- guess what? It never happened. Know why? The company was run by idiots, and I lack the magical power to transform idiots into non-idiots.

Doing the right thing for yourself is never a "failure," but that's even more true in a situation that you can't control. It's very easy to get brainwashed by our society, which loves to tell us that it's always the employee's fault for "not working hard enough" or whatever. That's bullshit. You should always feel free to leave a shitty situation with your head held high, knowing you didn't cause it and there's nothing you can do to change it.
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:27 PM on August 17, 2014 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Needless to say, letting a current bad situation go is proving to be near impossible because I see doing that as outright failure, not to mention a complete waste of 1+ year.

I am very semper fi and I am divorced and also left a job that was never going to really work for me. And, you know, you are doing this wrong. You stay for current and future value, not past value. Do you have any reason at all to believe this will get better? What value are you currently getting out of it?

If the trajectory is expected to be endless torment or downhill slide, than staying is the way to fail. Leaving is the way to start over and work on something with some hope of success.

But, to answer your actual question:

I left my marriage when I felt clear that staying would help kill me.

I left my job some time after I began having nightmares that it was a sinking ship and that kind of thing. I didn't leave immediately. I spent some time trying to make other arrangements and waiting for "the right time". We were getting all kinds of internal memos with spin that framed the company's financial problems as positively as possible but I could read between the lines and I could see that it really wasn't so rosy. I felt fairly strong that not only was the job not a good fit for me personally but the long term health of the company was not looking too good either. So, basically, I got to a point where I felt that even if the job had been a better fit for me, the company could not provide me with a bright future because it did not have a bright future.
posted by Michele in California at 2:37 PM on August 17, 2014 [7 favorites]

I've just always asked myself, "Does this make me happy?" if the answer is no then it's time to let go. It really is as simple as that. For me anyway.
posted by patheral at 2:38 PM on August 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: To quote the philosopher Marcellus Wallace: "That sting is pride fucking with you. Fuck pride."

You get one life. Don't spend it miserable to prove a point to nobody.

The most successful people I know are the ones that know when to cut bait on a failing enterprise rather than riding it into the ground out of pride. The sooner you take your medicine and get on with it, the sooner you can try something else and succeed.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 2:43 PM on August 17, 2014 [13 favorites]

If a good friend was in your situation, would you advise them to let it go now?

Next year at this time you would have a complete waste of 2 years. Would that feel better than a waste of 1 year?

Look into the sunk costs thing already mentioned.

If you continue on this path, you will just throw good time after bad, and get nothing for it.
posted by AllieTessKipp at 2:58 PM on August 17, 2014

For me if something fails, I quit it/let go of it. The trick is to not see yourself as a failure I think. Sometimes easier said than done.
posted by tanktop at 3:19 PM on August 17, 2014

Go on vacation away from it all. Ideally something low key with friends, not a trip to paradise. If you dread going back, there's your answer.
posted by fshgrl at 3:35 PM on August 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'd like you to consider three concepts:

1) Labels: I'm a big fan of changing labels so that they more accurately reflect what's going on. Could you consider that instead of "giving up" that you would be "moving forward" to the next stage in your life?

2) Locus of Control: My philosophy is that the difference between quitting and letting go (or moving on/forward) is whether the problem is internal or external. Have you done all that you are capable of doing to make the situation better but the external stimuli keep you from achieving the experience (happiness, satisfaction, comfort) you're seeking? You can request other people change their behaviors, but you can't change them. You can request that an organization (debt-holder, university, employer) change policies, but you can't make them happen. Have you sought all the outside help that anyone, anywhere, can imagine is available? You can only do what you can do (improve your performance, modify your behaviors, etc.), and once you've done that, I, a random internet stranger, give you permission to move on.

3) Expectations: Taking the idea of sticking things out to the extremes, do you expect yourself to finish a meal that tastes bad or isn't to your liking? Finish a book or a TV series you're not enjoying? Stay in the same volunteer position in a club or professional association for the rest of your life? Do you expect yourself to never change jobs, cities, relationship partners, or whatever, for your whole life? That one year that you were involved in whatever this is (job? relationship? academic program? family situation) taught you a lot about yourself, about other people, about interpersonal or professional skills. I think that nothing is ever a waste of time unless you choose to refuse to see what you have gained.

And what of your expectations for others? Do you give others a free pass, or expect them to stay with something, no matter how unhappy they are, because that's the box to which they assigned themselves on Day 1? If you EVER would give a friend the advice that it's OK to leave something that makes them unhappy, don't you think you deserve to give yourself (and follow) that same advice?

I used to be like you, feeling like leaving anything short of an official graduation or official cycle of replacement (like annual role changes), was a failing. And then I realized that in almost* all circumstances, my reason for existing, let alone doing anything else, was, foremost, for my enjoyment.

*Parenting and living are my two rare, complex exceptions to feeling it's OK to "give up" to make yourself happy or relieve unhappiness. But that's a whole other discussion.
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 3:40 PM on August 17, 2014 [8 favorites]

Agreed that this has a lot to do with framing.

My anecdote:

I spent the last two years gearing up to start a small business, only to meet a lot of roadblocks right out of the gate. This was compounded by a serious bout of self-doubt and depression. I basically got totally paralyzed. Therapy kind of helped, but I ultimately had to "quit" the process; too many production hurdles, too little capital, too much second-guessing. Struggling against these forces was exhausting me and just making me more miserable.

It took me several months to fully admit that I was giving up on my goal of working for myself. But when I did so "officially" (to my SO, family, friends), I felt much better. Why? Because it meant that I could redirect my energy towards something I knew I could do. Because it meant that I didn't have to tell white lies about my "progress" to those who asked after my project. And because it gave me a chance to step out of my cycle of disappointment and self-criticism for five damn minutes; I was better able to accept appropriate responsibility for my shortcomings, while also being kinder to myself about them.

TL/DR: I tried to reframe my failure as giving up in the best sense; essentially, as the relief of a burden. For the most part, this has worked. I'm getting excited about the next thing I'm going to be doing (completing a degree program), and generally feeling much less depressed. An additional reframing aspect is that I haven't completely abandoned my idea, but simply put it away for a while. I can always approach self-employment again in the future, as I continue to work on the internal things that held me back.
posted by credible hulk at 4:18 PM on August 17, 2014

Best answer: I got admitted to, and spent a year in, what was arguably the most prestigious graduate program in the United States in my field. Everyone I knew was surprised to hear that I quit over the succeeding summer. My grades were perfectly good, I was definitely learning the material -- but it was destroying me on the inside. I didn't enjoy it, it wasn't me, and I didn't like the person it was making me.

When I decided to let go and do what was best for me, it was a truly great and freeing experience. I had misunderstood the nature of the discipline I'd be learning and the skills I'd be practicing.

If you can't say to yourself "where is this going?" and come up with a plausible answer, it is time to start thinking about cutting the cord.
posted by Mr. Justice at 5:29 PM on August 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Everything is a learning experience. Fail early and often! You learn that it doesn't kill you. You learn to stare it in the face and embrace it.

The only thing worse than being in a shitty situation for X is to stay in that situation for X plus one day.

Walk away! It feels great! The RELIEF!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:38 PM on August 17, 2014

There is a book about knowing when to quit:

I ask myself these questions:

1. What is the reward if I finish? If I'm climbing a mountain, the reward is a sense of accomplishment for the rest of my life. If I'm getting a degree, the reward is listing that degree on my resume forever. If I'm starting my own business, the reward might be money from selling it one day, or passive income if the business does well.

2. What is the likelihood that I can reach the reward? If I'm climbing a mountain, the chance might be 90% that I can finish. If I'm starting my own business and it's going poorly, maybe the chances are only 30%.

3. How long will it be until the reward? The mountain might be 5 more hours of climbing. The business could be another 4-5 years.

4. How will I feel if I never attempt this again in my lifetime? If I give up now, chances are reasonably high that I wouldn't do it again, because I'd be afraid of giving up again. So I evaluate how I'd feel if I never scale that mountain, or if I never become a successful business owner.

5. Which is worse: the pain until I reach the reward, or the pain of knowing I will never do this?
posted by vienna at 5:38 PM on August 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I hate quitting things and also tend to put up with way too much stuff, especially with jobs, especially because I work in a field that eats people up and spits them out, especially because I've historically worked with high-needs populations so quitting is viewed as a straight-up moral failure. So my tipping point? You know that part of "Office Space" where he says:

"So I was sitting in my cubicle today, and I realized, ever since I started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it. So that means that every single day that you see me, that's on the worst day of my life."

In the midst of my one epically horrible job, that's how I felt. And I'm a happy person. So for me, if I start feeling like every day I have to go to work is the worst day of my life, well - that's it for that. (And that's even putting aside the various physical manifestations: gained weight due to stress eating, developed new and exciting allergies to molds & creatures in the building, got sick constantly, couldn't sleep etc.)

Note that things do not have to be that bad for you to quit. But for me that's what it took, and even then, I still sometimes feel like a quitter. But a happy quitter.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 5:53 PM on August 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Here are my thoughts:
For the case of a business venture, consider the case of a company making VHS tapes (or insert your favorite outdated technology here). The world changes. There is no longer any demand for the product. Should the company keep on making those VHS tapes no one wants to buy, would that be "not failing"? No, it would be foolish. Continuing in a career or business that isn't succeeding - maybe it isn't the right word to call it failing, but it's not the right decision, either.

Now, the case of an outdated technology is a much easier one because you know that there is no chance that the business will eventually "make it" - but for the purposes of answering your question, that doesn't matter. The point is to realize that changing course or deciding to do something different does not have to be a failure. One you have realized that, you can come to the conclusion that it's not about 'continue' versus 'fail', it's about weighing the risks and benefits in a situation and deciding that the risks of staying in the situation are too great to justify the potential benefits.

The case of a relationship (i.e. divorce) is quite different, because it's a lot more complicated than just looking at profit margins and balance sheets. It's much more subjective. But the principle remains the same. Is staying in the relationship going to make you happier, going to make your life better in real ways, than being single? That's often a really tough one for people to judge while they are still in the bad relationship. But I'd say when it comes to the point that all your friends are telling you that you're making a mistake, and you're worrying that you're significantly adversely affecting your health, there are very few situations I can imagine where being single or finding a new relationship wouldn't have greater potential benefits for you.

To address "the tipping point" in terms of health effects, if you have to ask the question, that seems like a really bad sign. You can't give yourself cancer by staying in a bad relationship or job, but anything requiring hospitalization is way, way too far. I'd say most people look at it as "I seem to be having these symptoms/this health problem that has started or gotten noticeably worse since I got into this stressful situation. It seems to get better when I'm on vacation from or away from the stressful situation. Thus, I need to make efforts to get out of this situation."

Honestly, I'm trying to present a logical strategy for you to use in your situation given the little information you provided, but just based on what I know from reading this question, I strongly suspect your friends are right and you need to get out of this situation now, regardless of what the details are.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 6:10 PM on August 17, 2014

I had to double check and make sure I hadn't written this question....because whoa boy, could I have!! (And I favorited, and bookmarked, and set reminders to read and reread the answers a lot over the next few days.)

Here's what I have to say about letting go: when Michaelangelo was carving his masterpieces, he looked inside the big hunk of rock, saw the statue, and just cut away everything that wasn't it. I think that's what we need to do. Look inside these crazy screwed up lives of ours, see who and what we're supposed to be, and get rid of everything that isn't that.

I have stayed in bad jobs for months. Toxic relationships for years. I just spent the better part of last week in the hospital for a problem all the docs say is probably very stress-related, and I'm diving right back into the same stress-filled cesspool tomorrow. At least this time, I've got goggles and a snorkel on, and I KNOW I've got to find a way out.

Not being able to find your name to tell somebody what it is is some scary shit, yo.
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 6:11 PM on August 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: how did you decide whether it was failure or quitting?

Someone once told me, "in this life, we are often running toward something, or away from something. It's very important to know the difference." And the difference can be subtle.

Neither is right or wrong, but it makes all the difference. In this TED talk about stress, the speaker makes the point that it's not whether or not one is stressed, but whether or not one believes stress is bad. Those who believe stress is bad, experience negative results from being stressed.

Point about running toward or away means that there are two ways to look at quitting. Either one continues what they are doing – thus running away from "failure", or one choose to do something else – choosing to run toward something else, thus quitting.

The language you used is really important, for failure and quitting are two very different things. If I quit a job that I don't like, have I failed? If I end a bad relationship – essentially quitting a person – have I failed? If I try to start a company and it fails, did I quit? If someone breaks up with me, did I quit?

To start, I would not conflate failure and quitting. In situations where I have failed, it is because I did not quit. And in situations where I quit, I was often not failing!

So how did I decide? I didn't. I looked at what I was doing, and asked if it made me happy. And in some cases, there was adequate happiness, but I wanted to do something else more.

A lot of people who are tenacious end up being driven by motivations that are ultimately not helpful, and in some cases, harmful. I've certainly been guilty of that in the past, as are many of the achievers and strivers that I know.

How does it happen? It happens when I lose perspective. When the internal goalposts outweigh any external signalling. It's a very myopic view which says that "I have to make the situation in front of me work," without any consideration for the costs or external realities.

In everything we do, there are costs. The cost of choosing one thing, involves not choosing something else. The cost of taking one job is not taking another job. The myopia of trying "to avoid failure" or "refusing to quit" means taking all the other options of the table and essentially saying, "I am going to endure this..."

So how do you decide if it's time to do something else? When you are tired of enduring where you are. When the will is sapped, and you can't justify it to yourself anymore. When you decide you've had enough, and it doesn't matter what's next, because anything will be better than this. When you decide to take control and make a different decision.

If you have as much trouble as I seem to have with letting go, how did you learn to overcome it?

By being kind to myself, and accepting myself. By trusting myself to find the right answers for me. By allowing myself to let go of things, and realising that I will always be okay wherever I am. By taking perspective and looking at my life and seeing how valuable it is. And how it is only valuable to me. And how I wanted to use it well. To live well. To feel fulfilled. And that I didn't need anyone else's permission for that. That I didn't need to do anything to feel like that.

Rather, I needed to stop doing things. To let things go. To let life bring me new experiences, and to enjoy the things it brought me, rather than fighting uphill battles I never seemed to win.

How would you know that your health is really, truly, definitely being affected adversely, and its not a function of not getting your act together and dealing with whatever life throws at you?

Because getting your act together enhances your health, it doesn't take away from it. Behind everything, you can feel your body. You can know your health. Your body will tell you what it needs, and where it sits. The mind can obscure this. You can suppress your feelings, but that doesn't mean they're gone.

Whenever I want to get in touch, I turn off my mobile and shut the laptop, and spend the day walking. Often many, many miles. I get present, and I really feel what's going on in the body. Where the stress is. What I'm craving – whether it's health or not. Connecting back with the self.

Seeing the concerns in the mind, and feeling the body. Taking that information.

Then, you can decide if its worth pushing yourself for what you're doing. I always consider that whatever I do, my body is being slowly consumed. Consumed by time. Consumed by stress. Consumed by living in a city. Consumed by the food I eat. Is what I'm doing worth being consumed? What tradeoffs am I making, and am I willing to make those tradeoffs?

Ultimately, you already have the answers you seek. You may not like them. You may not feel as if there are options. Every option may feel like a bad option. You may be able to rationalise business as usual. Or maybe you are 99% of the way on a journey, and you need to sit tight for the last 1%.

Whatever it is, you already have the answer. Now, you need to listen to it.
posted by nickrussell at 6:45 PM on August 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

Honestly, it was when I read this:


It talks about sick systems and how you can't fix them from within - you have to walk away. It's focused on relationships and jobs - for larger institutionalized/culture things, you can't exactly walk away (where would you walk to?) but for jobs and relationships, this link is applicable.
posted by RogueTech at 7:42 PM on August 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't believe in quitting. Until I quit a terrible job last year I'd never quit anything in my life. I'm also cursed/blessed with extreme perseverance and will go to the ends of the earth to be able to look at myself in the mirror and know that I wasn't a quitter. I thought terrible job was a test to see if I wanted my dream life badly enough to put up with being treated terribly and general misery. I thought if I quit I wouldn't deserve my dream job.

I'd been at terrible job for two years and it got worse every day. It kind of becomes the classic tale of red flags, stop what you're doing. I'd drink heavily every night to try and forget I had to go to work the next morning but part one of the breaking point was when someone called me over my lunch hour and I answered the phone. I had been sobbing, which surprised them. But I had been crying the first fifteen minutes of every lunch break for months. Guess that's not normal. The second was a few days later when I almost got in a car accident but didn't and I was disappointed. If I'd gotten seriously injured I could miss work, then I thought to myself I should purposefully hurt myself. Then I quit my job.

It was the best thing I've ever done for myself and since I've only been working freelance, I'm so terrified by getting trapped at another job I've turned down work that doesn't have an end date. I did a lot of damage to my psyche by staying. From what I'm reading you're looking for permission to quit and I, internet stranger, am giving you permission. Quit whatever is tearing you apart. It's not worth it. Quitting isn't always a dirty word, sometimes quitting is what we do to survive.

I hope this doesn't come off as insensitive but something that helped my brain grapple with quitting was the idea of abusive relationships. When someone leaves an abusive relationship I think they are strong and brave and doing what's best for themselves. It can to a lesser extent be applied to jobs, if your job is either abusive or making you feel abused leaving doesn't make you a failure, it means you're brave, strong and have done what's best for you. Good luck, my friend!
posted by neurotic narwhal at 12:59 AM on August 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: What works for me is internalising the idea that you learn best by failing. If you're not failing, you're not taking risks! Imagine repeated failures as a kind of uncomfortable crucible for forging a future extra awesome version of yourself.

Have you ever seen little kids learning to walk and run and jump? The ones who take it really hard every time they fall over are not the ones who progress the fastest. Have you seen extreme sports videos on youtube? When those guys were learning, they fell off ALL THE TIME.

If you have got to the point where a failure makes you instantly think "Hurrah, I learned something!" and not "I am a waste of space", you suddenly have the freedom to explore a lot more options in life.
posted by emilyw at 2:10 AM on August 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I completely agree with the opinion variously stated above, but would add 2 caveats - first, be sure you come out of it smelling like a rose, especially if you plan to continue working in the same field (don't slam the door on your way out, etc.). Second, if you've been bullied or scapegoated, or gone through other related personal trauma, it may take some time and effort to work through all that within yourself, regardless of how well you've conducted yourself.
posted by mmiddle at 7:55 AM on August 18, 2014

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