Winners Often Quit and Quitters May Win

Happy 2016! I’m going to get back in the swing of posting book reviews (that’s what this blog is really for, after all) – expect a new review every two weeks or so.

My choice for the first book to review in the new year might seem incongruous. After all, I just posted a whole series on goal-setting and our collective energy around New Year’s Resolutions is still high. But think again! Today’s book, Mastering the Art of Quitting (now republished as Quitting), is all about pursuing the goals that really matter to you by consciously disengaging from outdated aspirations.

Who Is This?

Peg Streep was on track to become an English professor, but then took a different path and became a writer. Alan Bernstein is a former college professor who now works as a psychotherapist. They cite these mutual experiences in making big life changes as one of the inspirations for Mastering the Art of Quitting.

What’s the Big Idea?

We live in a culture that despises quitting. The world is full of stories that glorify those who persist through difficulties until they (inevitably, in our cultural mythology) succeed.

Persistence is a fine quality. But the idea that success is guaranteed through indefatigable persistence has a dark side, Bernstein and Streep argue, particularly since we tend to be overly optimistic of our chances for success in any given venture. The combination of this mythos and innate psychological tendency towards optimism discourages us from to fully giving up on any goal. This is unfortunately true even if we have little chance of success, or wouldn’t be happy with the results even if we did succeed.

The authors argue that “goal disengagement” or “artful quitting” is a skill equally as important as commitment, but far less valorized in our society. Artful quitting isn’t about giving up because one is weak or lazy. Rather, it involves a successful person examining a goal or activity and realizing that the goal isn’t working for them. After coming to this realization, the person decides to give up that goal fully and then sets and commits to alternate goals.

In order to quit without dwelling or regrets , an artful quitter must disengage on four levels:

  • Cognitive: thinking about something new rather than dwelling
  • Affective: letting yourself feel bad about failure, but then moving on
  • Motivational: setting new goals that are more attainable or better suited for you
  • Action: changing your behavior so you are working towards your new goals, not your old ones

My Take

This book combines a trifecta of things I enjoy: a more academic approach, an idea that hasn’t been completely beaten to death by the self-help industry, and an argument that makes sense to me.

Some of you may be raising your eyebrows or wrinkling your noses as that “academic approach” piece, but don’t be put off. A lot of self-help book sort of feel like taking a technical class, don’t they? There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. You have a statement of goals, a straightforward transfer of knowledge from writer/teacher to reader/student, some “assignments” to get up to speed on whatever method or system the author is proposing.

Mastering the Art of Quitting is different. It feels more like going out for coffee with a couple of brilliant professors in a particular area and listening to them talk about their area of expertise. (Unsurprising, since Bernstein is a psychotherapist and was a professor for years.) Every once in a while, one gets a gleam in their eye and says, “Related to that point, did you know…?” and goes off on a bit of a tangent. They do make suggestions and explain how certain points might be applied like they might in a classroom setting, since you’re not the expert that they are. But in the end they want you to understand their thesis rather than being able to apply a specific system.

But enough about structure, what about the authors’ actual arguments? Simply put, I agree with them and think these ideas should be more widely acknowledged. I think it’s entirely accurate to say that change is difficult and people are more comfortable with the devil they know (even when that “devil” is a goal they’re striving to achieve) than the angel they don’t. Bernstein and Streep manage to avoid sweeping generalities while still pulling together results from a number of studies to support their points.

So many personal development books exhort you to ‘make a change’ and then to stick to whatever improvements that particular book/author suggests. The focus on identifying what you are changing, acknowledging and exploring why it is so difficult to change course, and then making practical suggestions on how to do it anyway and do it successfully is a reframing that I enjoy and find useful.

More personally, I love that this book, unlike many of its self-help kind, openly acknowledge that most people think of themselves as part of the elite/above the average/of extraordinary capabilities when that is often not actually true. Most self-help books, in fact, exploit that fact to sell their ideas; “most people lead average boring lives,” they say, “but YOU will be different.”

Meant For

Anyone who finds themselves ‘stuck’, behaving in ways or pursuing goals that don’t seem quite right for them, but who are uncomfortable or afraid of the idea of giving up. People who find themselves continuing to half-heartedly try to achieve something they don’t even really want anymore. Those who like a little scientific psychological analysis in their self-help.

Bottom Line

I strongly recommend this book. If you think you might need to make a change in your life someday – and who doesn’t? – it’s absolutely worth a read.

Quitting: Why We Fear It – And Why We Shouldn’t – In Life, Love, and Work (formerly published as Mastering the Art of Quitting: Why It Matters In Life, Love, and Work) by Peg Streep and Alan Bernstein – 272 pages – originally published 2013, republished 2015 by Da Capo Lifelong Books

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