How Good A Quitter Am I?

I like the Freakonomics podcast. Even with recognizing that Stephen Dubner is a journalist and artist, not the economist half of the duo that makes up the Freakonomics team; and that Dubner generally does all or most of the talking; and since he is an artistic journalist he is good at crafting a message to sway you in a certain direction. With all that raising my filters and getting my logical rationale guard up, I can’t help getting sucked into some of the stories. The Upside of Quitting is one such episode.

Podcasts make up some portion of every day that I drive to work. My daily commute is about one hour each way, so given two hours in a car every day, I get a lot of podcasts listened to. Generally I don’t do movies, books or podcasts twice. If it’s been a long time, probably longer than five years, I might watch a movie again with very few exceptions. Like Gladiator or Lord of the Rings, which of course I watch, because I can’t help myself. I once read All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCartney twice, but by the time I figured out I had already read the book I was so engrossed, again, I could not stop. I like Cormac McCartney books.

But podcasts? I can honestly say, I have only listened to one episode of one podcast twice, and it is Freakonomics, The Upside of Quitting. I like quotes about not quitting. I just took my six year old daughter to see the movie Turbo yesterday, which is all about a snail that wants to be a race car driver and win the Indianapolis 500. The big line from the movie is, “No dream too big and no dreamer too small.” “Winners never quit and quitters never win.” Who doesn’t like that piece of advice? But Dubner raises some good points, admittedly biased to one side of the equation, but still thought provoking enough to get me to consider whether or not I am a smart quitter.

At times I have had the honor of giving others advice about career decisions and I have to say I feel like I am cautious when it comes to advising people to quit something. My premise has been that if you are quitting, it is better to be running to something than from something. There’s a similar quote that says, “It’s easier to find a job when you have a job.” I don’t think the snail in Turbo would agree. In the movie he is comfortably living in his dream world when he accidentally destroys his TV and as a result through some other circumstances ends up getting kicked out of his comfortable life which leads him on the adventure he was seeking to begin with. It’s the “burn the boats” lesson in self motivation. If there is no escape route the only option is to try and succeed against the odds.

Have I been wrong all this time? Would people generally be happier and more fulfilled more often if they were regularly burning the boats and chasing their dreams? There’s most likely no way to answer definitively. Cases can always be found where people quit and were happier in one profession and in another profession more happiness is found in staying the course. I think the best I can do is analyze my past, my own history of quitting and see how I’ve done. If quitting turned out well then perhaps my motivations would reveal why that decision was successful and possibly the opposite may be true as well.

My list of things I have quit.

1. Band – I quit trumpet after my 8th grade year to play football. I was a tiny, wiry, “to small to play football” kid, with a nasty competitive streak. I was first chair trumpet and mean about it.
Result: Good decision.

2. Football – I quit after my high school sophomore year and joined the marching band.
Result: Bad decision. But I made the most of my football season playing cymbals in the marching band.

3. Band – I quit after my high school junior year and went back to football.
Result: Good decision.

4. Football – Decided not to pursue this in college, even though small college may have been an option. I was small, but strong, quick, and did I mention nasty competitive. Decided academics needed more attention.
Result: Good decision.

Let’s take a look at career decisions.

5. Air Force – Quit after my flight commitment as a navigator was up at almost 7 years, 13 years short of retirement age.
Result – Good decision, but sometimes I wonder.

6. Brief stint with Amway – Loved the people and the free enterprise concept, but just could not maintain the time investment. Not going to argue about this business concept because the downside of it is not all that different from the downsides of most businesses.
Result – Good decision.

7. XeTel – Quit to once again consider entrepreneurial career and get more experience in business management and sales.  
Result – Good, but experience but not financially.

8. Stanley Steemer – Fantastic chance to learn service business model from the ground up, but the way they treat employees soured me on the opportunity.
Result – Good decision

9. IT Global Quest and National Green Power Company – Last two shots at entrepreneurial endeavors bringing total to four in my relatively short, thirteen year career at that point. A lawsuit and living customer invoice to customer invoice with three kids and a wife was more stress than I could handle.
Result – Good decision.

So according to this list all of nine decisions to quit, eight of them have been mostly or all good with my last all bad decision made when I was only sixteen years old. Why did I quit football in high school? Probably because I did not think I was going to be good enough to start and I was too ornery to be content sitting on the bench. Being a player was more important to me then than being a good teammate. But I missed the experience too much so I had to go back. None of the other things I have quit have ever pulled me back in with such clarity and alacrity. In other words, it’s the only decision to quit I made that I ended up regretting. As it turns out, I was not going to start my senior year either. I was right, the two guys starting ahead of me were naturally gifted in size and ability that I could not match. Then luck intervened. On the opening kickoff of the season, they guy that was starting ahead of my had a season ending knee injury. I started every game my senior year. So even my worst decision turned out okay. I missed a year of sitting on the bench and actually had a fun time with the marching band. Then when I went back to football, I got to play.

I have quit five jobs in my 24 year career, but all of those decisions to quit occurred in the five years from 1997 – 2001, beginning with my decision to quit the Air Force. Now here I am in middle management in a huge company, staring down the retirement path. When I’m 59 the house will be paid off. When I’m 63 the last kid should be out of college or at least able to fend for themselves. My other kids will be 36, 34 and 32 years old. I’ll most likely have grandchildren.

What have I learned about quitting from my own life? I think I am a good quitter. I’m where I am today in part because of my failures or my decisions that it was time to quit chasing success on the path I was on, and where I am today is pretty good. There was a moment at one of the start-ups that is seared into my memory. This was shortly before our investor sued us. We were meeting with our investor and he had just told us he wanted out of the deal. My partner leaned in and said, “I know you. You’re not a quitter.” It was a manipulative ploy to try and shame this successful businessman in to doing something that was certainly not in his financial best interest. It was riveting drama in a start-up and the ploy failed. Turn out the lights, the party’s over.

Result – Good decision.

Quitting is good. That’s my final stand. I think the advice I typically give is still good. Run to things, not away from them. But if the going get’s tough, there might be a better way and if there is, go for it!