When To Quit photo

When To Quit

Perseverancehas received lots of support in recent years from a variety of schools of business.One is from psychologists studying grit. They have found the capacity to stickto a task — particular when faced with difficulties – is a crucial factor in explaining the successof everyone.

Thenthere’s the idea that persevering in the face of adversity can prompt learningand improvements of skills. Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindsetshas found that those who treat challenges and limitations as an opportunity todevelop and learn tend to perform better in the long term. They persist whenthey face challenges, and the reward is a deeper and wider skill set.

How Good Are You at Quitting?

For eachquestion give yourself a score from 1 (almost never true) to 5 (almost alwaystrue).

If I hadto stop pursuing an important goal in my life…

1. It’seasy for me to reduce my effort toward the goal.
2. I find it easy to stop trying to achieve the goal. 
3. I am not committed to the goal for a long time; I can let it go. 
4. It’s easy for me to stop thinking about the goal and let it go.
5. I think about other new goals to pursue.
6. I seek other meaningful goals.
7. I convince myself that I have other meaningful goals to pursue.
8. I tell myself that I have a number of other new goals to draw on.
9. I start working on other new goals.
10. I put effort toward other meaningful goals.

Onceyou’ve completed the test, add up your score of questions 1-4. This will giveyou a sense of how good you are at disengaging from an existing goal. Theaverage score is about 10. If you scored 13 or more, then you are very good atdisengaging from old goals. If you scored 7 or less, then you are very bad atdisengaging from old goals.

Now addup your scores for questions 5-10. That will give you a sense of how good youare at setting new goals. The average is 21-22. If you scored 26 or more, theyou are very good at setting new goals. If you scored 17 or less, then you arevery bad at setting new goals.

Source: Carsten Worsch ET AL., 2013

A final benefit of perseverance is that we don’tknow when our luck will turn. A recent study of the careers of nearly29,000 artists, filmmakers, and scientists found that most of them had a hotstreak in their career when their work received wide acclaim. These hot streakshappened at a random time in their career, however. They weren’t related toage, experience, or even being more productive. They just happened. Thissuggests that if you’re thinking about quitting, you should remember a hotstreak could be just around the corner.

Otherresearch challenges these findings, however. One recent meta-analysis of studies ofover 66,000 people found that there was actually a weak link between grit andperformance. And a recent study of over 5,600 studentstaking scholastic aptitude tests found that there was no link between growthmindsets and scores on the test. People with a growth mindset were not morelikely to improve if they took the test again, nor were they more likely toeven try to take the test again. And the research on the artists’ hot streaks?It turns out most people had only one; second acts were comparatively rare,particularly for filmmakers. So if you’ve already enjoyed a streak of success,the odds are against you enjoying another one.

In fact, there’s a large body of work showing thatperseverance may have a harmful downside. Not giving up can mean people persisteven when they have nothing to gain. In one study, people working on an onlineplatform were given a very boring task. The researchers found those who saidthey were very persistent continued to do the task despite the fact it wasboring and there was little to be gained in terms of monetary reward. So whileit might be valuable to persist with worthwhile and rewarding tasks, people whodon’t quit often continue with worthless tasks that are both uninteresting andunrewarding, ultimately wasting their time and talents.

Remaining fixated on long cherished goals can alsomean people ignore better alternatives. Being unwilling to let go can lead topeople being perpetually dissatisfied — even when they end up getting whatthey thought they wanted. This was nicely illustrated in a study of graduating college students searching for a job.The researchers found students who had a tendency to “maximize” their optionsand were fixated on achieving the best possible job possible did end up getting20% more in terms of salary. However, they were generally more dissatisfiedwith the job they got and they found the process of getting the job morepainful.

An unwillingness to quit can be more than justunrewarding. In some situations, it can become downright dangerous. Thishappens when people’s persistence leads then to continue with, or evendouble-down on, losing courses of action. One study found that people who wereparticularly gritty were less likely to give up when they were failing. Thesesame people were more likely to be willing to suffer monetary losses just sothey could continue doing a task. Another study of would-be inventorsfound that over half would continue with their invention even after receivingreliable advice that it was fatally flawed, sinking more money into the projectin the process. The lesson: people who tend to be tenacious are also those who get trapped intolosing courses of action.

Being unable to let go of cherished but unachievablegoals can also be bad for your mental and physical health.People who struggle to disengage with impossible goals tend to feel morestress, show more symptoms of depression, be plagued by intrusive thoughts, andfind it difficult to sleep. They have higher rates of eczema, headaches, anddigestion issues. Being fixated on unachievable goals is also related to highlevels of cortisol (which over time is linked with things like weight gain,high blood pressure, negative mood and sleeping problems) and higher levels ofC-reactive protean (which is linked with inflammation in the body).

So when you ask yourself whether to stick with atask or goal, or to let it go, weigh the potential to continue learning anddeveloping incrementally against the costs, dangers, and myopia which can comewith stubborn perseverance.

Adapted HBR Oct 2018 Spicer