Thinking about quitting: Life lessons from Kenny Rogers and Aristotle

“If you’re gonna play the game, boy, ya gotta learn to play it right.

You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em,

Know when to walk away and know when to run.

You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table.

There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done.

Now Ev’ry gambler knows that the secret to survivin’

Is knowin’ what to throw away and knowing what to keep.

‘Cause ev’ry hand’s a winner and ev’ry hand’s a loser,

And the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep.”

The topic of this long rambly post is the the virtue of determination versus knowing when you’ve had enough. It’s an important life lesson and one I’m just sorting out.

In favour of working hard and determination: I have three academically gifted children and I’m aware of some of the challenges gifted children face. One of the dangers of the standard school system for them is that almost everything is easy. They can do whatever is asked with little effort. But this means that when they encounter something hard, they haven’t acquired the experience of finding something hard and then learning it anyway. It’s not just work habits that are missing. It’s recognizing that you can be missing skills or abilities and learn them.  Researchers say should never praise bright children for their intelligence as it often backfires.

Instead, parents and teachers ought to commend all children for their effort

From the BBC: “The researchers found children commended for their ability when they were successful learned to believe that intelligence is a fixed trait that cannot be developed or improved. They blamed poor performance on their own lack of intelligence. When children praised for their hard work performed poorly, they blamed their lack of success on poor effort and demonstrated a clear determination to learn strategies that would enhance subsequent performances.” Read more,

This is true too for athletically talented people. Some sports play on our strengths and others don’t. Often we are best at the ones we come to with a great deal of natural talent and then build from there. I love having the strength and aerobic capacity that when I try something new I can focus on skill rather than fitness. But this can prove tricky for gifted athletes in the same way it’s true for those gifted at school. The connection between sports smarts and classroom smarts is the subject of another post, but here’s a heads up: they’re linked, see Elite Soccer Players Are Smarter Than You Are.

My brother was good at most things physical but I remember the first time he put on skates. I was the figure skating older sister and he was the soon-to-be hockey playing much younger brother. He ran onto this ice and fell over. And fell again. And again. He came off the ice and threw off the skates in disgust. “I can’t skate,” he exclaimed. He seemed really surprised. “Oh, but you’ve got to learn. No one can skate right away.” It took a bit to persuade him but eventually he tried again. And zoom! He was gone in a flash. Well, after a few lessons anyway.

So as a parent I’ve urged my kids to get outside their comfort zones, try things they find challenging, and then stick with it anyway. I was very proud of my daughter when she failed one the many exams she needed to take en route to becoming a lifeguard. What I loved was seeing her resilience and determination. She bounced back, redid the exam, and passed. Learning to fail is a wonderful thing. If you aren’t failing at something regularly then it’s a clear sign you aren’t challenging yourself. It’s better to aim high and fail once in a while than to never know what you’re capable of. I have a poster in my office that has the Samuel Beckett quote about failure on it: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

So determination and willingness to risk failure are important virtues, virtues necessary for leading a good life.

But determination and perseverance can also be overrated virtues: There are dozens (probably hundreds, maybe even thousands) of motivational posters praising hard work, perseverance and determination. But very few sing the praises of cutting your losses and moving on.  But sometimes it makes sense to quit. Aristotle describes a virtue as a “mean” or “intermediate” between two extremes: one of excess and one of deficiency. Most people quit things too easily. Exercise plans, learning French, and piano lessons spring immediately to mind. And successful people, we’re told, stick to it, they have determination. I suspect given that most people go wrong in this direction, determination makes sense as the virtue to encourage.

However, people can also go wrong in the other direction, sticking with something long past the point where sticking with it makes sense. People stay in bad jobs and bad relationships counting the time put in (sunk costs) for far more than it’s worth. Successful people also know when to quit. It turns out that trying lots of things, cutting your losses early, and moving on is a trait many high achievers share.

There’s a great Freakonomics podcast on this subject, The Upside of Quitting.

Here’a quote from the website: “Sudhir Venkatesh, the Columbia sociologist (and blog contributor) whose research we wrote about in both Freakonomics (“Why Do Drug Dealers Live With Their Moms?”) and SuperFreakonomics (“What Do a Street Prostitute and a Department-Store Santa Have in Common?”) has lately been doing a lot of research into quitting. So we brought him aboard for this hour to talk to two groups of workers whose skills are perishable and yet have a hard time walking away from their jobs: prostitutes and baseball players. Along with one of his students at Columbia, a former ballplayer named Justin Humphries, Venkatesh took a look at the socioeconomic background and outcome of the 2001 baseball draft class (which included Humphries) and found that, for many of them, sticking it out for years in the minors amounted to a poor economic decision, at least when compared to observationally equivalent young men”

Why I am thinking about this: This week I seriously considered quitting Aikido. Short story—I’m not being invited to test. Longer story—My progress is too slow (glacial pace), there’s lots of other physical activities I’m good at, I’m the sort of person who needs progress. I also worry that I hurt myself too much and that Aikido endangers other physical activities I’m loathe to give up. At the higher belt levels people seem to do only Aikido (not Aikido + other sports) and I’m all about well roundedness. It’s also an indoor activity and for the most part, I much prefer being outside.

I’ve decided to stick with it for now. I’ll apply another blast of effort and see where it takes me. I really do enjoy Aikido so it’s no great sacrifice staying. You can read more about what I love about Aikido here.

But I don’t want to make the mistake of dogged, thankless determination either.

I’ll take the bad news stoically, work hard, and continue to train as if I’m going to test (a great way to polish up the techniques), and reassess come spring when the call of the outdoors is a little louder. That is, when there are opportunity costs as well as sunk costs to consider.


14 thoughts on “Thinking about quitting: Life lessons from Kenny Rogers and Aristotle

  1. Sorry to hear you’re not going to be invited to test. You raise a lot of different reasons to quit Aikido that don’t have to do with slow progress. But then you also have a lot that you like about it. I quit tai chi last month because it just seemed like one thing too many to commit to, so I’m not one to speak against quitting. I guess this will get you thinking about how closely connected the need to “make progress” through external markers of achievement is to the capacity to continue to find something enjoyable.

  2. I too am sorry that you weren’t asked to test. Clearly, you thought you might be and you sound very disappointed. Enough to quit though? You almost always feel bad about quitting something physical you’ve committed to in a somewhat hardcore way, even if you really are right to quit it in the sense that there’s something about it which is not right for you in some really meaningful way; thing is, if there is something wrong about it for you, you likely will not miss it all that much. You sound like you’ve invested in Aikido in a meaningful way. So at least one of the questions to ask, in my humble opinion, is whether it is right for you, in the sense that you have the right temperament for it, despite the fact that it is sometimes a struggle. Or is there something about it which is just wrong for you, in the sense that you won’t really miss it (save for the occasional thrill) and you’ll actually be relieved in some way that you don’t have to do it anymore? In some ways you sound to me like you might have the right temperament for it. You say you like to throw large men around who are much stronger than you physically. I never met anyone who boxed or trained in some martial art (and was right for it) who didn’t talk this way. As bad as it sounds, people right for this type of sport genuinely like to hit (or throw) others. You sound to me like you have a bit of a killer instinct. So just maybe it or another martial art is good for you, even if it is a struggle for you performance-wise right now.

    1. Not much killer instinct really. When I started I had a very hard time striking people. I like throwing large men because then I can be certain I’ve got the technique correct. With most of the women I can muscle them around and get away with incorrect technique.

      I’ve decided not to quit and to soldier on and see how it goes. I’m certainly getting better, just not as quickly as I like.

  3. Interesting. I’m very competitive in many ways but I like fighting only to a degree, or maybe only up to a point. Once it becomes truly brutal, I am not a happy participant and I find it almost ugly and tiring. People with real killer instinct love to win in a truly brutal setting, and are so right for competition in boxing or martial arts. Sounds like you’re after something a little different from Aikido.

    1. Nothing about Aikido is ugly. It’s a martial art based on redirecting the energy of your attacker. When done well, you don’t do much and they go flying. Quite beautiful and graceful really. Sadly beauty and grace of movement are very much skills in progress for me. 🙂

  4. So you take Aikido because you love the beauty and grace of movement involved in it, and you are sad that you it is difficult for you or “against type” in some ways for you to partake in or adopt that beauty and grace of movement. That’s all really quite beautiful actually. I admire your decision to stick with it, at least for now.

  5. I once spent ten years waiting to grade. After ten years I left and went to a different club. I regret not leaving much much sooner but i didn’t want to quit.

    17 years of aikido training and I’m now a 4th kyu!

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