Life is full of twists and turns and it is sometimes easy to get sick of the many gyrations that are needed to make a business thrive, a project launch, or even to get internal signoff in some bureaucratic version of the Hokey Pokey.
It would be so easy to quit.
But a part of you knows that many a failure turns into the big success story. In start-up land, Air B&B notably went for 4 years with scraping the barrel kind of funding and just recently received $112 million. Most people don’t remember how dire the Apple situation was in 1997 when Steve Jobs returned. A share of Apple back then would buy you a cup of coffee; now it’ll get you a nice bottle of Opus One from, say, 1987.
Business is full of stories of perseverance and pursuit – of the almost-failed hero who didn’t quit when times were dark. Those stories admonish quitters, and honor the survivors. I should know. I am both.
My dark night literally came in a late evening 1987, when I was attacked by a serial rapist (I was #24 in a long string of crimes, I came to learn later) as I walked home alone to my rented room after a college study session at Denny’s restaurant. After the attack, I spent hours with the police capturing details, viewing a police lineup, and visiting the ER to do the rape kit and get sutures for a knife wound.
There were moments in the middle of that night when I thought about quitting. By this time in my life, I had already experienced enough child protective services, enough violence, enough sadness, and enough battles to last many lifetimes. Until that point, I had believed that these struggles were escapable. But the terrorizing thoughts that ran through my mind that night were that I was somehow doomed to this kind of existence. That I must have deserved this. That it was a punishment from God for being disrespectful to my family in even trying to escape. The terror was that I must have done something to bring this on.
If there is such a thing as hell, I am convinced it feels just like that night when a fire of ugly thoughts burns you up from the inside. I admit that I wanted to give up on my life, to end it then because I didn’t want to face the shame. I didn’t think my friends would want to know me. I didn’t think I had the strength to face the pain that would surely follow as the incident took its course through the justice system, interminable counseling sessions, and vivid night terrors. But I did fight. I fought for my dignity. I fought for strength, and I fought for the love-filled life that I experience today. If I had given up, I would not be here to experience any of today’s joys, probably the most precious of which is my relationship with my husband and son.
I could have shared a professional business story because I have those too, but it is the visceral nature of our darkest moments I want us to connect to. The desire to quit never comes on a sailboat, feeling the wind on your face, during long hikes in the mountains, or after joyous mountain bike summits. It’s not those puppies and sunshine moments that test us. It is when we feel lost, overwhelmed, and exhausted that we feel the desire to quit. Wanting to quit comes when you are tired of the fight and sick of being beaten down in the darkest times of suffering and loss. It’s when we can’t raise funds and we will be forced to shut our doors. It is when we find out we were betrayed by a fellow founder. It’s when a product that needs to work isn’t living up to its promise and the marketplace is beating the crap out of the company. It’s when we don’t know if we’ll have another client and we don’t know how we’ll feed our families. These relentless fears crowd in on us, taking up space. We need something to break our way our way, but instead just the opposite happens – we feel more trapped than ever. That’s when the desire to quit floods in.
While I am a survivor, I am also a quitter. In 2010, I shut down my strategy consulting company. I just wasn’t able to find a way for it work without a level of persistent attention and energy that had become unsustainable. What had once been inspiring and challenging had become a grind; it was sapping me of my energy. After 11 years of building it, I did what seemed to others a sudden about-face and quit. Colleagues, clients, friends almost universally thought I had lost my mind. I was told I had failed, and I heard that people said to one another that I lacked courage. Hmmph. I mean really. Hmmph.
Life is full of twists and turns. But it also has straight stretches of open road. As each one of us has to learn for ourselves, failure can lead us to a new place. Many times that means sticking it out, pushing through, and yet, sometimes that means putting the thing down. Perseverance is needed in life to be successful, and it is wisdom that lets us know when enough is enough. Sometimes, to get where you’re going, you first have to leave where you’ve been.
If I hadn’t put down Rubicon, I know I would still be doing that one thing. All. The. Time. And many people I respected pointed me back to the consulting life because I had proven to be successful at it. As if what I’d done up to this point defined all of what is possible in the future. But a part of me imagined there could be a different way to contribute my domain expertise, and passion for igniting cultures of innovation. And this is key; I imagined it before it was true. I had no proof that I would find a new outlet to use my abilities. That is until this week, when I joined the Board of Directors of EPAX, a NASDAQ-traded education company.
And so sometimes quitting lets us create space to create the next thing. My career wasn’t going to be over just because I didn’t stick to the firm I had started, and built and led for 11 years.
While your story of wanting to quit will certainly differ from mine, I want to share this: just because you stop doing something doesn’t mean you are quitting. Sometimes it’s bravery to know it’s time to stop and walk away. Experiencing failure isn’t the same thing as failing. Letting go doesn’t mean you’re giving up. And stopping isn’t quitting; it is just a pause that lets you sort out where you’ll turn next. In our black-and-white, win-or-lose society, we admonish quitters and we celebrate survivors. But life is more nuanced than that.
When might it be your time to “quit”? I can’t answer that for you, but I can give you this as a guideline: You can quit things like businesses or projects if you know they are merely one means to your passion. You know if you’ve done your very best to make it work. But what you can’t quit is fighting for your purpose, and living, and finding new, more effective ways to bring forth your passions in the world. We can quit things, but what we can’t quit is fighting for our dreams.
As is true for all my writing that I do first for and with my fabulous editors at Harvard Business Review, I ask you to please not add comments here but to continue the conversation over at the original posting site: Don’t Give Up at HBR. (thanks).