3 Little Words Can Change Your Life

No, not those ones.

Over the past couple of years I’ve written quite a lot about the virtue of tenacity. My writings are a tiny blip in the mountain of other words telling us about all the miraculous stuff that’s happened in the world because someone stuck with it, through thick and thin, to the point of victory.

However… there are times when three little words can blow tenacity out of the water, to change your life for the better. Those three words are…

I’m outta here.

OK, grammar devotees, it’s technically four words reduced by a conjunction but all the same, they pack a punch.

Thoughtful Quitting

Quitting — jobs, relationships, marriages, places, obligations — is much maligned in our society, yet examples abound of people for whom quitting something, having given it careful consideration, was the best thing they’ve ever done. This is thoughtful quitting. As opposed to the kind where you just throw your frustrated hands in the air , yell “I give up!” and then regret it later.

I’ve quit projects, jobs, my marriage, places, and plenty of dreams when it became clear that investing more time, effort and emotional energy was not going to make any of them fruitful. When I noticed how many other women had done the same, I started up The Glorious League of Courageous Quitters. Anyone who has quit anything (besides a vice) gets an honourary membership whether they want it or not.

Women have been sending me their quitting stories for so long that I decided to do some research into the why and how of the phenomenon. I’m not stumping for more members in the League. I just think anyone who needs to quit should be able to do so with a clear conscience and a happy spirit for moving on to something better in life.

League Aversion and the Sunk Cost Fallacy

It’s not easy to throw in the towel. Here’s why:

The biggest obstacle to quitting is the Sunk Cost Fallacy, to which all humans can fall prey. It goes like this: once we’ve spent time, effort, and money on a thing we tend to keep doing so even when it’s clear it’s a dumb way to spend those precious and finite resources. Economists declare this to be illogical behaviour because we should assess the value of future effort based on future reward, not past investment. A rational mind wouldn’t give sunk costs any weight.

So why do we honour sunk costs? There are lots of ways people get sucked in.

• We hate the idea of being wasteful. I would be throwing all those hours I spent at the office away to quit now.
• We want to justify that we were right to devote all that effort in the first place. Even though it’s clear the Concorde jet is never going to be a business success, we’d lose face to stop making it now (this was a real thing).
• We don’t want to appear to have failed. I know my marriage sucks and I’ve been sad for years but I don’t want to be a woman who couldn’t make it last.
• We fear change so much we can’t get out of our inertia, regardless of how deadly it might be. Yes I hate getting up every morning but what else would I do if I didn’t do this job I’ve been at for 20 years?

Do you notice the common thread? It’s all backwards looking thinking, and focused on minimizing risk instead of going for reward.

The Other Side of the Coin: Opportunity Cost

While we’re busy labouring fruitlessly, we’re unable to invest our efforts and energies in some other thing. Economists call that Opportunity Cost. What quitting allows us to do is grab a different opportunity. One that might be more fulfilling, bring us more joy, create better possibilities for those around us, or expand our lives and capabilities in new ways.

That’s forward thinking, focused on reward. And that’s why, every day, The Glorious League of Courageous Quitters gains new members. How do they feel when they do the deed? Here are some things people have told me, in their own words:

• I became happier and more assertive as someone who finally realized the value of her own time.
• It felt simultaneously LIBERATING and TERRIFYING. I was both happy and sad, empowered and scared.
• Quitting feels like an active way of putting myself in the driver’s seat of my life rather than just letting it go by.
• This is actually more valuable than any money in the bank.
• My intuition led me away from situations that were safe but small and pushed me into a bigger story for myself.

How to Know When to Fold

All of which is just dandy, but how can you tell when it’s right for you? Every woman who has shared a quitting story has said the same thing: it’s scary and they were filled with doubt and second-guessing leading up to it. Leaving is hard.

So how can you know whether all that angst should be leading you out the door, or is meant to keep you where you are? Here are a few great questions to ask yourself to help you determine your own truth:

• What has changed to make your current situation no longer worthwhile? New information you didn’t have before, new needs, an evolved perspective, a changed circumstance – all these things can change the equation from worthwhile to no longer worth it.
• What opportunities are you missing by continuing? What will quitting make possible? This gets you focused on reward rather, to balance the risk that naturally predominates in our heads.
• If you were given with the opportunity to go into the situation you’re now in, today, would you? If you wouldn’t, why stay now?

Friends and Foes

As you’re figuring this out, you will no doubt consult friends and family. If you’re lucky they’ll be supportive, as in they’ll help you arrive at your own truth instead of theirs. Inevitably, however, there will be plenty of people near and dear to you who will be so scared of this that they’ll say anything to talk you out of it.

So remember this: nobody gets to make this decision but you. There is no right or wrong, there’s only what’s best for you at this time.

If you’re thinking of joining The Glorious League, or you’re already a member and have tips for others, please leave a comment or write me at [email protected] to share your story. Thank you!

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About Shelagh Meagher