Knowing When to Quit

I’ve been thinking about quitting a lot lately.  Not because I’m giving up, or I’m mired in despair, or I’ve become a nihilist.  Quite the opposite.  I’ve realized it’s a waste of time and energy to put time and energy into things that are broken and that just don’t work.  A lot of other people make this realization and are making this realization.  Demonstrations on Wall Street and in other locations are realizing that unbridled free market capitalism is not the be-all and end-all of civilization.

One of my favorite books and now my favorite podcasts is Freakonomics (the hidden side of everything).  The latest episode of the podcast takes a look at the upside of quitting.

You know the bromide: “a winner never quits, and a quitter never wins.”

To which Freakonomics Radio says … Are you sure? Sometimes quitting is strategic, and sometimes it can be your best possible plan.

Sticking it out at all costs is not always the best choice. Quitting may in fact, at some time and in some instances, be the best option.  Quitters not only do NOT never win. In fact they have less stress, lower stress hormone levels, less negative affect over time, lower levels of systemic inflammation, and fewer physical health problems.  “Being able to abandon unattainable goals is good for your health!”

When to persist and when to quit is the million dollar question.

The Gospel of Mark reports Jesus as telling his followers to give up when people aren’t listening to them:

Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.”  (Mark 6:6-11)


Jesus is telling his followers not to worry about what the Freakonomics folks call “sunk costs.”  The sunk costs being all the time, effort, energy (and money) people put into something that they feel they will lose if they give up or quit.  Past the point of diminishing returns or outright hostility or failure, people don’t want to give up on what they’ve already put into something so they persist past the point where it would actually be healthier to walk away.

I wonder if we are at that point now with our economic system? Do we insist on finding ways to fix capitalism even though it only really seems to working for the richest of the rich among us.  We need to provide everyone with health care, education, food and housing.  Our current system doesn’t seem to be doing this in a way that respects everyone’s need for these basics and care and concern for the planet at the same time.  Do we have so much invested in the system, are we so all in to our sunk costs, that we can’t imagine more creative alternatives? Or is that only in the dreams of those occupying Wall Street?


3 thoughts on “Knowing When to Quit

  1. Your frustration at the seeming intractability of our economic system will resonate with many. It resonates with me! Given the enormous challenge of turning things around, I understand the urge to throw in the towel.
    The Markian passage that you quoted can be interpreted in another way. As you explain, Jesus authorizes the apostles to give up and walk away from those who reject the good news. But what strikes me is the cost to the villagers. If the apostles quit, then the testimony they leave behind will condemn the people–they, not the apostles, will pay the ultimate penalty. There’s a parallel here with the current situation. If someone like you and me–members of the clergy with a good education, rhetorical skills, and the ability to organize–give up (like the apostles), where will that leave the people at the bottom of the economic ladder? Like the villagers in Jesus’ time, the people will, in their own way be condemned. They will remain trapped in a system against which they have little if any power to change.
    So quitting might reduce our level of stress hormones but there’s too much at stake to give up. Our economic system may look intractable but as long as we exercise our power to vote and to organize, change is possible.

    1. Thanks, NakedTheologian. A good reminder that there is a difference between quitting and giving up. I wrote about this when talked about the book Walk Out, Walk On I think our society is entering a time when many people are ready to walk out and walk on. People are ready to quit on what have proven not to work, but by no means are giving up on creating community, democracy, effective relationship, education and much more. It seems that winds of change are blowing for new ways to do things, ways that work, ways that heal, ways that do not need to maintain power and privilege at all costs.

  2. Thanks for the great thoughts!

    re “a winner never quits, and a quitter never wins.”

    I often wonder about these kind of sayings too. “There are only two kinds of men in the world: those who control events and those who are controlled by them (and guess what, I fancy myself as one of those great men who control events!)”

    Well, I guess, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail !

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