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?