I’m still thinking about willpower from my last article, and while it’s true that ‘stick-to-it-iveness’ (as my Grandma used to call it) is an important skill, it also really helps to know when to bail. Oddly, even though the desire to give up comes pretty naturally, deciding when you should actually do it doesn’t seem to. Watching the things that have made me and the people I care about unhappy in our lives over the years, I feel like learning how and when to walk away can’t be overrated.
I think maybe we’ve been sucked into seeing our lives through the narrative lens of movies where the characters almost always get something good in the end for sticking with it. We’ve seen it happen so many times it’s hard not to believe that if we just work long and hard enough we’ll win the prize, but in my experience the real-life ratio on that is significantly skewed towards failure. I’m not trying to crush anyone’s dreams – if it’s important to you and you believe you have a shot, then you should take it – I just think that we’re often not very good at being realistic about what our chances are or how much we’ll end up having to pay.
In the movies, the audience is supposed to identify with the heroes, so as long as they pull through it feels like success, but there are usually a bunch of secondary characters who went through the same stuff and got a crappy prize for it. Like all the loyal sidekicks who died trying, for instance. So for anyone who suspects that they might actually be a sidekick, or even an expendable extra, here are some movie scenarios in which you should give up and walk away:
1. If the cabin you rented for the weekend looks like a haunted house and inexplicably has a basement full of rusty weapons, don’t stay there. Go rent a motel room somewhere and demand a refund when you get home. It’s not worth having your entrails eaten to get your money’s worth on the deposit.
2. If you’ve already invested more time and energy than you can count doing x and you don’t even like x anymore, don’t compound it by working harder to prove something to your absurdly successful neighbour, your perpetually displeased mother, or your ex who thinks you’re a loser. Odds are you’re not going to like it any better even if you do succeed, so cut your losses and put your energy into something you actually care about.
3. If your closest, calmest friend keeps telling you that something’s not a good idea, listen to why and sleep on it. Probably it’s not a good idea.
4. If you’re living a life you’re pretty happy with and someone comes along and tells you there’s some big secret you could find the key to if you’re willing to risk everything you know and love, seriously consider whether you want to do that to yourself.
I’ve been wondering how to explain the balance between perseverance and letting go to my son when he’s old enough that his eyes don’t glaze over after 3 sentences – I’m an optimist, so I do actually believe this will happen someday – and I think what I’d like to say is that developing the ability to force yourself to keep going when you really don’t want to will help you in life. It’s how you get really good at pretty much anything you want to do, get more of what you want, and make sure you’ll be able to do whatever you have to when it counts. Working hard and practicing will usually get you where you want to go, and even when they don’t, they have some intrinsic value.
It’s one of the reasons I run. Honestly, I kind of hate running. I love that it’s something I can do by stepping out the door – there’s no equipment, just me in the outdoors, which is the best gym ever – but when my body decides it’s time to stop, I feel like I’m going to die if I don’t. I found it very entertaining when Simon Pegg’s character in Run, Fat Boy, Run gets stuck in the middle of an empty stretch of road staring at a brick wall only he can see. I can make myself keep biking, or cleaning the kitchen, or carrying my son, but for some reason when I hit that wall running I find it really hard not to quit. I keep going because knowing that I can is actually worth it to me.
The flip side of that, though, is developing the ability to stop and walk away from something you’ve put effort into when it’s not worth it anymore, and anyone who has ever stuck with something that made them miserable in the end can tell you that’s even harder than it sounds. It’s not just major projects we couldn’t stop working on, jobs we should have quit years ago, or relationships we stayed in when everyone including us knew we should leave. It’s little everyday things, like the hikes my family went on where we kept going and going because it always seemed like the lookout point was just over the next hill, or the movies none of us were enjoying but we kept watching just to see the ending, which we predictably didn’t enjoy either.
The good thing is that every minute is a chance to make a different choice, so as soon as you find yourself thinking “you know what? I don’t care anymore!” you can stop and do something else. The hard part is knowing when it’s worth trying, even if you fail.
All that said, alex MacFadyen’s favorite Wipeout contestant was middle school teacher Deborah Blackwell, who yelled “Never give up, never surrender!” all the way through the course, fading into the distance as she tumbled ass over teakettle into the icy water. When she came back for the All Stars episode, her battle cry was “Tarnations to 2nd place!”