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The Art of Quitting


(Photo: Akos Nagy/shutterstock.com

The thing about Ellen Pao, or any high-profile quitter before her, is that, ultimately, you reach a limit of what you can do—or more importantly, desire to do—in a given medium, and you have to get some distance from it and go in a different direction.

And it’s worth the common reminder—success doesn’t necessarily equal happiness. Sometimes, you make that realization halfway down the road and find yourself begging for a new direction, like Michael Jordan did when he decided to become a baseball player.

Maybe you’re getting older and you’re comfortable enough with where you are that you don’t need to keep topping yourself anymore—maybe you’re in the Billy Joel mode, ready to drop the pop-rock stuff and create classical music instead. Or maybe you’ve said all you want to say in a given way—perhaps, like The Postal Service, you were ready to Give Up after a single album.

Even with money playing a factor, there’s a limit with what we’re willing to do if we’re just not interested anymore, or the weight becomes too much for us to bear.

“I left on a whim, the same day that I announced my decision. I had been unhappy long enough to know that quitting was the right thing to do,” said onetime model agent Marie Darsigny, discussing why she quit her “pointless” dream job.

There’s actually a good name for this in the realm of psychology. It’s called “goal disengagement,” and it’s actually a good thing when you get older. A 2011 study on the topic from Concordia University psychology professors Erin Dunne and Carsten Wrosch, as well as the University of British Columbia’s Gregory Miller, found that a willingness to give up goals that were no longer attainable actually helped decrease depression in the elderly.

“Goal disengagement can prevent repeated failure and associated negative emotions, and has been associated with lower cortisol levels, less systemic inflammation, and fewer reports of health problems,” Wrosch told The Atlantic in 2011.

People born between the years of 1957 and 1965 had an average of 11.3 jobs between 1978 and 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s roughly a 32-year period. Think that’s a lot? Well, between 1998 and 2011, millennials worked an average of 6.2 jobs—meaning they’re on a pace to quit more often than their parents did.

Former Apple employee Jordan Price parted ways with his highly sought-after job after less than a month. “I felt more like I was a teenager working at a crappy retail job than a professional working at one of the greatest tech companies in the world,” he wrote on Medium

However, leaving a field you have already succeeded in can feel just as necessary. “It became clear to me that from my background, I brought to the bureau certain assumptions that were not universally shared,” admitted longtime credit union executive Cliff Rosenthal, who spent a year with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau before retiring. 

But something has to replace the thing you’re quitting.

“People also need to find new purposeful activities,” Wrosch continues. “They have to reengage—find a different job or look for a different partner. Reengagement in turn has been show to predict higher levels of positive emotions and purpose in life.”

“I will say, though, that you know it’s time to go, when you have too much self-respect to stay. And when you’re so stressed out that you start losing your hair. Yes, that actually happened to me,” said Tess Vigeland, the former host of the radio program Marketplace, of her decision to leave. She didn’t have a Plan B, and she wrote a book about it.

In a world where we applaud people who “fail fast” or take massive risks for the sake of a potential large reward that’s not even guaranteed, it can be difficult to fathom the idea of people who are wired to leave something they worked incredibly hard for at the drop of a dime.

Everyone should quit something that really matters to them, at least once. We all need to feel what it’s like on the other side of a big success story. Only then will we all understand that quitting isn’t “giving up,” but setting the stage for something else.

By resigning from Reddit, Ellen Pao is choosing to focus her attention on the other things that interest her. Eventually, you want the bandwidth back.

It’s not giving up, it’s disengagement.

 A version of this post originally appeared on Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail.