Founder Diary

April 19, 2022

Don’t let your goals set you, part 2

Don’t let your goals set you, part 2

Quitting ≠ failure

A productivity-obsessed hamster drawing graphs at a desk. Torn sheet music is moved to the side
A productivity-obsessed hamster drawing graphs at a desk. Torn sheet music is moved to the side
A productivity-obsessed hamster drawing graphs at a desk. Torn sheet music is moved to the side
Nikita Kazhin's headshot

Nikita Kazhin

Co-founder at Brick

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Not a quitter? Your loss.

As I wrote in my last post, once we start on a path toward our goals, we’re easily trapped into thinking that there’s no turning back. As a result, we often persist only to reach destinations that would have been better off abandoned.

Let’s see why that’s the case.

On the hook

It may seem like we only resort to excuses to procrastinate. While that’s as true as ever, turns out we’re also pretty good at excuses to keep going! Here’s why:

  • We don’t want to look weak (including to ourselves). Quitting is a sign of weakness, or at least that’s what most of us internalized at a young age. We don’t want to look vulnerable and we hate failing (And quitting isn’t failure! More on that later.) “Show us the gravel in ya gut and the spit in ya eye!” is the “right” attitude! We may be lazy or unmotivated, but for other people we have to look tough.
    Side note: do click that link above to check out A Boy Named Sue by Johnny Cash. If you listen closely, it’s a great story about abandoning goals when your perspective changes!

  • Cultural conditioning. Literature, movies, and stories in general endlessly extol grit and perseverance. In other words, persistence is romanticized to the maximum extent. Trailblazers, visionaries, or general tough guys who may temporarily fail but never really give up dominate the narrative. And maybe they should. But these sorts of stories’ ubiquity also means that it’s hard to learn to be a better quitter and go against the grain when it comes to our own goals.

  • Sunk costs. Getting back to my language learning example, you’d say “I didn’t spend a year learning Spanish just to give up now!” Having borne any costs (including, and perhaps especially, non-financial ones) pursuing a goal, we get accustomed to the notion that we always have to finish what we started. We just aren’t that good at letting go of past expenses. Our subconscious works against us here. As a result, we often stay the course just to “make up” for sunk costs.

  • Inertia or complacency, a.k.a. “Because I’ve always done it that way.” We just don’t like change that much. It’s way easier to keep moving along the lines already drawn than to change trajectory — even when it means more work, not less! Going with the flow and keeping the status quo are just too comfortable. Why do we stick to a job we hate? Or why do we keep torturing ourselves with Spanish classes if we’ve long thought about how cool it would be to learn the piano instead? It’s fine to change your mind, unless you jump to new things just because the thrill has faded and you need a new dopamine hit. If you want, as long as you’ve considered it, go play the piano!

  • Unavailable, inconsistent, or delayed feedback. The irony of goal-setting is that we make the most consequential decisions when we have the least information. Once we start on a path — i.e., get to taking action — we gain feedback that can allow us to make more informed decisions, course correct, or even abandon a goal if there’s hard evidence in favor. The trap, however, lies in that feedback only comes when we already took the first steps, spent some resources, and perhaps let other people in on it. In other words, when sunk costs have already kicked in. And even then, feedback can be inconclusive, unreliable, or plain useless.

In the end, the bigger your goal, the greater other people’s awareness of it and the greater the efforts you’ve already made, the less likely you are to quit no matter if there’s sufficient rationale to keep going.

With all this in mind, how do we break free?

Quitting ≠ failure

Well, it can be, but it doesn’t have to. If we embrace the “quitting ≠ failure” view, we untie our hands allowing us to move on.

Quitting because you can’t focus, because you’re lazy, or because hard work isn’t for you is a kind of a failure. Quitting because it’s time to cut your losses is a virtue.

I think a great way to illustrate this is by what’s referred to in the investing world as the disposition effect. The term is used to describe investors’ tendency to prematurely sell appreciated assets and hold on to assets that decreased in value.

For example, you buy a stock and in a few months it’s worth only two thirds of what you spent. Naturally, you’re not too happy. The real question is what you do next. You have two options: keep it or sell it. Ideally, you take a hard look at your initial assumptions and if they’re still valid, you just disregard the fluctuations and go about your business. If, on the other hand, you realize you made a mistake and that the stock is falling for a good reason, you cut your losses and commit the freed up money to a better cause.

What actually happens, however, is that investors often keep sitting on that stock in hopes of breaking even regardless of any new information. They latch onto the hope of an eventual rebound that routinely fails to materialize. Meanwhile, they squander endless opportunities to salvage what they can, and to apply their new learnings to invest better. And that is failure.

I think the disposition effect works with goals, too. When we realize our goal “depreciated,” we’re often unwilling to cut losses and admit our own mistakes. We keep ramming forward just because we made the decision at the beginning.

That means “I’m not a quitter” won’t help.

What will?

What does it take to abandon a goal?

  • Guts. Decisiveness and readiness to cut losses may be hard to come by, but otherwise we’re bound to remain stuck in more of the same.

  • Openness of mind. You have to be able to see how quitting can be good for you. What new opportunities can open their doors, what resources can be saved and spent more wisely, what learnings can be extracted.

  • Cool head and critical thinking. Biases and emotions lead us to stick with the entrenched values, even if they are wrong. In this case, this learned preference is “quitters = losers.” Biases are impossible to overcome, but being aware of them alone gives you a chance to be better.

  • Embracing uncertainty. We fear uncertainty most of all. Without a goal we got used to living with, it may be hard to find new meaning. But uncertainty hides both bad and good things. We can choose to focus on the latter.

  • Readiness to be judged. You can learn to be fine with being vulnerable. As social work researcher Brené Brown put it, “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren't always comfortable, but they're never weakness.” Being judged can’t hurt you unless you let it.

Is it just me, or is quitting proving to sometimes be the harder thing to do?

So what?

I didn’t write it all to say perseverance isn’t important. Quite the opposite. Grit is critical. If we quit all the time, nothing ever gets done. But if we never quit, we get bogged down in goals that don’t cut it anymore and we fail to achieve the change we need.

The “I finish whatever I start” approach doesn’t work. Imagine Beethoven running through a brick wall to finish every single piece. He wouldn’t ever have time to even start some of his best works. If we go all Bruce Willis and only focus on fighting obstacles, we miss the bigger picture.

That’s why I think successful goal-striving and, by extension, meaningful work hide in balance between tenacity and flexibility.

So my hope is the next time you realize a goal isn’t bringing the change you seek, you can break away from convention and find the courage to say “You know what? I’m proud to be a quitter.”

Thanks for reading!

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