“Just quit, baby!”
Quit your Job; Quit your hobby; quit if you’re not happy; quit just to see what happens next. Then you can try failing.
Quitting is good for the soul. I recommend it. And when you’ve mastered quitting, the next step on the road to building real character is failing – more challenging but with even greater rewards than quitting.
But quitting first: You’ve probably heard that “nobody likes a quitter,” but just who is this “nobody” anyway and why should we care what he thinks, especially if he’s “nobody”? The person to please is yourself.
I started practicing quitting in high school: I quit the swim team and the orchestra because although I enjoyed swimming and music in a noncommittal kind of way, I hated both between the hours of 7 and 9 am. I loathed jumping into cold water before I was even awake, hated the din of stringed instruments played with no great skill or dedication before I’d even had breakfast. In fact, even history class was too early for me so I quit that, too. Instead, I spent first period at the restaurant eating bacon on a bun, drinking coffee and smoking. Now, that’s the way to wake up.
However, these early forays into what was then considered pretty eccentric behaviour did not come without a price. For years afterward, I had recurring dreams about wandering the halls of my old high school looking for my locker, clutching my viola. The climax of the dream is when I remember I have to play in a concert and realize I don’t know the pieces.
No doubt my highest achievement was quitting law school after earning straight A’s in my first year. I quit because I don’t like whatever it is that I’m doing – a job, a program of study, any kind of enterprise at all. So why did I get involved with it in the first place? Because I thought I would or might like it and I tried it out and I didn’t, so I quit. Or I liked it for a while, and then I didn’t, so I quit. While I’ve been practicing the art of quitting, I’ve been refining my preferences, discovering my passions, developing new skills, having adventures. What if, driven by fear of quitting and failing, I had forced myself to complete law school and was now a lawyer? Sure, I’d own some nice suits (I think that was what attracted me to the profession in the first place), I’d have more job security, probably live in a bigger apartment, definitely would have more …yeah, but I’d also have to be at work at 7 am.
I know there are things you don’t quit without long and hard contemplation – marriage, for example. And then there are things that you can almost never justify quitting, like being a parent. I’m not talking about quitting on people you have committed yourself to, and who rely on you. I’m talking about allowing yourself to quit the lesser commitments: jobs, careers, lovers, hobbies. Quitting has been good for me, has tested my faith in the future and my tolerance for uncertainty, and helped me develop both. While I’ve been quitting, I’ve been learning not to quit on myself.
I’d advise anybody to quit. Quit especially when you’re not happy, when you find yourself complaining and are tired of your own whiny voice. Quit when people treat you badly, and quit especially when you find yourself treating other people badly. Quit for fun just to try something new. Quit to open up a space in your life; a silent mysterious place, and wait to see what happens there.
Once you’ve got quitting under your belt, you’re ready to graduate to failing. Now failing is strong stuff and not for everybody. Unlike quitting, which you initiate yourself and is usually cause for rejoicing, failing often comes as an unpleasant surprise. You fail despite what you think are your best efforts. You fail when someone else makes a judgment and you don’t measure up. You get fired. You get dumped. A failed relationship is the most intimately painful thing there is, as anyone who has experienced it knows. And nothing beats getting fired for dismantling your self-esteem and destroying your sense of purpose and belonging.
And yet failing, too, has provided me with lessons I needed to learn which all boil down to one: I am responsible for just about everything that happens to me. When I fail, it’s because I didn’t want to succeed, or I didn’t want to enough. After all, I’ve succeeded at the things that were most important to me. I’ve paid my rent on time every single month for the past 20 years. I quit smoking. I got published in The Globe.
My failures have made me examine the source of my ambivalence and pushed me to make conscious choices. My failures have instructed me about the perils of not choosing, and spawned resolutions (whoa, I’ll never do that again!) that I’ve kept. Through undergoing small (like the slow death of my kitchen window herb garden) and larger failures, I’ve been learning about what’s important to me, as well as getting used to not being perfect. I’ve come to accept my failures as strong medicine.
Quitting and failing have made me land on my feet so many times, I am developing calluses that soon will allow me to walk over hot coals. That is the kind of preparation you need for life. You need to be ready for hot coals and loneliness and other dark nights of the soul. When I talk to people with little experience of quitting or failing (usually younger than me; it takes years to build up a really good portfolio of quitting and failing) they seem like innocent inhabitants of a kinder, gentler country. They have not yet developed the fine art of appreciating absolutely minimal indications of well-being, such as being able to take a deep breath, then another, then going on.
People who quit and who fail are not quitters and failures. We are brave flouters of convention. We don’t take anything for granted, and we don’t accept received wisdom. We ain’t afraid of nothin’ or “nobody”. And we take your breath away.
Cellan Jay is a Writing Instructor, Editor, ESL Curriculum Designer at Innis College and Woodsworth College Writing Centres, University of Toronto – Ontario Institute for Studies in Education
Read why “Just quit, baby!” still resonates with me after 20 years.