The Upside to Quitting


“A winner never quits, and a quitter never wins”, Vince Lombardi

“If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging”, Will Rogers

“You need to know when to hold’em, know when to fold’em…”, The Gambler, Kenny Rogers

“No problem is so formidable that you can’t walk away from it.”, Charles Schulz (Peanuts)

I recently made the decision to quit an executive level role that I felt was not the right fit for me (or for the company I was working for), and as luck would have it, it was also the day while driving into work that Overcast replayed the Freakenomics podcast, “The Upside of Quitting”. Whether due to serendipity or confirmation bias, I do sometimes feel that life is not as random as physics would suggest.

As a practicing Stoic, making (or attempting to make) rational decisions is how I strive to live my daily life, and this episode and event highlighted a few truisms that align perfectly to that (and to my own experience):

  • Live my own life, not someone else’s vision of what I should be or do
  • Passion for a pursuit does not guarantee my success
  • Fail fast (the hardest lesson for me as it contradicts my inherent bias to both not recognize when something is not working and to not give up)
  • Life exists in the now – whatever has been invested in a losing proposition is done and gone. As Stevie Nicks sang, ‘Pick up the pieces and go home’ (or move on I would say)
  • My most precious commodity is time – at every moment I need to examine what I am doing and ask myself, am I making the best use (as aligned with my concept of a virtuous life) of what time I have left?
  • Striving for constant happiness in my job, relationships and life is a recipe for unhappiness – I have to take the good with the bad (or the desirable with the undesirable) in order to make progress in life

Reactions > Thoughts > Actions

I walk through life facing backwards, buffeted by events that I can and cannot anticipate. My belief, in thinking I can control the future, is an illusion – fate dictates my destiny regardless of my intentions.

My actions are the equivalent of throwing seeds over my shoulder, hoping that they will grow as I want. In the end, my efforts to bring balance to my life are best spent on managing my reaction to life’s anticipated and unanticipated buffets, and only then on ordering my thoughts and actions.

I am constantly being influenced by the external environment. It is those inputs, mediated by my instinctual/emotional response that unconsciously drives my thoughts and eventual actions. In order to truly gain control of my life, I need to manage my reactions, recognizing the emotional triggers that influence my thoughts and eventual actions.

The external environment is constantly peppering me with inputs, that my monkey mind perceives as threats or immediately desirable events. Recognizing and separating actual physical threats, immediate or deferred, from threats to my self image is the key to controlling my eventual thoughts and actions. In this regard, the Cynics were on to something, though I would not agree with their disregard of the need to fit into society.

In other words, focusing on properly recognizing and reacting to life’s inputs, is more important and productive than trying to manage the outputs. I will work to recognize and not let the seeds of undesirable thoughts and actions gain root in my mind, so I will have less weeding to do in the future.

The Game of Life

“If thou shouldst live three thousand years, or as many myriads, yet remember this, that no man loses any other life than that he now lives; and that he now lives no other life than what he is parting with, every instant. The longest life, and the shortest, come to one effect: since the present time is equal to all, what is lost or parted with is equal to all. And for the same reason, what is parted with, is only a moment. No man at death parts with, or, is deprived of, what is either past or future. For how can one take from a man what he hath not? We should also remember these things, first, That all things which have happened in the continued revolutions from eternity, are of the same kind with what we behold: And ’tis of little con- sequence, whether a man beholds the same things for an hundred years, or an infinite duration. Again that the longest and the shortest lives have an equal loss at Death. The present moment is all which either is deprived of, since that is all he has. A man cannot part with what he has not. “
– Meditations, Marcus Aurelius

“Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.”

– Julius Caesar, Shakespeare

I lie awake, thinking of the past and different choices I could have made, or fantasizing about the future and the alternatives I can choose, when I remember that the only moment that exists is the one my mind occupies in this instant.

Every moment of my life is my opportunity to make my values and goals a reality through my decisions. In other words, play the cards I hold now, not the ones I held in the past or the ones I wish I could hold in the future.

My decisions and actions dictate my reality, based on where I am in the moment. Being envious of others ignores the reality that I have no knowledge of their inner pain and problems. To look at others and think I would be happy if I had their possessions or position is to forget that surface appearances are often deceiving. I need only recall the constant turmoil and early deaths of the “rich and famous” to realize that wealth or fame are not synonymous with contentment or happiness.

Likewise, rehashing past decisions wastes my most precious resource, time. I have no way of knowing the consequences of alternative choices, which could have lead to bad outcomes I couldn’t anticipate. I know where I am today, and I am thankful for playing as long, learning as much and experiencing all that I have. Envy and regret are my emotional mind speaking.

I have all the control I need, in every moment of my life, to be content. Simply pick up my cards and play the game the best I can. If I don’t like my position, I will make a plan and work to change it. Some hands I will win, others I will lose, but I will never be stalled by wanting to replay a past hand or wishing I had someone else’s cards. Every hand is an opportunity to learn, improve my game, and work toward my goals, and I can only gain these learnings by playing. Waiting, through reminiscing or fantasying, wastes my most precious resource, time. The only loser in the game of life is the person who is afraid to play.

In the game of life, possessions, experiences and relationships are just stops and other players along the way, not the prizes or the goals. The end of the game is the same for everyone, but  playing by the wrong set of rules, or playing by another’s rules, is the biggest waste possible. I will play the game of life according to my rules.