Never Give Up on Giving Up

Updated: Oct 6, 2021

Imagine this: you just have realised, against your pride and the stigma attached to being a “quitter”, that you would really rather not do this (whatever “this” may be) any longer. Prior to your realisation, you had been drifting along in comfortable apathy. But having finally regained your senses, you analysed the situation to the best of your abilities and noticed that everything was simply all wrong.

Perhaps the realisation was that it was, more likely than not, a totally hopeless endeavour. Perhaps it simply no longer appealed to you. For whatever reason, you felt very deeply that hanging in there would make the situation somehow worse.

Conventional wisdom would certainly advocate for perseverance, operating under the general consensus that to do otherwise would demonstrate a weakness of character. A good person demolishes obstacles with tenacity and unending endurance. They stare bravely into the face of failure, and soldier on regardless. This sentiment has been echoed by countless great thinkers over millennia, and their message is resoundingly clear: that giving up is cowardice, and essentially indistinguishable from failure.

However, I’d like to posit that giving up and persisting are equally taxing, requiring similar amounts of strength and moral fibre. “Giving something up” rarely involves just that. It is often a considered, laborious first step towards an entirely different path. Simply hanging in there when all signs point to ‘definitely not’ is a bit like drinking seawater when you’re thirsty: unpleasant and a bit gormless.

It takes great courage to admit that the path you’re currently on is simply not right for you, and it is equally difficult to accept that you may never attain something you might have wanted for a long time. Perhaps you landed your dream job, then promptly discovered that you are genuinely awful at it. Perhaps that certain someone you’ve been pining after proves to be incurably indifferent towards you.

In both cases, persevering would just be another form of insanity, not bravery. It’s definitely you, not them, but that’s alright. Even Shakespeare himself once decreed that the better part of valour is discretion. There’s just no sense in pointless self-flagellation. Why not save yourself further torment and move onto something better suited to you?

Alternatively, you’ve realised that you don’t even care about whatever you’ve been striving towards anymore. Once again, perseverance is not the answer. Why waste more time on a defunct aspiration? But giving up on it also means you have to pursue something else – anything else. After chasing a goal or following a certain path for a long time, the thought of losing it becomes very frightening. Past-You might have planned their future around this, and the fact that Current-You doesn’t particularly want it anymore doesn’t make getting rid of it any easier. The unknown is a daunting place, and voluntarily thrusting yourself into it is an admirable act. For us in our early-twenties, this might be quitting a friendship, a relationship, or God forbid, a degree. Later on, it might be switching paths a decade into a successful career, or deciding to break off a marriage.

Regardless, it takes a great deal of strength to emerge from burying one’s head in the sand, and to shoulder the inevitable realisation: this thing that I’ve wasted however much of my life on? Well that’s down the drain, and I will never get that time back. That is time that I did not, and will never spend towards whatever I’ll choose next. An even tougher pill though? To know that if throwing in the towel was the wrong decision, that it was entirely my own fault too.

But these are all risks we must be willing to take. I learnt this lesson myself a few years ago, when I insisted on doing A-Level Chemistry. Some essential context: I was absolutely terrible at it. I did three other subjects, which I both excelled at and enjoyed. I honestly didn’t need this subject for anything other than appeasing my own misplaced pride, and propping up an already doubt-shrouded ambition of becoming a forensic scientist.

Suffering through two more years of Chemistry would perhaps seem a trivial issue to most, but it made my final days at school thoroughly miserable. Even though I absolutely hated it, I told myself that my wonderful Chemistry qualification would eventually be worth its weight in gold, or whatever the going rate for self-delusion was at the time, and patted myself on the back for persevering. I thought that quitting would mean that all those hours of revising (and all those tears) had been spent in vain. So I muddled through, despite desperately wanting to quit and feeling a bit pathetic for it.

With the boon of hindsight, I now know that is patently untrue. Even if you don’t reach your original goal, you will have inevitably learnt at least something along the way. Sitting unhappily in Chemistry, I learnt about atomic ionisation, reaction kinetics and suchlike: the fundamental structures and forces that make up our universe – no big deal. In other cases, it may be new skills, new perspectives, or even new things about yourself, and I hear self-understanding is the new sexy these days.

Staying the course simply because you feel you’ve wasted time is irrational. Living this way, you run the risk of becoming stagnant simply because you succumbed to inertia, a law of motion that even tiny electrons are continually able to overcome in their daily goings-on. (See? This is me putting what I learnt in Chemistry to use.)

Even if you eventually decided you gave up on something incorrectly, and sheepishly return to it, you’ll hopefully have assuaged your own doubts about it (or at least decided that you’re at least better there than elsewhere). There is no shame in that either: prudence is as good of a motivator as any other. You might return to a job, knowing you will never enjoy it, but resolving to find fulfillment in other aspects of life instead. You might pick up a long-abandoned piece of art, having decided you really would like to finish it after all.

Returning to relationships, both platonic and romantic, are rather more nuanced affairs – from my perspective, both easier and more difficult. People, as chronically inconstant beings, can always be relied upon to change. Consequently, the relationship you consider returning to is rarely the one you left, and often, somehow improved. But it is also harder, purely from the weight of the pesky feelings involved. When you ended the relationship, you likely hurt either yourself, them, or (very possibly) both. In returning to this new iteration of your relationship, you risk doing the same again.

Regardless, I must emphasise that the possibility of having to return, shamefaced, is certainly not sufficient reason to persevere against your better judgement. In any case, the courage you had to quit will afford you a fresh start: either the opportunity to do things more intelligently this time around, or to seek out greener pastures.

At this juncture, my revelation will likely come as no surprise: I did quit Chemistry in the end. I decided a year-and-a-half in that I refused to spend any more of my time crying over something I detested. And I wished I had done it sooner. While this article is not intended as blanket encouragement for quitting, it is, at times, certainly the best and wisest choice.

All in all, there’s absolutely no shame in giving up – given you’ve at least made a decent hack at it.

Photo: Tate Images

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