The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.
…that’s how we measure out our real respect for people—by the degree of feeling they can register, the voltage of life they can carry and tolerate—and enjoy. End of sermon. As Buddha says: live like a mighty river. And as the old Greeks said: live as though all your ancestors were living again through you.
– Ted Hughes
Via Letters of Note
Quitting is an exercise like any other. You don’t have to rush in and try to deadlift the heaviest thing in your life. The big, scary weights aren’t going anywhere so you may as well start with something you can pick up.
For example, when I went to Mexico I quit buying facial cleanser. At first, it was just because I was flying hand-luggage only and it was over the 100ml size limit. So I took off without it. A few days of soap and water on the road and… nothing happened. My skin – long accustomed to expensive cleansers and moisturisers – remained exactly the same. It didn’t flake off or swell up or go greasy.
Now I use Dove bar soap once a day, which costs less than a quid and lasts for months. This represents a considerable savings over £6-£10 on a cream cleanser that lasts a few weeks, so switching has saved me a lot of money.
More importantly, once I realised that ‘cleanse, tone, moisturise’ is pure marketing bullshit I started wondering “what else do I really not need?”
Turns out I can live without a huge handbag collection and a closetful of impractical shoes. Nothing bad has happened as a result of only owning one winter coat and one pair of trainers. Sure, I still have loads of stuff I treasure and would hate to get rid of but it’s good to know I don’t need it.
In case you were wondering, I am 100% serious about the I Quit Club. For real. Quitting can change your life.
Quitting is tough though. Not the act itself, which is as easy as falling off a bike (and a lot more fun) but getting your head around the idea that it’s okay to quit.
I was brought up to think quitting was bad. Grown-ups told me that “winners never quit and quitters never win”.
It never occurred to me to ask: “win what?” so I carried on not-quitting like a good girl, right up to my second year of university.
To put this in context, I’d wanted to be a doctor since I was 12. My big crush was Noah Wyle in ER and a steady diet of white-coat heroics convinced me medicine was my calling.
It was a logical choice: secure, predictable, good money, and above all respectable. Off I waltzed to uni: confident, determined and oblivious to the implications of the fact that I hated physics, struggled with chemistry, shrank from biology, and shuddered at maths. I also studiously suppressed my love of English and writing.
Looking back, I am half-amused and half-horrified at how dumb a bright girl can be (“Was anyone ever so young?” Joan Didion sighed). Nothing got through until my second year when I hit term two of physics. Most stuff I can bluff through but physics stopped me cold. You can’t bullshit an equation. Lectures were torturous and the coursework reduced me to tears.
The idea forced itself into my head, unbidden: “why don’t you quit?” Oh god. That was not in my plan. Quelle drama. I freaked out. Bored my poor friends witless with my teacup tempest. In the States, physics is a pre-med requirement so quitting the class meant the end of my doctor dream. Oh my god. I had my WHOLE LIFE mapped out. Quitting would fuck everything up. But I still couldn’t do physics. So I quit.
The minute I made the decision my anxiety and guilt vanished in a rush of relief. I didn’t have the right answers, but I had definitively eliminated a wrong one. It felt amazing.
What I didn’t appreciate until much later was that you can’t have everything at once. You can’t reach out for something new, or receive a gift, if you’re hanging on to your baggage with both hands.
Quitting is good. Seriously. If you want to be happier right now quit something.
What bugs you? Your job? Your crummy relationship? The headlines? Carpooling? Organising play dates for your kids? Pretending to be interested in your friend’s kids? Grocery shopping?
Whatever it is, take a deep breath and say – preferably aloud – “I Quit.”
You can. You are an adult, of sound mind and free will. Act like one. Do not say “I can’t.” If you won’t, be honest and say that. But don’t say “can’t”.
We’ve been sold this bullshit that in order to improve our lives we need to do more. So we run ourselves ragged to work harder, go to the gym more, eat six small meals a day, be more sociable, catch up on the latest whatever, do up the spare room… the list runs on forever. As long as we play that game we’ll always be a few tick-boxes away from perfection, so quit.
What do you have to lose? Bad habits, bad relationships, boring friends, time-and-money wasting hobbies you don’t really enjoy, uncomfortable shoes, the respect of people you don’t give a shit about anyway.
The reason a lot of us don’t quit stuff is we’re scared to falling behind. Bollocks to that. Let’s stop chasing impossibilities and revel in taking control. Be a proud quitter.
Join the IQ Club by posting a comment saying what you’re quitting, email or Tweet @CilaWarncke with your IQ(uit) pledge. My favourite “quit” wins a bar of chocolate and a copy of “On Self-Respect” so hit me up and make it interesting!
This was scribbled in pencil on the first page of an orange spiral-bound notebook discovered at the bottom of a box. Written, I guess, around Christmas 2009. Thought I’d share in honour of National Poetry Day.
The Reason for the
Season is a fantasy.
Dragons, the Four
Horsemen, blood and
Do we celebrate?
A hole torn in the fabric of civilisation. The
Pulse of the planet
Skipping in fear or anticipation.
Twenty centuries of
Stony sleep vexed
To… a storm in heaven?
Nine years: one for
Every alleged feline life.
Signs and wonders, three
Wise men. Three
Blind mice. See how they
Run. Salvation isn’t
Morrissey nailed the British attitude towards work when he sang:
I was looking for a job, and then I found a job
And heaven knows I’m miserable now
A handful of Londoners I know are passionate about their work (all of them self-employed). A minority of content, sensible people treat their jobs as a means to an end. Mostly, though, people complain. In shops, on buses, at the gym, they moan about the commute, the politics, the gossip, the tea-round, the reports, the boss, the admin, the atmosphere, the expectations, the air conditioning, the meetings, the colleagues, the parties, the salary, the prospects, and the tedium. Yet they get up every morning and go to work.
The most common justification for this self-defeating behaviour? “Because not everyone can have their dream job”.
True. But just because not everyone can have a job they love is no reason for you (and you, and you, and you) to not try. There are people who can’t afford food, but you don’t let that stop you eating, do you? The plain fact is a lot of intelligent, educated, able-bodied, skilled, geographically and socio-economically privileged chose to play the victim-of-circumstance because it is easier than changing.
I’m not talking about conscious compromise of the: “I hate my job but it pays mad money so I do it anyway” sort, but the inexcusable: “I hate my job and want to do something different but I can’t.”
Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the time, “can’t” is bullshit. It’s a euphemism for “won’t”, or “I’m scared”, or “I don’t know how”.
Each of those is a legitimate sentiment when honestly held and expressed. Otherwise, it’s a pitiable excuse.
I know because I’ve spent most of my adult life making excuses and mistakes, copping out, compromising, and selling myself short. Until I realised there is no fairy godmother in the wings. Nobody is going to give me permission to live my dreams. If I want job satisfaction I must choose to be satisfied.
I have options – lots of ’em. If I choose to not exercise them, fine, but I cannot pretend they don’t exist. It is dishonest, and disrespectful to people who are genuinely struggling.
People who are working for sheer survival don’t have time for self-pity.
Everyone who gets into Bikram yoga eventually takes up the 30-day challenge: 2,700 mind- and body-twisting minutes. My Day 28 is off to an inauspicious start. The yoga studio is locked, the instructor outside on the pavement with us. We fidget and pull up collars, rubbing our hands against the chill. “I got up at 4.30 to get here,” one woman grumbles. I check my watch. If I miss this class it will mean rescheduling an interview so I can come after work. The mere thought makes me tired. I can just about manage morning yoga but post-work is a different, more brutal ballgame. Thankfully someone arrives with keys and we scuttle inside, shedding shoes and coats as we fast-forward through our usual pre-practice routine. Then we are in the sauna-like studio, breathing, bending, flexing, balancing, and stretching.
I understand why people look askance when I enthuse about Bikram yoga. Superficially, it is more pain than pleasure. I often lie on my mat before class, eyes closed, enjoying the 110-degree heat, hoping the teacher won’t come in, won’t turn the lights up, won’t cajole us to our feet. But he or she always does. Then I hoist myself up, gaze into my sleepy eyes in the mirror and think: There is no way I can do this. It isn’t possible. Practice builds confidence, but most days Bikram yoga remains a contemplation I neither desire nor understand. Yet it’s as addictive as chocolate brownies and Fraser box sets. At least in part because it poses problems I can solve. For 90 minutes the hardest decision I have to make is: “Am I going to stand on one leg now?”
These little disciplines have larger echoes. From bad weather and bureaucracy to late-running trains, most things are out of my control, much to the despair of my inner control freak. When the universe refuses to cooperate I want to demand better; or use irritation as an excuse for bad behaviour. For example, I love to travel, but I hate airport security. Just thinking about it makes my neck tingle. On a recent trip the security attendant pulled me aside. My liquids were in the wrong sized plastic bag. My jaw clenched. I fished in my mind for a sarcastic remark but then the discipline of the yoga studio came to mind, those hours of minute-by-minute decision-making. Maybe I was entitled to be angry, but I could also just stand there for thirty seconds and wait for the wave of pique to pass. Inhale. Exhale. Repeat. The woman transferred my shampoo, conditioner, and toothpaste to a fresh Ziploc bag and handed it over. I took another breath. That was it? She smiled, told me to have a nice flight and, instead of sulking off ashamed of my petulance, I could look her in the eye and smile back. My god, I thought, I don’t have to be a bitch anymore.
It was a minor moment of clarity. My choices don’t change the world but they change my experience of it. Bikram devotees do 30 day challenges, 45 day challenges, or 100 day challenges because regular practice rehearses a truth: Life is a challenge and we have no idea how many days we’ll be required show up for. The best we can do is try to pick right, moment by moment. Every time we choose between anger or patience, kindness or judgement, bitterness or forgiveness we create new possibilities and alternative relationships.
Looking at all they’ve accomplished, it is hard to believe that John ever balked at teaching abroad; or that Nancy refused, even briefly, to consider taking the boys out of school. It goes to show how fast and hard habit strikes, and how quickly it can strangle a person’s sense of possibility. One of the defining strengths of the Vogel’s relationship is that they are braver together. When Nancy put her foot down and said it was time to move and find a way to be together all John had to do was say “no” and the door would have closed. Maybe she would have gone to teach abroad without him; or stayed in Albuquerque warring with her discontents. But there would have been a limit – however faint – on the scope of the future.
Contrary to what many people believe, to be daring is a decision, not an accident of personality. “The vast majority of people aren’t making conscious choices,” Nancy says. “They’re just keeping up with the Joneses.” She had the courage to conceive of a different life because she had already seen and experienced such a thing.
Nancy can pinpoint the moment her world turned from monochrome to Technicolor. When she was 15 her parents, who were from Minnesota via North Dakota, made the surprising decision to go on a family holiday to Mexico City. They had lived in Boise, Idaho since Nancy was eight and her primary exposure to other cultures was National Geographic magazine. Innocent of the wider world, she admits: “It literally never occurred to me that people lived differently.” Then they went to Mexico. A smoggy cauldron crammed with more than twenty million souls, its capital city was so alien that Nancy’s voice is still laced with awe at the recollection.
Instead of modest Lutheran churches people worshipped in a cathedral that was sinking beneath the weight of its towering dome and sad-faced icons. Instead of well-kept suburban streets they walked along thoroughfares jammed with rattletrap buses, hustling vendors and ferocious little taxis. Stunned by the rich, anarchic world that existed beyond her imagination Nancy went back to Boise full of unformed but urgent curiosity. An ad for the Peace Corps gave her an idea: “I’m going to do that when I finish university,” she vowed. And she did. Two years in the Peace Corps setting up special education programmes in Honduras lead to seven months of solo travel around South America, which inspired her to return to the US and work on a Navajo reservation. Then she took a sabbatical to tour India by bike and met John.
So by the time the couple hit what looked like a personal and professional impasse they already had done a great deal of the legwork that goes into making a life-altering decision. They knew what it was like to be foreign; they had cultivated persistence, self-sufficiency, and patience; they had taken risks together and overcome challenges; they had chosen experience over material goods; they’d camped in the rain, eaten out of tin cans and mended flat tyres. Despite John’s reflexive “no” their joint experience held the possibility of a “yes.”