Why Quit?

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.

How To Decide

The media loves to tell us what to do. We absorb advice and values from TV doctors, faceless web commentators, celebrity Tweeters, and the front page of the daily papers almost without thinking about it. We are so used to this that we routinely mistake hectoring for empowerment. When faces on the TV tell us how we should dress, what we should feed our children, what kind of car to drive, and where to go on holiday, we accept the underlying message that: you’re not smart enough to figure this out on your own. The expert bullying has been around for a while. Back in 1965 Mick Jagger snarled about a man on the TV telling him how white his shirts could be and the barrage of advice has grown faster and more furious since.

It is a sneaky form of authoritarianism, where social imperative is dressed up in the guise of helpfulness. Like the old US Army sloganeers, the media promises to help you “be all you can be” but in doing so undermines your ability to think and choose for yourself. The problem is that the media does not look out for the best interests of anyone apart from the corporations who profit from it. If we are to absorb what is useful from the media without being brainwashed we need to reclaim the courage of our convictions. We need to start asking: “What’s right for me?”

When in doubt, saying “no” is often more important, and more definite, than saying yes. Sixteenth-century essayist Michel de Montaigne wrote: “There are a thousand ways of hitting the bull’s eye, only one of hitting it.” If we entertain all possibilities it becomes almost impossible to hone in on what it is we want. Philosophically, this raises the question of whether it is better to be in a perpetual state of anticipation, or whether we prefer simple fulfilment. This is a matter of education, preference and, to a large extent, personality. Whatever one’s tolerance for uncertainty and imprecision, we all have to make decisions. In order to make decisions that are right for us, and not made out of a sense of social duty, we need to have clear priorities. We need an ordering scheme – call it morals, values, goals, or a life plan – but we need something meaningful to inform our choices.

JD Salinger’s precocious creation Seymour Glass suggested that: “Every man, woman, and child over the age, let us say, of twenty-one or thirty, at the very outside, should never do anything extremely important or crucial in their life without first consulting a list of persons in the world, living or dead, whom he loves.” It is a mild prescription, hardly the antidote to a lifetime of advice-taking, but it is subversive in a small, gentle way. Replacing the anonymous buzz of cultural imperative with the specific voices of people who do know us and care about our happiness is a baby-step towards autonomy. A step that, once taken, puts us on a path not in relation to a particular decision, but towards a way of being that has the potential to transform our decision-making process and, by extension, our lives.

Originally published at Snipe