I quit my first ‘real’ job after university. It seemed to be a mistake: it was in my industry of choice, it was the start of the recession, I had just been promoted, and I didn’t have another 9-to-5 lined up… or any real financial assets to fall back on.
It turned out to be the best career decision I ever made. Only by giving up my job as a political reporter in Washington DC could I move to Italy and pursue my dream of becoming a travel journalist. One of the publications I began writing for was the BBC, which led to a full-time job across two continents.
Of course, I didn’t know it would work out that way. And leaving my job wasn’t the only reason for everything that followed. But quitting was a terrifying – and necessary – starting point.
For most of us, the important role quitting can play in success runs counter to deeply-held beliefs. In previous generations, the usual narrative was that success (and financial stability) followed the workhorse who stuck with their job, or career path, no matter what. As promises of job security have dwindled, that role model of a company lifer has been replaced by the entrepreneur who never gives up.
Both narratives share one lesson above all others: ‘winners never quit and quitters never win’. Whether in a job, a relationship or a dream, we’re taught that giving up is synonymous with failure. “What nobody talks about is that, sometimes, quitting is really good. It’s really important,” says Eric Barker, author of Barking Up the Wrong Tree. “There are only 24 hours in a day. If you never quit anything, you’re going to have less time for the things that really matter.”
Of course, persistence is important. If you abandon a marathon at the 5km mark, you’ll never succeed. But rather than thinking of quitting as the absolute last resort, we may want to reconsider its value, say experts. Research suggests that, when done for the right reasons, walking away from a workplace, relationship or even an ambition can make you happier, healthier and more successful.
For one, people often are working towards the wrong goals to begin with. Even if a goal was once a good fit, it might not be so appropriate a few years later. “If I never quit anything, I’d still be playing tee-ball [a children’s version of baseball] and playing with Transformers,” Barker jokes.
But once we have realised we want to take a different direction, most of us still find it difficult to abandon our current path. This reflects a particularly human tendency: our excruciating aversion to loss. What we have already invested, whether time or money or something else, reflects our sunk cost. That investment is hard to abandon.
Would you rather lose $5, or turn down the opportunity to earn $5? Most of us find the latter easier, even though the result is the same. It’s the same reason that someone with an expensive, time-intensive law or medical degree may be less likely to leave their career path, no matter how unhappy they might be.
But as Stephen Dubner points out in the Freakonomics podcast The Upside of Quitting, we’re so loss-averse that we favour sunk cost over an equally important consideration: opportunity cost. “For every hour or dollar that you spend on one thing, you’re giving up the opportunity to spend that hour or dollar on something else. Something that might make your life better – if only you weren’t so worried about the sunk cost,” he says.
Exacerbating our dilemma is our fear of the unknown. We don’t know what will happen if we quit to take a different path. But we do know what we’d lose by leaving.
What we forget is that just because we have more information about our present situation doesn’t mean those facts will stay the same in the future. (Just ask the employees of once-thriving chains like Blockbuster, Borders or Woolworths) And not knowing what will happen after a big change doesn’t mean that path is worse.
Meanwhile, a job you hate can leave you prone to depression, anxiety and physical illness – so much so that when it comes to mental health, no job at all may be better than a thankless one. Quitting one job after another may not be a bad thing either: despite commonly-held belief, frequently job-hopping can actually make you more successful.
Economist Henry Siu found that young people who switched jobs more often earned higher salaries in later life. Of course, job-hoppers may just be more proactive overall – and switching jobs can be a better way to secure a higher salary than staying put and begging for a raise. But Siu also posits another theory: by trying out different career paths, people may find their ‘true calling’ and therefore become more skilled and valuable, he says.
Job-hopping also may help you climb the career ladder. In one survey of 12,500 alumni of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, respondents who had fewer than two roles in 15 years had a 1 in 50 chance of becoming a top-level leader. Those who held five or more positions were nine times more likely to reach senior management. Head researcher Edward Lazear suggests that, to be a top leader, you may need a wide range of skills best provided (and proven) by a variety of roles.
Not all research has borne out the same result. One study of 15,000 employees found that the more years an executive stayed with their company, the faster they got to the top. But the same research also found that switching industries or careers often proved to be a good move for respondents.
What about leaving to start your own company? Quit with caution, experts say. As we all know, a minority of new businesses make it. And despite the idea that you have to quit your day job and devote yourself 100% to ensure your endeavour succeeds, recent research has found that people who hustle on the side first ultimately have better-performing companies than people who jumped in feet-first.
They were all ‘quitters’: the study’s more cautious ‘hybrid entrepreneurs’ eventually walked away from their day jobs, too. But their patience paid off. Abandoning one job or path for another may bring greater rewards. Far from failure, pivoting can lead to success. Twitter started as a podcasting platform, YouTube as a dating website and Android as a camera operating system. Had they all stuck with their original vision, they likely wouldn’t be household names today.
Meanwhile, numerous studies have found that people are best off when they not only abandon an unattainable goal, but choose another. Some of the world’s most successful people have proved that. Fashion designer Vera Wang began her career as a figure skater, then became an editor at Vogue. Alibaba founder Jack Ma applied unsuccessfully for dozens of jobs before he began designing websites. And Charles Darwin first studied to become a doctor, then a parson.
Meanwhile, the importance of interpersonal relationships for our health and happiness has been widely researched. But quality is key. And here, too, we often hang onto dissatisfying situations for too long.
Numerous studies have found that negative interactions with a loved one like conflict, criticism or feeling ‘let down’ increase the risk of developing a depressive episode (or depression), heart disease and even dementia. Meanwhile, unhappy marriages can lead to depression, a lower sense of well-being and even the onset of chronic health problems and physical disability.
Of course, walking away from a relationship can be difficult, too. Studies have found that divorced women experience more physical illness and heart attacks long-term than their married counterparts. But, researchers point out, many of those studies haven’t controlled for various factors, such as someone’s social connections overall.
In other words, it may not be divorce itself that is damaging. It’s the loss of the central relationship most people rely on for support. The more other connections someone has, the more they’re protected against the physiological and emotional downsides of divorce.