If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. But that’s not always good advice. Sometimes, the smartest course for ourselves and for our families is to choose to quit
Karen Nussbaum of Detroit was thrilled with her progress.
After her last birth, she’d been determined to lose weight. She hightailed it off to the gym every day — a half-hour drive away — and worked out for two hours before returning home hot, sweaty, and bursting with endorphins and pride.
She lost 50 pounds in six months, and was only 15 pounds away from her weight-loss goal. Her goal was so close, if she worked out like that just a little more, she’d undoubtedly reach it.
Though she liked what she was seeing in the mirror, Karen felt torn. As soon as she stepped in the door, her four young kids began clamoring for her attention, her kitchen needed cleaning, her husband had to run to Minchah, and everything was chaos. “I realized I just couldn’t do it all: Be there for my kids, maintain a clean house, and keep such a rigorous workout regimen. I had to scale back,” she said.
After carefully considering her priorities, Karen stopped going to the gym.
Some professionals and motivational speakers have a name for the choice Karen made: strategic quitting. That’s when a person deliberately drops something in order to focus on achieving success in another particular area.
In his book The Dip (Portfolio, 2007), Seth Godin maintains that while quitting often has negative connotations, it shouldn’t. The adage “quitters never win and winners never quit” is, he says, “bad advice. Winners quit all the time. They just quit the right stuff at the right time.”
Although Dina Greenfield has intuitively followed this recipe for success her entire life, she recoils at the terminology. “I’m not a quitter,” she says. “To me, quitting means giving up. I didn’t give up anything. I just made positive changes.”
Dina worked for an American accounting firm from her home in Jerusalem for eight years. Though the pay was generous, she had to pull all-nighters for weeks during tax season (doubly stressful because it was also Pesach time), and was obligated to attend Skype company meetings and talk to clients during the evening hours in Israel, in the midst of what should’ve been family time. Especially concerning was the sleep deprivation, which was taking a toll on her physical health.
“I realized it wasn’t sustainable anymore. I was getting older, my kids were getting older,” Dina said.
She dove headfirst into a long-held passion — the cake-decorating field — and has seen incredible success with it.
Rabbi Yehuda Sternberg from Lakewood has no qualms about using the words “strategic quitting” when describing how he left his position as executive director of a kollel for a job in the health care industry. He’s equally upfront that the reasons were purely financial.
“I’d been working in the kollel for idealistic reasons, not because I wanted to earn money. Once our family began to grow, things got tighter. Klal organizations most often survive hand-to-mouth, and there’s a lot more money to be made in health care.”
FOCUS ON STRENGTHS
Paul Rulkens is a chemical engineer from the Netherlands who has long been interested in what makes some people successful, while others seem to always fail. Rulkens was so fascinated with the notion of strategic quitting, he deliberately practiced it himself by dropping his successful job and heading out on a limb, aiming to become a motivational speaker on that very subject.
Rulkens says successful companies are known for strategic quitting. He cites Jack Wells, the CEO for General Electric, who famously declared that any product of theirs that isn’t one of the top three in its field is dropped.
Likewise, Rulkens said, successful people spend all their energy on becoming excellent in one or a few pointed areas and delegate everything else. “The trick is to focus on your strengths,” said Rulkens. “If you spend your whole life working on your weaknesses, then you’ll wind up with a large set of strong weaknesses. It’s easier and more effective to instead perfect what you’re already good at.”
According to Seth Godin, the “wrongest thing” they teach kids in school is that being well-rounded is the secret to success. Kids who are straight A students or even getting consistent Bs in all classes are considered successful students. Pity the kid who gets only one A and 5 Ds in school.
“Fast-forward a few decades from those school days,” Godin wrote in his book. “Think about the decisions you make today — about which doctor to pick, which restaurant to visit, or which accountant to hire. How often do you look for someone who is actually quite good at the things you don’t need her to do?” No one cares if their doctor got an A in history or if their accountant is an expert in physics. We only want them to be the best at what we’re actually hiring them to do.
Strategic quitting is about figuring out how to channel your time, resources, and energy so you can succeed at what you’re already excellent at, something Rulkens calls “your superpower.” It’s about cutting out the things that are keeping you from the most important parts of your life.
Karen is a prime example. She realized her kids were losing out by her obsession with the gym. That realization made her take a long hard look at herself and rethink what she was doing.
“Persistent people are able to visualize the light at the end of the tunnel when others can’t see it,” Godin wrote. “At the same time, the smartest people are realistic about not imagining seeing light when there isn’t any.” An example is someone who’s sticking it out at a company in a dying industry, whether it’s with an older computer programming system or with something that’s being taken over electronically, like secular print media.
“Every day you stay is a bad strategic decision for your career because every day you get better at something that isn’t that useful — and you’re another day behind others who are learning something more useful,” Godin says. People in such a situation are becoming excellent at something that’s irrelevant.
Why don’t these people quit? Godin explains that it’s because of the negative associations with quitting. It can be painful. But “winners understand that taking that pain now prevents a lot more pain later,” he said.
Rabbi Sternberg sought advice from his rosh kollel and was encouraged to take this big step. “I believe it’s better to leave a job too early than too late. Better to leave before things unravel, or you’re disillusioned with your boss, industry, coworkers, or clients.
“If you quit sooner, you’ll hopefully look back at that stage in your life with a sense of nostalgia. If you quit too late, you can feel like you’re crawling out from under a train wreck.”
It might be painful to quit, as all change can be at first, but quitting doesn’t mean someone has failed. Failure happens when someone gives up, when there are no other options, or when someone has quit so often, they’ve already used up all their time and resources.
“Quitting smart is a great way to avoid failing,” said Godin. “Strategic quitting is when you realize you’re at a dead end.”
It can be difficult to tell the difference, though. When do you declare a dead end? When do you keep pushing through the sting of rejection to decide if you’re looking at a surmountable mountain or a dead end?
We’ve all heard of Dr. Seuss, whose first manuscript was rejected by 27 publishers before it was accepted by the 28th and became a best seller. J.K Rowling’s pitch for the Harry Potter series was rejected 12 times before it was accepted and became wildly popular, with over 400 million copies sold worldwide.
Godin points out that people are only celebrated for their persistence after they’ve reached their goals. “On the other hand, when was the last time you heard about someone who stuck with a dead-end job or a dead-end relationship or a dead-end sales prospect until suddenly, one day the person at the other end said, ‘Wow, I really admire your persistence; let’s change our relationship for the better’?” Godin says. “It doesn’t happen.”
Clearly, there’s a very fine line between admirable persistence and pursuing a dead end. It’s up to you to make that delineation.
FINDING THE COURAGE
As her kollel family’s primary bread winner, Dina said it was challenging to give up stability and dive into the unknown. Shortly before she started her new cake business, Dina found a placard that read, “Feel the fear and do it anyway.” She put it on her desk and looked at it for inspiration many times a day, moving ahead consistently, until people started calling to place orders, and her new business officially took off.
How did she find the courage? “I just went for it,” Dina said. “It took a lot of guts to leave a job with so many benefits, to give up a reliable salary, and head into the unknown… but I was very clear about my priorities. I wanted to be present for my children. I wanted good health.”
She started slowly, supplemented her salary by working part-time for another accounting firm where she ended up developing an extremely valuable network within Israel. Still, she needed to earn more income during the tax off-season, so she took on yet another job she didn’t particularly enjoy solely to pay the bills.
“Along the way there were plenty of steps I needed to take that weren’t particularly fun, but I had to take them in order to get where I was going. I realized I needed to enjoy the journey, so I did. I had to stay positive…
“Many times, I thought, ‘I can’t believe the amount of money, time, effort, and energy I’m spending on this venture, and I don’t even know if it will work!’ Life is all about the choices we make. Do I value security more than I value a change that could be the best thing for me and my life?”
Dina admits to having an adventurous streak, which helped immeasurably, but she was also quite logical in how she approached her situation. At first, she tried to secure a business partner in her gourmet cake-making venture, without success; no one else was willing to invest the necessary time and commitment. “I saw two choices: do it all by myself or give up. I figured I’d try — I’d either succeed or I wouldn’t, but I’d never know unless I tried. The only way to really fail is to not even try.”
Karen’s one regret about her otherwise successful bout with strategic quitting was not having a long-term plan in place. Without a solid plan, her weight climbed back on. She still finds this distressing at times, even though she’s a more focused and physically and emotionally present mother and knows she did the right thing for her family.
While she doesn’t regret her decision, Karen does have lingering frustration over the fact that she never made it to the finish line. It can be much more satisfying reaching concrete goals — losing five pounds, ten pounds, etc. — than putting your children to bed for the fifth time in one night, but Karen still says she’s glad she did it. “My children are only going to be young once. I want to be there for them.”
Rabbi Sternberg recommends having your ducks lined up in a row before quitting, but stresses that not all ducks need to be lined up. “For me, the right ducks were in line, such as responsibility and growth opportunity. Others were not. I had to compromise on a relocation and the possibility for mentorship. I had to differentiate between what I needed and what I wanted.
“If you’re waiting for the perfect time, you’ll be waiting forever. Once you find what you need, take the plunge and leave the rest to the Boss.”
That sentiment was echoed by Dina, who compared the dive into the unknown to Nachshon ben Aminadav’s brave move, who jumped into the Yam Suf up to his neck.
“Hashem took care of the rest from there,” said Dina. “He did the same for me, and im yirtzeh Hashem, He’ll do the same for anyone who has the emunah to try.”
Discovering your Superpower
Many people believe they’re not talented. “Everyone has one or two superpowers,” Paul insists. “Sometimes the issue is just that we don’t know to recognize it as a talent.” Ask yourself:
What is something I commonly do when faced with a problem?
What is something people are always asking me for advice on?
What subjects do I love to read about for fun? (Another clue: just look at your bookshelf. Topics will pop out!)
What feels like “play” to you, yet you’ve sometimes heard others call it “work”?
When doing something specific, do you wonder, “Are there ways I can do this more often?” If you find yourself thinking, “How can I do this more and spend less time on the things I’m not so good at anyway?” — that’s it! Welcome to strategic quitting!
Questions to ask before Quitting
Am I panicking? Quitting when you’re panicked is expensive and dangerous. The best quitters are the ones who decide in advance when they’ll quit.
Who am I trying to influence? If you’re trying to influence a single person (your boss, for example), you probably know there’s a fine line between being persistent and being a nuisance. But if you’re trying to influence a market, while many people may have considered or rejected you already, there are many other people in the market who have never heard of you, and it’s worth it to keep on trying.
What sort of measurable progress am I making? According to Godin, there are only three options in a given task, relationship, or job: You’re either moving forward, falling behind, or standing still. In order to succeed, you have to constantly be moving forward, even if progress is subtle.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 656)