One of my earliest childhood memories is of me at three years old sitting on my mother’s lap while she read from the The Little Engine That Could. Originally published in 1930, the story is meant to inculcate children with the values of persistence. Hence the repetition: I think I can, I think I can.
It is precisely this touted virtue of not being a quitter that is challenged by Peg Streep and Alan Bernstein in Mastering the Art of Quitting, which also names my favorite childhood story in the introduction. Using clear examples and ideas, the two authors delve into the psychological milieu of exactly why humans strive for goals that ultimately compromise our psychological health and why we find it so difficult to initiate, as they put it, “goal disengagement.”
Streep and Bernstein have also peppered the book with various questionnaires, tests, and planners that are meant to help you first find out if you should quit, and then, if so, to put you on the path to recalibrating both short- and long-term goals. These helpful guides alongside vivid, albeit narrowly chosen, anecdotes of people struggling with their aspirations offer a comprehensive and mostly-pragmatic look at a topic that is typically stigmatized.
The book begins with a convincing examination of exactly how we as humans are psychologically hardwired to persist, and why we hate relinquishing our grasp of goals. Here, Streep and Bernstein offer up evidence of a fascinating phenomenon known as the “near win.”
When our proto-human ancestors almost, but didn’t quite, catch that deer for dinner they wanted, the physical actions that made up their “near win” taught them that, with persistence, the deer would eventually end up in their stomachs.
However, as Streep and Bernstein bluntly put it: “neither human beings nor their brains are uniformly good at figuring out when the near win is applicable and when it isn’t.” This strong vestigial impulse, they write, does not translate easily into the modern world of complex relationships and goals. And so, to avoid pie-in-the-sky optimism that gets us nowhere, we must regulate the instinct.
After laying this groundwork, the authors give a surprisingly detailed list of ways not to quit. This, I think, is extremely important, given that the larger project of the book actively encourages quitting. As the title suggests, quitting is an art, not something that should be flippantly practiced on a whim; there are wrong ways to “disengage,” as the authors put it. Various types of dangerous quitting include the “faux quit,” which is essentially claiming to take the steps towards disengagement but really going back to your old habit, and the “disappearing act,” where you just leave with no explanation.
What’s key here is that the book highlights the need to quit not at random, but as a conditional event. Especially today with growing economic uncertainty, it remains important to be aware of how and when to keep going.
How then are you to tell if quitting is the right thing to do?
In order to adequately reassess your current goals, a very intriguing criterion is brought into the mix: Flow. This universal concept in psychology, coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, goes beyond simple happiness, and instead offers a kind of transcendence. When in a state of flow, you lose yourself in your work; you don’t even know you’re doing it. You feel a sense of mastery, as well as freedom from ordinary worries. And if you find flow, you should probably stick with it.
There is a tremendous documentary titled Jiro Dreams of Sushi that follows Jiro Ono, the elderly sushi master whose Tokyo sushi restaurant is considered the best in the world. The camera follows Jiro’s precise yet graceful movements as he goes about his work arranging the food in front of mesmerized customers. His expression is one of total concentration, total attention. He remarks, “While I’m making the sushi I feel victorious.” Jiro is obviously engaged in a kind of flow that is beautiful to watch.
Bernstein and Streep suggest that “the activities and interests you pursue for self-fulfillment and pleasure, the relationships you’re in…can be evaluated in terms of flow.” And their appropriation of Csikszentmihalyi’s idea is entirely convincing. By using the concept they argue against blind persistence in goals that can never be achieved — and show that there are states of mind that are both desirable and attainable.
Another, perhaps less successful, way the authors try to illustrate their case for reasoned quitting is through anecdotes of those who have realized the merits of effectively throwing in the towel. Most of these stories involve leaving a job, and while they do make the book’s sometimes difficult psychological concepts easier to grasp, they almost always describe people who are highly educated with careers that pay very well.
Meaning, for the people in the book, the act of quitting is much less risky than it would be for a single mother who works a minimum-wage job — or, for that matter, for many of the book’s prospective readers.
And even though sentiments like, “There’s no question that quitting sometimes requires a huge leap of faith…and a willingness to take on the possibility of failure” are repeated throughout the book, it is abundantly clear that the leap would be much greater and the possibility of failure much more magnified for a person in a less advantageous position than those described. It seems Bernstein and Streep have a target audience in mind. But for those of us who don’t make six figures, it would have been nice to see a wider, more realistic scope.
Still, despite this selectivity of anecdotes, Bernstein and Streep have crafted a very smart tool that can provide the impetus to both disengage from unsatisfactory goals and to map out new ones.
And while the book deals primarily with the psychological underpinnings of why humans hate to quit things, especially when those things are jobs, it would pair fantastically with Joanne Ciulla’s The Working Life, a book that chronicles the historical evolution of ideas surrounding labor.
For help getting out of a rut, however, Mastering the Art of Quitting seems like it would help.
Mastering the Art of Quitting: Why It Matters in Life, Love, and Work
Da Capo Press, December, 2013
Hardcover, 272 pages