When Julia Keller dropped out of graduate school at the tender age of 19, she was fully expecting a parental lecture on why she should tough it out. Instead, to her relief, her father offered to come and fetch her. What had felt like a terrible failure at the time actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise as she found her niche in journalism instead, working her way up over the next couple of decades into a senior position as book critic and feature writer at the Chicago Tribune newspaper. But when Keller decided just over a decade ago to quit journalism, too, in order to write fiction, this time her mother was horrified.
“Her generation, even more than mine, was very much, ‘You do not quit a good job that is paying you a fair salary! Your working conditions are not terrible, you’re not in a Dickensian workhouse, how dare you quit?’” she explains over Zoom from Ohio. “She just could not fathom why anyone would do that.”
But Keller, who has since published a series of mystery novels, doesn’t regret her decision and nor do most of the quitters she interviewed for her new book, Quitting: A Life Strategy. Its subversive message is that if at first you don’t succeed – or even if you do – then maybe just give up. There is, she argues, too much of a premium placed on the ability to grit your teeth and persevere through misery. “Why does that even matter? Because you can get through something that’s really unbearable. But why does that give you some kind of cachet, when the truth is that changing often is the more courageous thing to do?” Just because you could persevere with a toxic relationship, job, religious faith or political allegiance doesn’t necessarily mean you have to, she writes; not when quitting might be “an escape hatch, a long shot, a shortcut, a leap of imagination, a fist raised in resistance, a saving grace…” Although it can also, she concedes, be a “potential disaster”.
Her argument certainly strikes a contemporary chord. New Zealand’s former prime minister Jacinda Ardern and Scotland’s ex-first minister Nicola Sturgeon have both recently resigned midterm, arguing it’s time for new chapters in their lives (although the recent news about Sturgeon’s husband means her resignation may be seen in a different light). Meanwhile the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have conducted a media blitz to explain why they quit the royal family. Susan Wojcicki stepped down as CEO of YouTube in February and Sheryl Sandberg quit Meta, Facebook’s parent company, last June.
Almost two-thirds of junior doctors have considered leaving their jobs
Almost two-thirds of junior doctors have considered leaving their jobs, according to a survey by the British Medical Association, and almost half of teachers plan to do so. Nor is this longing to quit confined to highly paid professionals. Last year’s TikTok trend for “Quit Toks”, often gleefully celebrating the act of telling the boss where to stick his low-paid job, saw users live-streaming resignation emails or posting videos of themselves turning off the lights as they left the office.
Not everyone can afford to leave a steady job in the middle of a cost of living crisis, of course, which may be why the much-predicted Great Resignation post-Covid hasn’t quite materialised in Britain. (Although there was a spike in the number of people moving jobs in summer 2021 after a sharp fall when recruitment was frozen during lockdown; a rise in economic inactivity among the over-50s, meanwhile, appears more driven by ill health than hedonistic early retirements.) But growing interest in four-day weeks, home working and “quiet quitting” – refusing to go beyond the bare minimum at work – suggests at the very least a desire to claw some time back.
Once upon a time, quitting at your professional peak was seen as something exhausted working mothers did when work plus family became too much (full disclosure: I did it myself 13 years ago, leaving a job I loved as political editor of The Observer in an attempt to get a life back). But now the desire to quit seems to be kicking in far earlier, with a recent survey by Grazia magazine finding three-quarters of 18- to 29-year-olds felt less motivated professionally post-pandemic. A generation raised to be constantly hustling – polishing CVs while still in sixth form, juggling a side job, fighting over the last affordable rented flat in London – may finally be pushing back.
Yet for many of us, Keller argues, quitting remains shrouded in guilt and shame, associated with failure rather than with pursuing a different kind of success. Why is it still so hard to let go?
Ten years ago a psychologist called Angela Duckworth gave a Ted Talk that has now been viewed more than 29m times. In a previous career as a maths teacher, she said, she’d realised her highest-achieving pupils weren’t necessarily the smartest. Something other than IQ seemed to determine their success. So when she retrained as a psychologist, she set out to research predictive factors for achievement in everything from children’s spelling competitions to corporate sales and military training.
Successful people stick to their plan and don’t give up
The secret sauce, Duckworth concluded, was what she called grit, or “passion and perseverance for very long-term goals”. Successful people stick to their plan and don’t give up, she argued, both in that talk and in her bestselling book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Duckworth admitted she wasn’t sure exactly how to teach this quality. But she cited her fellow psychologist Carol Dweck’s concept of “growth mindset”, or the theory that ability isn’t fixed and can be boosted through effort, including persevering with challenging tasks.
Having caught the attention of David Cameron’s government, which in 2014 launched a £4.5m fund to develop children’s “character, resilience and grit”, the growth mindset theory has been widely preached in British schools. But what looked like a relatively cheap, easy way of boosting children’s attainment hasn’t always lived up to the hype. One study by a team at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio found only a small correlation between growth-mindset programmes in school and academic scores, suggesting they may not make much difference (Dweck has since argued that while she still believes in the theory, it hasn’t always translated well into classrooms).
Some psychologists have meanwhile questioned what Duckworth’s idea of grit adds to what’s long been known about conscientiousness boosting achievement. Keller, meanwhile, fears the belief that success is just a matter of never giving up may obscure the role of structural economic inequalities and encourage people to blame the poor for their own poverty, on the grounds that maybe they just didn’t try hard enough.
‘A generation raised to be constantly hustling – polishing CVs, juggling a side job – may finally be pushing back.’ Illustration: Martin O’Neill
“People who are successful in this life, with private jets and multiple homes and fancy cars to suggest that they have worked harder and been more gritty and we have not, serves the people in power, it doesn’t serve the people in the middle or at the lower end,” she says. Similarly, the idea that women should stick it out through a miserable marriage can be equally damaging. “In years past,” she says, “women in abusive relationships were told, ‘Oh you must keep the family together, you can’t leave, how can you give up now you’ve put in 10 years?’ It becomes quite insidious.” Yet the idea that success in both public and private life involves pushing yourself to the limits remains deeply ingrained, perhaps especially for those young enough to have grown up when the cult of grit and growth mindset was at its height.
Sofia Shchukina, 25, is a former management consultant currently pursuing a PhD in economics at the University of Chicago, who also writes a Substack newsletter on 20-something life called Quarter-Life Crisison the side. In a recent post, she argued that there must be a better way to build careers than a “relentless hustle” to reach the top, only to burn out at 40 from the effort of getting there.
“I’m in my 20s right now and I don’t want my life to look like that at all,” she wrote. “Is it too soon to opt out? Can you choose a slower lane, from the get go?”
To some, that may sound like peak snowflakery. But speaking to Shchukina over Zoom from Chicago, it quickly emerges that what she means by a “slower” lane is downshifting from working seven days a week to five, while using her weekends to train for a marathon and still worrying that that somehow isn’t enough. In her old corporate job, she points out, a 60-80-hour week was normal.
For her generation, she says, the pressure to give 100% through GCSEs, A-levels, university and early careers feels relentless. “It truly felt as if I didn’t get the grades, the world would end,” she says, remembering the time she burst into tears in front of her family on getting a slightly lower grade than she’d wanted in an AS Level. “I have a younger sister and she was looking at me like, ‘What the hell is wrong with you, nobody’s died – it was just an A not an A*?’ But I really just felt failure is not an option.”
What the hell is wrong with you, nobody’s died – it was just an A not an A*?
She feels better both mentally and physically for giving herself some slack, but still worries that it will somehow make her fall behind professionally. “There’s so much competition and there are so many talented people out there – if you are not willing to give your all, there will be someone else who’s willing to do that,” she says. “But this whole kind of ‘work-yourself-to-burnout’ doesn’t seem sustainable to me. I do still care about what I do and want to do a good job. But I want to have more in life, almost.”
For parents, the question of how to make your children resilient enough to overcome life’s setbacks without over-pressuring them is an increasingly sensitive one, in an era of rising teenage mental health problems. Keller’s advice is not to cave in at the first plea from a child to ditch an extracurricular sport or musical instrument that takes discipline to master. But if they’re still begging to stop after giving it a “true try”, she says, parents should first establish why exactly they want to quit and then suggest an alternative hobby that might suit them better.
Similarly for adults, she insists she’s not advocating just giving up everything at the drop of the hat. For those who aren’t sure or can’t afford to leave a miserable situation, she suggests “quasi-quitting”, or quietly taking baby steps that bring you closer to where you’d rather be without burning any bridges.
But ultimately, Keller argues, adults shouldn’t be afraid “to give up and in some sense take on the world’s ire when you do that, because you know it’s the right thing.” But how do you know when it’s genuinely right to quit and when you simply need a break?
When Viv Grant resigned from a stressful job as head of a London primary school she had led out of special measures, she couldn’t at the time see another way out. The job had become intensely lonely, she says; she felt she couldn’t burden junior staff with her worries and struggled to find a sounding board outside school. “People would give advice, but I couldn’t just say, ‘I’ve had a crap day, can I just tell you that and you not judge me?’ and then get on with what I was doing.” It was only after she quit that she realised how many other heads privately felt the same.
It was only after she quit that she realised how many other heads privately felt the same
Seven years ago Grant founded Integrity Coaching, offering senior education professionals somewhere to offload and consider their options. Her advice for anyone currently feeling trapped and miserable at work is to think back to why they took the job in the first place. “I always say, ‘Tell me why you first stepped into the profession.’ They get stuck in the immediacy of all the things that are coming at them all the time, but it’s about reconnecting with your vocational vitality,” she says. “I’ll say, ‘Now tell me about the experiences that you have had of late that come back to that vocation.’ If nobody is helping you to focus on the good parts, then you can understandably spiral.”
If she’d had similar coaching as a head, would she have needed to quit? “It would have been a very different experience for me. I see heads who have stayed because of the work we do.” But Grant’s goal isn’t necessarily to make teachers stay, so much as helping them make the right decision. “For some, they might think: ‘I want to find a way out,’ but once you start talking with them and exploring, it’s about recovering their vocational vitality. For a few, it is that they want out. We never assume.” The aim is to help clients avoid doing something they might regret.
Keller admits that not everyone she interviewed for her book got the art of strategic quitting right, herself included. “I certainly regret some things that I’ve quit. Several jobs, some friendships, relationships…” she pauses. “Whenever you make those all-or-nothing decisions, the draconian ones are inevitably the ones I look back on and think I wish I hadn’t been quite so rigid.”
When she was younger, Keller admits, she was drawn to “the grand speech of renunciation”, but now she suspects dramatic flounces may be overrated. “What makes for a great movie scene doesn’t always make for a great life. It might feel terrific in the moment and then you’re sitting outside in your car, thinking, ‘OK, now what?’” Or to put it another way, whether or not you ultimately choose to resign, maybe refrain from filming it for TikTok.
An extract from Julia Keller’s Quitting: A Life Strategy
Quitting is an act of love. It’s also an escape hatch, a long shot, a shortcut, a leap of imagination, a fist raised in resistance, a saving grace, and a potential disaster – because it may backfire in spectacular ways, sabotaging careers and blowing up relationships. It can ruin your life. And it can save it, too.
All in all, though, it’s a gesture of generosity towards yourself and your future, a roundabout way of saying, ‘Not this. Not now. But later… something else.’
You might not see quitting in such a positive light. I didn’t see it that way either as I sat, one memorable night,
cross-legged on the grimy linoleum floor of a studio apartment in Morgantown, West Virginia. Weeping with abandon, I was tormented by the need to make a drastic change, but feared the judgment that would ensue. Classes had just gotten under way at West Virginia University, where I was employed as a graduate teaching assistant while pursuing a doctoral degree in English literature. I was lonely and desperately homesick. I hated my classes – both the ones I was taking and the ones I was teaching. In short, I hated everything – especially myself. Because I believed I ought to be able to handle this. I couldn’t stop the torrent of negative emotions. Giving up wasn’t an option. Giving up would mean I was a loser.
Looking back, why did I engage in such ferocious self-loathing? To some people, the word ‘quit’ sounds disgustingly weak. But its roots aren’t nearly so negative. Etymology suggests that it comes to us from quietare, the Latin verb for ‘to put to rest’, which sounds decisive, freeing.
So how is it that we got suckered by the idea of grit in the first place? When and why did quitting become synonymous with failure? Crucially, in the face of cultural pressures, how do people manage to quit successfully, make that decision their own and not one based on somebody else’s idea of what constitutes a brave and meaningful life?
Quitting: A Life Strategy by Julia Keller is published by Yellow Kite Books at £16.99. Buy it for £14.95 at guardianbookshop.com
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