This article was originally published on New York Times by Liesl Schillinger
As 2014 looms, if you’re centering your New Year’s resolutions on things like exercising, improving your self-discipline and communicating better with loved ones, but ignoring trouble spots where drastic action is needed (like quitting a dead-end job or ending a doomed relationship), you are not alone.
According to the authors Peg Streep and Alan Bernstein: “American mythology doesn’t have room for quitters. In fact, the only kind of giving up we collectively accept and support is quitting a bad habit like smoking or drinking.”
But in “Mastering the Art of Quitting,” they argue that the national tendency to stay the course, however off-track, is misguided. They urge Americans afflicted by the “myth of persistence” to abandon “the hopeless pursuit of the unattainable” and to build better goals.
Shrewd, detailed and exhortatory, their book breaks down obstacles to quitting, illustrated by exemplary stories of men and women who had the courage to gracefully quit jobs that did not satisfy them.
One excellent reason to master the art of quitting is to avoid being fired. In March 2012, Dwain Schenck, a longtime communications executive, lost a job he hated and found himself depressed and panicked.
“Reset: How to Beat the Job-Loss Blues and Get Ready for Your Next Act” is his blow-by-blow memoir of his struggle to restore his fortunes (today he runs a profitable public relations consultancy). “Fear quickly started to eat at me,” he writes. His “sense of identity was shot,” his psyche was “crushed.”
Had Mr. Schenck been able to read Ms. Streep’s and Mr. Bernstein’s book at that time, he would have seen that his problem is shared by thousands in this turbulent economy. It was, in fact, the identical plight of the first case study in “Mastering the Art of Quitting,” a lawyer named Jennifer who wasted months trying to please a hostile new boss. When she was dismissed all the same, she took her expertise to a nonprofit organization, where her contributions are valued.
Another new book, “Fail Fast, Fail Often,” by the Stanford psychologists Ryan Babineaux and John Krumboltz, argues for an even more proactive approach to self-invention, encouraging those who are contemplating a new beginning to kick-start their dreams — even if it takes more than a few tries to get the motor revving.
Rather than focusing on how to quit the wrong job, the authors encourage readers to invent a job that brings them joy, and to throw out the old career-advice books that instructed entrepreneurs to construct elaborate five-year plans, or urged job seekers to take career evaluation tests to find work that harmonized with their interests or star signs.
“It is time for the madness to end!” they declare. “The world is evolving and new careers are available all the time.”
And if you don’t find a business where you want to work, they suggest, create one; don’t overthink it, start small and correct flaws once you’re up and running, because “Successful people take action as quickly as possible even though they may perform badly.”
Their assumption is that (like Ed Catmull, a founder and president of Pixar; or Jack Dorsey, the founding chief executive of Twitter; or Howard Schultz, creator of Starbucks) successful employees and entrepreneurs will be adept at the magical process that prevails at Pixar (by Mr. Catmull’s description). That, the authors say, consists of winnowing “a few good ideas” out of “tons of half-baked concepts and outright stinkers.”
Bold, bossy and bracing, “Fail Fast, Fail Often” is like a 200-page shot of B12, meant to energize the listless job seeker.
That said, if you have a mortgage and school tuition to pay, the freewheeling turn-on-a-dime initiative the authors espouse may leave the timid hugging their cubicles, penning cautious resolutions to cut down on pasta and cheese in the coming year, and smiling ingratiatingly at any supervisors who pass by.