In 1992, I quit grad school after completing one year. On every level, it felt like failure – giving up, not sticking it out, not going the full mile. Thousands of dollars in debt, working three jobs, living on coffee and fear of failure, the final straw was when a professor told me that he was giving me a B- as a favor (C was considered failing at the graduate level). I thought “why am I working my ass off for this?” I didn’t have a good answer, so I knew it was time to be done.
My educational track was determined by efficiency. I had transferable credits from my Army training as a Russian linguist, so I tested out of all the basic college requirements and did my undergrad degree in a couple of years. Even as a nontraditional student, I still hadn’t figured out what I was doing, so onto grad school I went.
With letters of recommendation, passable GRE scores, I was accepted into the graduate program in the Russian department. My favorite professor specialized in linguistics, so I decided that it would be my focus as well. It took two semesters to realize that I was in way over my head.
I was working a couple of retail jobs, as well as doing an internship translating documents, struggling to make ends meet and barely had time to focus on my studies. And every single day of classes, I was reminded how very far out of my league I was. As a military linguist with an infantry division, I had done a lot of listening and transcribing and not much speaking. I was supposed to give class presentations, in Russian, about morphology and etymology. The combination of my weak speaking skills, poor study habits and sheer exhaustion meant that I could not bluff my way out of this disaster. And I was paying for it.
Over the years, I’ve revisited that whole miserable mess in my head, considered returning to school, feeling envious of my friends who have multiple advanced degrees, wondering if I could have really applied myself. The result of leaving grad school is that I took on a full time job with benefits, worked to pay off my debts, began an illustrious administrative career that has made me a jack of many trades. I now have solid organization, editing, technical, problem solving, accounting and multitasking skills. I have real-life skills that have served me well outside the world of academia, no matter what the state of the economy. I still work hard and am doggedly persistent, but I know when to quit.
Regardless of the miasma of dysfunctional family dynamics that I was raised in, several lessons stuck with me from my childhood. You work hard, you don’t quit and you remain doggedly persistent. Even if it kills you. As an adult, some of my best decisions involve quitting. There is perhaps an art to leaving, but for me, it’s never a smooth process. I clumsily blunder my way through good-byes, resignations and breakups. Things sometimes have gotten very ugly and it takes me a few years to realize that despite my awkward bowing out, I was on the right track.
As I prepare for my next career transition, moving from a business manager to a full time writer, I realize that I need to dust off my “quitting” skills and remind myself why it’s a good thing. I’m late to the writing career and I can’t spend a lot of time with the usual buffet of guilt, regret and 20/20 hindsight. I’ve begun to look at how I spend my time, recognizing that quitting needs to apply to some of my smaller habits and patterns of thinking. I need to quit believing my self-worth is associated with a paycheck. I need to quit distracting myself from the things that are important. I need to quit the constant editing and judging of myself that prevents me from letting authentic and productive writing occur. Sometimes quitting is the only way to move forward.