Quitting While You’re Behind

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.

Have you ever quit something uncertainly and discovered later that it was the best thing you could have done?

28 Comments on “Quitting While You’re Behind

  1. Yes! Great post and congrats on your new career. To me, quitting, my own quitting has given me practice in a real life skill I was not taught as a child – that being assertion of self. Like you I was raised to work hard and nobody ever said “never quit”, but they basically said, in not so many words, you do what you’ve got to do. And you do it yourself.

    Your grad school experience sounds nightmarish, but you managed through it. You were a kid, right? Something in you knew it wasn’t right, but your reasoning brain was still trying to listen to what the world was telling you to do. But your gut won out. This is why I love guts. When I was a kid we used to say “I hate your guts”, but really what we should have been saying is your gut is OK, but you’re not listening to it and so you’re acting like a jerk.

    When I have been forced to make a quick exit, things haven’t looked so pretty. But that’s the way guts sometimes make us act, particularly if we are in the habit of denying their message. I still remember walking out of this little Italian restaurant where I worked as a waitress. I was surrounded by snotty people, other kids my age who had just graduated from their fancy colleges and didn’t want to give me the time of day because I hadn’t been born into such privilege. It tore up my soul. And even though I was a naturally better server than they were (they had no idea how to serve anyone) I felt less than. The boss was kind of a jerk too. So, one afternoon after the rush had died down I took off my white apron, placed it on a table and walked out the backdoor with my then boyfriend who became my husband of now 20 years. My guy was floored by my impetuousness. But you know, without bolting, fleeing, I would have stayed much longer than necessary. I wasn’t taught I had a right to leave things and so essentially all my exits felt like betrayals. After I left there, I enrolled in college and 5 yrs later I had my BA in English.

    To me, the writing world is the only one I’ve found that not only permits, but celebrates the use of one’s gut. When you’re a writer you must listen to the deepest part of yourself. Faking it is sort of the opposite, it’s like living a lie and most lies do have dramatic ends; it makes sense you would need to jump through a few windows to exit such a life.

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    • Wow- what a great comment. I love that you decided to go back to school – that’s something that takes a lot of guts. It’s funny that some of my best (and often biggest) decisions have been made quickly. The ones that I agonized over, let myself twist in the wind for far too long, are also, I suppose, the ones I learned the most from. When you grow up on a diet of responsibility and accountability, sometimes it is hard to leave situations that are detrimental. There is probably a balance between “sticking things out” and jumping ship at the first sign of trouble. I just haven’t figured it out yet. Congrats on finding your way!

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  2. GreenStudy, this is the story of my life, kind of. Finished college with a science degree, realizing kind of late that the “good jobs” required specialization, and a Master’s or preferably PhD. Nooooo idea what to “specialize” in, so I took a poverty-level job in a lab. Ironic, you needed an education to work there but pay, benefits and opportunity all sucked. That was OK – I was just trying to figure out my next step.

    Two years later, all I had figured out was that the level of specialization that made one an “expert” in these fields would cause me to gouge my eyes out in sheer boredom. Entire careers have been built around some snail or some sand layer somewhere. With trepidation, I joined the Army for two main reasons: the GI Bill, and the experience – at least I would have a resume. I thought I would hate it, but saw it as a necessary step and besides, it would give me three more years to think about what I wanted to do.

    21 years later, I retired. I have learned a lot about what I am good at, but I still don’t know what I want to do. I may never figure it out. But that’s okay.

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    • I laughed at the line “specialization that made one an “expert” in these fields would cause me to gouge my eyes out in sheer boredom”. I suspect that this is one of my issues, not an inability to be disciplined in one field, but a curiosity and interest in so many fields, that one seems limiting.

      I think your first paragraph is pointing out a current conundrum with education. When even low level jobs require a 4 year degree (ANY 4 year degree), it is devalued to the point that only a higher degree will get you a decent-paying job.

      I worked at a couple of universities, in a hospital and for a residency program. Doctors are getting hit with the generalist vs. specialist problem to the point that there is a shortage of family physicians in the country. I wonder if the value of specialists to the exclusion of generalists or the proverbial jack-of-all-trades really limits the flexibility of innovation and business. That’s an entirely different topic, but your comment made me think about the specializing issue.

      On the plus side, I tell myself that my varied experiences were what I needed, to get to my eventual “when I grow up” aspiration of being a writer. It does give one a wider lens through which to view issues and the world.

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  3. I have quit while I was behind. I finished my BFA, organized my portfolio, and hit the bricks looking for work. I was not getting anywhere. I was trying to enter the design field at the time that the industry was transitioning from old-school layout to the digital workplace. None of my fine art skills made sense in this new world. I was told that I was talented, but needed more training to be of use to any design firm. I regrouped and decided to go back to school and get my masters in Art Education – I could be a teacher. I took a summer term and then full semester as I went through the process to become certified to substitute teach in our local district. I was at the stage where I was a semester away from student teaching. I had finished all my methods and observations classes – then I took some sub calls. Wow – I discovered that I had a very difficult time paying attention to more than a couple of students at a time (I had been giving art lessons for quite some time). I found that in a group of 35-40 kids I felt overwhelmed. I found out I had no patience for it. I found out it was NOT my calling to be a teacher.

    I took some heat for quitting. My brother used to ask me about once a year if I ever considered finishing up my degree to have a fall-back career. I have never been more certain about a decision in my life. I left grad school, moved away and started working at any job I could get. I applied for a screen-print design job and was offered a job in the warehouse of a t-shirt manufacturer. From there I was asked to cover some phones during a sales meeting and seemed to do a good job of it. Later I was recruited away to marketing and then to product development. I now manage designers and have a business education I earned working from the ground up. Quitting was right for me.

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    • Wow – what a story. I’m a parent and from what I’ve seen, teaching seems like hell on earth. I really admire people who can do it…from a distance. I love stories where someone learns an industry from the ground up – so often this is the problem with businesses with professional managers and CEOs. Decisions get made with no sense of process or implementation and then everybody on the bottom tier gets blamed when it doesn’t work out.

      I had just read your About page and it sounds like you have realized many of your passions. Your pictures are awesome and your life seems filled with a lot of joy. I hope your story continues with great professional and personal success!

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      • My oldest nephew is a teacher – I can see so clearly that he was made to teach. He’s wired for it, it’s truly his calling.

        You are so right about professional managers and CEOs. I was lucky to get the chance to advance but the sad truth is that you are often undervalued when you have been promoted from within. I have worked for 2 similar companies and have always been perceived as more highly than where I started. It’s all good though. I love my work and learning the ropes has made me always want to tackle more. Thanks for visiting my page and for the kind thoughts. I think it’s brave to branch out and try something new – best of luck to you, I love your writing style.

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  4. Interesting question, and that I have no ready answer is an answer, perhaps. I’ve always said I’m more interested in tomorrow than I am in yesterday, and that may be more true of my outlook than I realize. I don’t tend to have many regrets or guilts. They exist, but I don’t carry them with me much. I dropped out of college after five years; no regrets there.

    I do tend to get tired of hobby projects once I’ve solved the challenges and all that’s left is busy work of some kind… I do have some mild regrets in that area… projects I invested a lot of time in (and sometimes money), but which I never finished. That used to bother me more, but I decided that what I learned was the important part; the completion was just what I said: busy work with no real value to me.

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    • I recently re-read a book called The Renaissance Soul: Life Design for People with Too Many Passions to Pick Just One by Margaret Lobenstine and she addresses the very thing you wrote. People who have many interests will pursue something until they’ve attained enough knowledge to be satisfied and will move on to the next subject. To me, this seems perfectly logical – the world is full of wonderful, interesting things to see, do, read, try – there isn’t enough time to do it all.

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      • Yes, indeed! I just today mentioned to someone that I’m a Renaissance man. Have been as long as I can remember. Big world filled with interesting things!!

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  5. Renaissance souls to me are way more interesting than those who stick to one thing their entire life. We are also called Scanners, and Barbara Sher has written a couple of books on the subject: Refuse to Choose and I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was. I used to think I was a failure because I couldn’t stick to one thing. I was a nurse for about 20 years, which was fine because I could move from one specialty to another when I got bored, and I did. I usually lasted about two years before it was time to move on. When I first read Refuse to Choose, I cried, because I realized there is nothing wrong with me!! I’ve also read Lobenstine’s book and love that I now know there are others like me in the world.

    Once I quit nursing back in ’88, I want to college and earned an AA in Business, a BA in English, with a minor in Geology (after changing my major 3 times in 3 years), and an MA in American Indian Studies. I went back to grad school with the intention of earning aMaster’s in Library Science but quit after I took all the classes on Internet and Medical Researching because none of the other classes interested me. And besides, the research skills I learned meant I could find out anything I wanted.

    So yes, sometimes quitting makes more sense than staying with something that drains you. 🙂

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    • You are most definitely a Renaissance woman! I’ve heard about the Barbara Sher books – I’ll have to take a look at them. The sense of failure is something it sounds like a lot of people experience when they change courses. It’s amazing to see comments like yours – there seems to be so many people that have experienced this.

      I wonder, too, if the fact that we are simply living longer, working longer and entering an uncertain economy if a traditional career path even makes sense anymore?

      Thanks for you thoughtful comment and sharing your story. You are definitely not alone in your varied and interesting pursuits!

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  6. These are some very interesting comments! I received the suggestion to read What Color is Your Parachute, but some of these books mentioned above sound like I need to get to them sooner rather than later. And I like that view of quitting as it relates to smaller though significant habits of sabotage — such as allowing someone to talk me into a corner because evidently their time is worth more than mine, and distracting myself from what’s important.

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    • I haven’t read the Parachute book, either, although I’ve heard of it. I have been thinking about little habits this week. Once I made the big “job change” decision, I started thinking about how I would move forward and that I have all these habits that trip me up. I have to learn to say “no” more to others and not feel guilty, so that I have time and focus for my new path.

      When you start moving obstacles and excuses out of the way, then you’re just left to deal with your own mental hurdles and habits. And boy, do I have a lot to work on, to get out of my own way. We’ll have to cheer each other on!

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  7. I left a doctorate program – I TOTALLY get what you’re saying here! Thank you! And yes, quitting was the best thing I could’ve done. So glad I left. 🙂

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    • It is remarkable how many people are commenting with similar stories. It must have been a difficult decision to leave a doctoral program. I always think the farther you get into something, the harder it is to justify leaving it, even when it’s absolutely wrong for you. I suspect, for you, this applies to your personal story as well, since you have been generous in sharing it on your blog. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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  8. I love this. I too was brought up with a strong “keep going till you finish” ethic. Work hard, try harder and you CAN do it. Academically I was lucky and never really struggled. Becoming a teacher was something I did because I wanted to, against professors and family wanting me to pursue academics (because I “could”, I “should”).
    The thing that was hardest and best to quit was my eldest son’s school. Sounds weird. At the age of 6, after one and a half years of school, he was drowning. Very smart, with Asperger’s syndrome, he was suicidal – at the age of 6. Making the decision to take him out and home school was terrifying. I was quitting on behalf of my kid!
    Best thing ever. It didn’t last for ever, just three years, and it was hard work. But it allowed me to get to know him, to help him calm down and “be” a little more, and then when he was old enough, we found the right school, managed to get him in despite all the odds. He’s now nearly 13, and thriving in a very special school. That act of quitting was the best thing I could have done for him. Now, I have a very similar situation with my daughter – the fear’s just the same, but at least I know I can trust my gut and that quitting is sometimes the right thing to do.

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    • Wonderful story about the things we do for love. I think, too, the point can be made that maybe quitting could be easier if we didn’t think in terms of forever. As you pointed out, it was only a few years for you and your son, but years I’m sure you wouldn’t trade for anything in the world and years that had an invaluable impact on his future.

      Sometimes people like to mock parents who appear to sacrifice all on behalf of their children, but those are the same people who haven’t seen what children teach us and as you said, what it is to slow down and just “be”. If you are not defined by your career, then you are not sacrificing “all”, you’re just re-prioritizing for a time. Good luck to you and your family, and thanks for sharing your story!

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      • Thank you so much! My career is funny old thing. I was a teacher for a time, and I’m a parent for now. Having three “special ed” kids makes that a longer and more full time job, but certainly rewarding. I’m just now contemplating what the next thing might be for me… much thought!

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  9. I’ve left several things behind, from education to a shop in which I had invested quite a bit of money. When I closed the shop (I already had one and had allowed myself to be persuaded to open a second in another town) it was after only three months. Everybody said to give it a bit longer, but I was losing money hand over fist every single day I was open – staffing it, principally – and I knew from the customer base on day one that it wasn’t going to work. I took everything out and recycled it back to my first shop and that afternoon a chap I knew vaguely who was in the business of liquidating firms came into the shop. I told him what I’d done and how everyone was telling me to give it another six months. He told me ‘Almost everyday I put people into the bankruptcy courts who have “given it another six months”. Follow your heart.’ I have never regretted my decision to pull the plug.
    And Follow your heart is a good motto.
    Sometimes you just have to close one door for another one to open.
    And thank you to your comment-ers. I haven’t read any of this books, but I will certainly do so now.

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    • Great story and metaphor: “Sometimes you just have to close one door for another one to open.”

      This is financially similar, in a way, to my grad school experience. I was looking at mounting debt with no guarantee that I’d make enough money to pay it back. I took a much safer route at the time, which I don’t regret as much as I would have if I’d kept struggling and gone under.

      It’s nice that you had someone reaffirm your decision after the fact – I think we could have all used someone like that, just to give a little reassurance.

      I always get good information from the kind people who take the time to comment on this blog! It’s my favorite part of the whole blogging experience.

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  10. I love the idea that quitting isn’t always a bad thing.

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    • All that positive psychology pushes the “never give up, never give in” mentality. Sometimes all the hard work in the world won’t make someone a success if they spend every moment miserable.

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  11. I still have nightmares about my linguistics classes 😀
    I am quite jealous of your quitting skills, you know… I am still working on acquiring similar ones.

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  12. “I need to quit believing my self-worth is associated with a paycheck.”
    *What I need is for my husband to quit believing that my self-worth is associated with a paycheck!
    Wonderful post!
    ~Lyann

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    • Thanks! So far, my husband has been pretty patient with me regarding changing career paths, but I imagine that will change as he gets closer to retirement! I figure it gives me a year or two to work on the writing.

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