Scott H Young

When to Quit


When is it time to stop pursuing your dream and start being realistic? When do you decide to quit on one path and take up another one? If you listen to most self-help hype the answer is never. Never give up, these authors proclaim because if you believe and try hard enough your dreams will come true. Although this paints a fairly rosy picture of the world, I think it can be a little misleading.

Despite what those success stories proclaim, there is always the chance that you can pursue a path for your entire life without reaching the dream you desire. Perhaps you want to become a famous actor, you may end up spending the rest of your life doing small time theater and waiting on tables to pay the bills. You might want to own and operate your own highly successful business, but there is always the chance that you never actually get a company off the ground.

I hate to burst the self-help bubble here, but all efforts towards correctly pursuing your own personal development must take into account reality, not how you think the world should work. The truth is reality isn’t fair and just trying your best towards your dream doesn’t always cut it.

Ultimately the real question is when do you give up on one pathway in life and move to another? When do you quit? There are very few people in this world who could only be happy in one stream of life and fewer that have only one passion they could pursue. In a life of near limitless opportunities for growth, when is it time to quit seeking one and pursue another?

Having dreams and working towards them is excellent, most people don’t even have that. But whenever you decide to take up a path you need to ask the inevitable question of when do you need to turn around. Life is rarely all or nothing, so choosing when to continue and when to quit can be an extremely difficult question and most self-help author’s tendency to continually spew, “stick to your dreams no matter what!” messages don’t help.

Success Bias

Now if reality isn’t nearly as rosy as most personal development authorities paint, why is this so? Are they simply lying to you? The answer to this question is, no. Personal development authors that tell you to have infinite persistence towards a dream aren’t tricking you into thinking that is the only requirement for success. The problem is the success bias.

Ask yourself, who do you get personal development advice from? Well, most the time these authors and speakers are fairly successful. The more successful these authors are, the more people use their products, read their books and pay them money, correct? Basically, the more prolific your ideas are the greater chance you have been successful in achieving your dreams. As a result, authors with a high bias towards success end up being the ones to provide most the information.

Because you are absorbing the belief structure only of people that themselves have achieved their dreams, you get a bias in information that makes success appear easier than it actually is. If when deciding to become an actor you not only looked at Tom Cruise but Tom Smith who is waiting tables in LA, you would have a more accurate reflection of what your chances are.

What this really means is that almost no popular self-help authors are going to have had the experience of pursuing a dream (like becoming an author) and not having it eventually work out. Sure these people will often note all their past failures as proof that they got where they are from hard work and by pushing through pain, but they did eventually reach their goal.

Understanding reality means that you have to accept that some of your dreams won’t come true just because you work hard enough, be creative enough or go to enough seminars. Life doesn’t work that way. Don’t base your decisions on a false model of reality.

This brings up a very interesting question. If the answer isn’t simply to persist no matter what, how can you possibly decide how to run your life? The answer requires a shift in your thinking, but it completely resolves these problems entirely.

Outcome Based Thinking

There is an implied assumption when you are pursuing your dream. That assumption is that reaching your outcome is the only valuable part of the process. Being the famous actor, owning the billion dollar empire, selling the best-selling novel. Realizing the dream is what matters most.

There is only one problem with outcome-based thinking. It doesn’t work! When you ask most hugely successful CEO’s what the best part of their journey to success was they will tell you it was when they were still young, optimistic and struggling. Achieving goals doesn’t make you happy because achievements on their own hold no lasting emotional value. Only growth, fullfilment and passion has value.

When pursuing a dream you have the underlying assumption that when you reach it you will be happy. I’m here to tell you that you’re wrong. You will probably feel happier for a short time but then you will be right where you started. I have consistently noticed this pattern whenever I achieve goals myself. When you reach them you are elated but after a few days, weeks or months you aren’t any different than when you started.

Your dream had two outcomes, either you reached it successfully or you didn’t. Success or failure, these were the two outcomes and the primary source for your equation. Unfortunately the difference between these possibilities on your total level of happiness is negligible in the long-term. Your outcome based thinking has been sabotaging your happiness and destroying your ability to make effective decisions.

Experiential Based Thinking

The answer to this problem is to shift the way you look at your life. Instead of judging whether or not you should quit pursuing your dream based on your chances of success you ask a different question. Would I like to experience working to become a famous actor? Would I like to experience building a business from the ground up?

In this perspective goals are merely lighthouses in the distance with no intrinsic value of their own. These lighthouses merely guide your travels through interesting waters. By taking up this mindset the question of whether you will fulfill your dream becomes irrelevant. By focusing on the outcome you are putting all of your emphasis on the tiniest portion of life’s journey.

So if you are pursuing your dream and you don’t think you are going to make it, the question of whether or not to quit doesn’t depend on your chance of success. The real question is whether pursuing this dream is causing you to grow? Does this path fill you with passion and enthusiasm? Do you feel alive? If the path you are on currently is giving you the greatest growth, passion and fulfillment it doesn’t matter whether you ever reach your destination.

Too many people focus on the celebrations and not the ordinary days. Instead of worrying about the marriage they focus on the wedding. Instead of worrying about the practice they focus on the big game. Although these special occasions and events can be exciting, they make up a tiny percentage of your total experiences. If you can make your ordinary experiences fantastic, why do you need to save up for a party?

Having dreams and goals is still important. Goals and dreams give you directions and they help you chart the unexplored territory of your own growth. But they have no value in themselves. Becoming a millionaire, marrying a supermodel, winning the Olympic gold. If the journey to these destinations wasn’t fantastic then the reward is only dust.

When to Quit

When do you give up on a dream? The answer is simple, when you have an alternative path that will give you more growth, passion and fulfillment. You don’t have complete power over the outcome of your life but you have complete power over the experience. If a new experience will be better, then switch to that. There is no shame in leaving a path that has become barren.

When I first started goal setting I pursued a lot of goals feverishly that had no intrinsic value and I felt empty when I achieved them. Now I don’t have a problem abandoning a goal that has lost its challenge and passion for me. Your dreams can’t be lived in the future, they must be experienced now.


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22 Responses to “When to Quit”

  1. michal says:

    There is some wonderful buddhist saying that perfectly sumarizes what you’ve written. “There is no way to happiness. Happiness is the way”. I often think not whether I’ve already reached my dream but whether I’m still happy pursuing it. Great post! Greetings!

  2. Jim says:

    Spot on! Few people realize, or will ever realize that what matters most is the journey, not the destination. It took me many years of experience to ultimately reach this conclusion. I have been fortunate in that I have achieved most every goal I have set for myself since I was a teenager… being in a successful rock band, being highly successful in many career endeavors from electrical engineering to real estate, marrying a beautiful woman, having it all, even becoming a millionaire.

    But as Scott so eloquently stated, the achievements themselves have no lasting emotional value. As I look back on everything, one thing is crystal clear. The happiest and most fulfilling experiences in my life were a direct result of pursuing dreams, not achieving them.

  3. [...] stream of success-centric self-help books and articles. And that can only be a good thing. | Permalink Filed under: Personal Development by — Doug @ 7:59pm [...]

  4. Scott Young says:

    @michal,

    I love that saying, I’ll use it from now on. Buddhism has a lot of practical self-help information if you read into it.

    @Jim,

    I think the biggest issue is shifting the focus from some time into the future to this moment. By focusing only on your growth, passion and fulfillment in this very moment you can truly live your life at the maximum level, this is impossible if you put all your happiness in the future. Thanks for the comments and its great to hear of your successes!

  5. Scott says:

    This was really good. I always had a problem with the “if you can believe it you can achieve it” thing. I will never be a famous football player or an astronaut – but there are many other things I can do if I’m willing to let those two go. I’m starting to find that the journey is the fun part – or, as they say, “getting there is half the fun….”

    Scott

  6. Scott Young says:

    Scott to Scott,

    The question isn’t whether or not you can achieve something. That kind of thinking is speculative and generally not applicable. Sure there are some things you will never do, but humans generally have a bad time at predicting them.

    The real answer is whether you will enjoy the path to your goal. The possibility of achievement isn’t really the point. Because goals are only realized in the future, their outcome is irrelevant on your position today. All that matters is whether want to experience the journey towards them.

  7. [...] The article, entitled When to Quit, asks the questions, “When is it time to stop pursuing your dream and start being realistic? When do you decide to quit on one path and take up another one?”. [...]

  8. Grax says:

    Never have truer words been spoken. I found this read to be really refreshing and it got me thinking about my own past achievements, especially after what Michal said at the start of all the commenting.

    Good job. I think I’ll go read all your other stuff as well.

  9. Scott Young says:

    Thanks Grax,

    Enjoy the path not just the destination. Take a look at the second part of this article for more.

  10. [...] not one for motivational spew that says just take wild risks and chase your dreams and they will come true, but at the same time [...]

  11. [...] way to tackle this choice is that of passion. It is the approach I described in When to Quit where I felt that success mattered less if your passion was great. But that is hardly consolation [...]

  12. Rick says:

    You are telling the truth and you are smart. I think your blog is fantastic please keep it up.

  13. [...] When to Quit: Knowing when to give up on an unattainable dream is important for your personal progress. [...]

  14. [...] What if I chased successes according to my birthright, my imperishable inheritance? Fellow blogger, Scotthyoung advises, “If the path you are on currently is giving you the greatest growth, passion and [...]

  15. Pavel says:

    Yes, its important to point out you should quit if your path is wrong. There is a thin line however between giving up because you give up fairly quickly(because of fear) and quitting after being certain that your current way is wrong. But certainly the “no matter what” principle isn’t always true, BUT I do believe it’s very true if your path is true(and that takes some damn sensitivity to feel).

    To make things easier one should progress more slowly and reaffirm himself and his self-confidence by smaller successes. Those serve also as reality-check to confirm or not if your desires meet with the reality of your abilities.

    You see, if I dream of being the best mathematician in the world, it simply won’t happen because of my IQ limitation :-) But if my self reflection is good enough I’ll know that and I won’t set such unrealistic goals.

    The problem is if you underestimate yourself and listen to other people(this is not for you blah blah, 1 in a million can do it blah blah). Even with good self-reflexion you can sometimes start to believe that. The problem is, other people are mostly average and for them even something a bit over the average seems like “1 in million”, their perspective is distorted.

    So, have good self-reflection, try to reaffirm it by smaller successes, set realistic goals, find your way, and if you really, really, really, found it, then NEVER GIVE UP. Otherwise, give up, and try to find that way.

  16. thanks says:

    great post! this helped soooooo much

  17. Hector says:

    thank you very much :)

  18. Yellow Pixie says:

    This article came at a good time. I’m an aspiring actress, and I hear what you’re saying.

  19. [...] excellent discussion from a blog post that is several years old, but the advice is timeless. Called “When to Quit,” it’s a lengthy article by Scott Young on this subject. I hope you’ll read it to the [...]

  20. K. Cotton says:

    ~Life is full of paths untaken; find yours, and you wont be mistaken.
    ~Over mountains you must climb; at the top, the veiw is devine.
    ~Ventures into the abyss; bring stumbling blocks you can’t miss.
    ~Every momment should be cherished; if you don’t then your careless.

    “I shouldn’t have to spell out whats most important, but I did. Do you see it? ~Life is not a puzzle or game, but is challenging just the same.

    :Your choices can unravel at the seams; but without the experience, you really didn’t follow your dreams*

    Sincerely, Readers

  21. Dreamer says:

    “When is it time to stop pursuing your dream and start being realistic?”

    The premise here is a bit off. If you’re pursuing a dream you’re also not being realistic? And people who do make their dreams come true are — what? Just lucky because they were never realistic to begin with?

    And as for the possibility they may not come true — well, duh. This is news? In realist most dreams don’t come true simply because the dreamer doesn’t believe in him or herself anymore. It’s not like a get a letter from God saying — ‘nope, give up, it’s in the cards, you’ll never make it.’ Instead most people look at their situation and struggle and interpret that struggle as God or the universe telling them ‘nope, give up, it’s in the cards, you’ll never make it.’

    Of course, it’s possible that certain dreams become OBJECTIVELY impossible, i.e., you’re a 65 year old woman and so you’ll never deliver your own baby. But do most people give up because of objective clear evidence that it’ll never happen or do they just “feel” that after being wore down — and the last thing they need at that point is someone telling them to get realistic because they’re in the midst of struggle.

    There is one truth in this article — you do have to be very happy in the pursuit of your dream. If you want to be actor, you should enjoy becoming better and better at it and take pride in really doing it well. If you’re not doing it well, you need to love working to get better (and also you should be seeing progress). Same with any other goal. Striving for mastery, to be very Very VERY good at something that is deeply important to you is the real goal. Never give up on doing that.

    For a great take on why you should quite, read: “How I Failed, Ruined My Life, and Still Came Out a Winner: http://www.keshabrucestudio.com/2012/07/how-i-failed-ruined-my-life-and-still.html

  22. Dreamer says:

    (Sorry — last comment had mis-spellings. This one is better).

    “When is it time to stop pursuing your dream and start being realistic?”

    The premise here is a bit off. If you’re pursuing a dream you’re also not being realistic? And people who do make their dreams come true are — what? Just lucky because they were never realistic to begin with?

    And as for the possibility they may not come true — well, duh. This is news? In reality most dreams don’t come true simply because the dreamer doesn’t believe in him or herself anymore. It’s not like they get a letter from God saying — ‘nope, give up, it’s in the cards, you’ll never make it.’ Instead most people look at their situation and struggle and interpret that struggle as God or the universe telling them ‘nope, give up, it’s in the cards, you’ll never make it.’

    Of course, it’s possible that certain dreams become OBJECTIVELY impossible, i.e., you’re a 65 year old woman and so you’ll never deliver your own baby. But do most people give up because of objective clear evidence that it’ll never happen or do they just “feel” that after being wore down — and the last thing they need at that point is someone telling them to get realistic because they’re in the midst of struggle.

    There is one truth in this article — you do have to be very happy in the pursuit of your dream. If you want to be actor, you should enjoy becoming better and better at it and take pride in really doing it well. If you’re not doing it well, you need to love working to get better (and also you should be seeing progress). Same with any other goal. Striving for mastery, to be very Very VERY good at something that is deeply important to you is the real goal. Never give up on doing that.

    For a great take on why you should quite, read: “How I Failed, Ruined My Life, and Still Came Out a Winner: http://www.keshabrucestudio.com/2012/07/how-i-failed-ruined-my-life-and-still.html

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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