We are always told to never quit. Is that good advice? Some quits have been the best thing that ever happened to us. So how do you know when to quit?

Fortune Cookies

In amongst all of the cheap, fortune cookie advice that social media has made so ubiquitous, one of the classics can be summarised as"Never quit".

Here are some Twitter quotes from a 10-second search - it just gives me a kick to list them:

"You never know how close you are to your next breakthrough"

"Winners never quit"

"If you quit once, it becomes a habit. NEVER QUIT"

"Learning to rest when we're tired, and NEVER to QUIT is also essential"

I could go on all day.

In fact, my own father burned this lesson into my consciousness. "Never quit", he told me. And I didn't.

Tim Ferris always asks on his podcast "what's the worst advice someone's ever given you". That would be mine.

I stuck it out on a career path for twelve years (count them) which was just not succeeding. Why, you might ask? Did you not see after, say six years, that things aren't going to plan?

Of course, I did. I am not blind. But my father's advice kept ringing in my ears. We never quit. Quitters fail. Winners don't quit. It was a fundamental law of the universe, like gravity, death and the taxman. So how could there even be a question of what to do? Stick at it until they wheel you out. You will win. You will outlast them.

Eventually, for reasons that belong in another blog post, I did make a change. My career immediately skyrocketed. With hindsight, it was obvious - abandon that which you're bad at; pivot to that which you're good at. But the twelve years... Well, like Solomon Northup, I never got those back. And boy are they precious.

Pain Threshold

Here's the problem. What if the person in question really is a bit of a superhero? What if he has the strength, stamina and sheer willpower to keep going forever? I did. Sounds great, doesn't it? Wrong. Disaster.

When I was a kid, I would irritate the hell out of my four-year-older brother. He would beat on me, twisting my arms, digging sharp objects into me, until I surrendered. Did I ever surrender? No! Don't ask me why, I don't know. But what I do know is that, as it turned out, I had a high pain tolerance. Still do.

Sometimes, this is a superpower - it allows me to train longer and harder, for example. But more often than not, it is a curse. Why? because it makes you ignore signals the universe is sending you. Not in some mysterious, mystical way. No, I'm talking about very direct signals - like your arm is snapping, your leg muscles are injuring, you haven't been promoted in over a decade - tangible things like that.

Turns out that high pain tolerance, combined with a religious belief in never quitting, is the perfect recipe for bad outcomes. People without much staying-power are saved. The righteous burn on the cross.

Flaky Business

The counterfactual can also be demonstrated. One place where "never quit" would be heresy is the world of trading (as opposed to investment). I have a close acquaintance who is an extremely successful hedge fund manager. He is renowned for his quick changes of views - he can buy huge amounts of an asset one minute, only to liquidate it minutes afterwards. These in and out journeys can cost millions; but he never gets trapped in a "bad position". Who's to say what's the right trading strategy or not; but this person has been inordinately successful, flip-flopping as he has.

In the words of John Maynard Keynes,

"When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?"

This hedge fund manager simply refuses to get stuck in yesterday's analysis. It may be that the time between making a decision and new information making you change it is short - that is with the gods - but once the new information is in, you react as fast as you can. His speed of mind change isn't a weakness; it's a strength.

Good Or Bad?

Now let's be clear - it isn't that I think quitting is great. Often that advice IS good. Of course, we can all see that there are times when one shouldn't quit.

The reason the advice is bad is that it isn't specific enough. What the Elders Of Twitter aren't telling you is that

1) There are, in fact, times when you should quit


2) How to tell the difference.

The advice not to quit is partial information.

Quit Or Iterate?

How then, do we know the difference? How do we decide when to stick and when to twist?

The key thing to understand is the difference between quitting and iterating.

To quit basically implies running out of some resource or another, forcing you to stop whatever it is you are doing. This resource could be patience; time; money; energy; willpower; enthusiasm. Anything that you were reliant on before to keep going, that you no longer have, and can now not continue any further. Thus, you quit.

To iterate means to stop; reflect; decide. When you iterate, you do three things:

  1. You take in signals. The world gives you feedback on what you do, and you stop to observe it.

  2. You process the signals. You consider what you've seen, what it might mean, and how it might fit into the bigger picture.

  3. You decide on a course of action. Here you have a choice, between continuing as you are; or, based on your analysis, making an adjustment, for what has become your new optimal course of action. Until now, you were on what you considered the optimal path. And going forward, you will proceed on what you think is your optimal path. It may be the same path as you were already on; it may be a new path.

The key difference is choice. When you quit, you are forced out of the game. You didn't really decide in an intellectual way. You stopped because you couldn't take it any more. That doesn't mean it's a wrong thing to do - sometimes, not being able to take it any more is how the world signals to you when all previous signals have failed. In a way, it is a safety valve for the terminal non-quitters (like me).

But it is different from iteration - when you've thought things out, could have continued, could have pivoted, and chose the latter - willingly and backed by the cerebral process.