German poet Goethe said beginnings were burning invitations, and not to tarry. He urged, “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”
And like that, a million fridge magnets were born.
Don’t get me wrong, I love beginnings. I love how every April there are little yellow blossoms sewn on the forsythias outside my front window. I love how a New Year’s snow stretches out like a clean canvas and come September, I admit: I channel Tom Hanks in You’ve Got Mail and want to buy a bouquet of freshly-sharpened pencils.
But as romantic as starts are, I’ve learned firsthand, the hard way, that there’s also magic in a well-timed quit.
I have my dad to thank for this; he died my first week of college, freshman year. Thanks to his funeral and the grief that swarmed thick later, I literally drove down to school, unpacked and plugged in my mini-fridge, and then: I undid all those things. I un-enrolled, stripped down my mattress and hugged my roommates a sheepish goodbye.
On the drive back home, car stuffed to the gills, I remember asking my mom the same question at least a million different ways: Does stopping make me the world’s weakest woman?
She said no; quitting was brave. Stopping was smart.
To be honest, it didn’t feel that way; it felt soppy, and limp. Indulgent. It felt so much more like forfeiting, like I was folding in, and that’s why I never expected to find so much wisdom waiting in it.
But oh, I did.
If you too, are close to waving a white flag, take heart. Here are four truths you might uncover in the midst of giving up:
1. Quitting reminds us: We’re so much more than what we do.
The college machine, of course, runs on the whole “becoming” paradigm, which makes sense. Universities are in the business of minting a new version of you. But skipping out on my first freshman semester taught me something bigger: My identity needn’t be so tangled up in what I did or didn’t do. Me – the real me – lived down so much deeper; she was entirely separate from my major, my transcript, even my someday career.
2. Quitting shows us that (SPOILER!) the world can indeed function without us.
It’s awfully humbling to sit on the sidelines and watch the world swim along without you. But it’s freeing, too, getting a good taste of your smallness – and maybe this actually even helps you later when it’s time to take a sick day, or the full maternity leave, or heavens, just a nap. No need to feel guilty about the breaks either; you’ve seen that the universe won’t slip out of orbit.
Me – the real me – lived down so much deeper; she was entirely separate from my major, my transcript, even my someday career.
3. Quitting teaches us that choices are temporary, that broken things can be glued back together, and that there is time to pivot.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve too often swallowed the lie that if I stop to shift gears – if I step off this particular train, or that golden pathway – I will lose precious momentum. The truth is, watching yourself slip out from and then back into the mix might be one of the most empowering things you ever do. It is like finding a cosmic remote control buried deep in the couch cushions and realizing that, lo, you really can pause the show to go make your popcorn.
4. Quitting actually might be progress in disguise.
To be clear, I’m not advocating an attitude that’s lazy or half-hearted or fickle, or making a regular habit of deserting. Some struggles deserve the sticking out, no matter what. But as C.S. Lewis once said, “If you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road.” Quitting early, sometimes, is its own kind of forward momentum. It’s pragmatic, saving time and making space so you can find your bearings again.
What’s something that you’ve “quit” in this way? What did you learn?
Image via Monica Outcalt