If you’re thinking about quitting something, whether it’s an academic program, a job, or a relationship, you might be asking yourself:
How do I know whether I’m making the right decision?
I’ll explain how to answer that question in a minute, but first let me tell you about my experience as a quitter:
How I decided to quit my academic program
I used to believe that quitting was for weaklings. Quitters were lazy, uncommitted, and incapable of working hard. They didn’t have the strength of character to see things through. I used to believe that.
Then I quit law school.
In 2004, after three semesters at McGill Law, I left it all behind. It was, at the time, the hardest thing I’d ever done. Back then, being a law student was a golden ticket. That’s not to say it was easy—not at all. But if you worked hard, being a law student (especially at a prestigious school like McGill) was the gateway to a successful career.
I was miserable. And I was severely depressed. I’m talking fantasizing-daily-about-ending-my-life depressed. I got professional help, which made things a bit better. If you’re struggling with depression, anxiety, or thoughts of suicide, please PLEASE seek help.
Deep down I knew I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I knew that before I even set foot in the Faculty of Law. I didn’t know what I wanted to do after my undergraduate degree (I had already ruled out medical school), so I applied to only one law school and assumed I wouldn’t get in. I thought that getting rejected from law school would force me to take a year off so that I could figure out what I really wanted. I was too afraid to take that time for myself without the circumstances dictating my decision.
But I got in. And I decided to give it a try.
I knew pretty much right away that I didn’t belong there. But I stuck it out for the first year, just to be sure. Back then, the school used to rank all the students according to academic performance. So at the end of my first year I went to the student affairs office with my school ID and I asked to see my rank. I had put in the bare minimum of effort, and I was certain that I would be somewhere at the bottom of the list.
I wasn’t. I was just outside the top 10% of my classmates.
This floored me. But instead of motivating me to continue, that piece of information got me thinking:
If I can do that well at something I don’t care about AT ALL, how well could I do at something I love?
Except I had no idea what I cared about. I was so tired and sad that I could only notice what I didn’t care about. It was scary to contemplate leaving a straightforward path without a backup plan. But deep down I knew I had to.
I remember all the resistance that came up in those months I was deciding what to do. These weren’t garden-variety worries: it felt like the truth about my future. I knew these things would happen.
I knew I’d never get into another academic program (because quitting follows you around for your whole life like a stench),
I knew I’d never get a job (because no one would ever hire a quitter),
I knew my parents wouldn’t speak to me again (because they didn’t raise me to be a quitter and I’m a disappointment),
I knew my law school friends would think I’m dumb (because people quit law school when they’re not smart enough to graduate).
Every one of those beliefs ended up being dead wrong. At the time they felt very real, and they made me seriously question whether quitting was going to ruin the rest of my life.
It took me until the end of the next semester to leave the program, but by then I was sure that I had made the right decision. I was almost halfway through the program, and a lot of people asked me whether it was worth it to throw in the towel. I was terrified, but I knew that quitting was the best move for me.
I’ve quit other paths since then. It’s never easy, and it's never a hasty decision. But it’s less of an existential burden than it used to be. Instead of feeling like I've failed myself, I'm able to see quitting as a way to get closer to the life I want to live.
Should YOU quit?
Let’s get back to that critical question: how do I know that I'm making the right decision?
When I quit school, I didn’t know. In the sense that I had no idea what my future would look like. But I did know the answer to the question I was really asking, which was:
Will I regret this?
And I knew for sure that the answer was NOPE.
So. How do you figure out whether you’ll regret quitting? How did I figure it out?
The first step is to figure out WHY you want to quit. And in my experience, regret comes from quitting—or staying—for the wrong reasons.
Let’s break down the right reasons and the wrong reasons to quit, and the right and wrong reasons to stay. Here are how the categories have played out for me in my experience as a quitter:
The Wrong Reasons to Quit
- I’m not good enough
- I don’t belong
- I’m new at this and I don’t like it
- It’s too much work
- Something has changed recently and it’s making me uncomfortable
The Right Reasons to Quit
- I chose this path to please someone else
- This is not who I am (anymore)
- I don’t enjoy this AT ALL/the work doesn’t feel ‘worth it’
- I’ve explored a bunch of ways to make it work, but it doesn’t
- I’ve been emotionally exhausted, frustrated, or angry for a long time
The wrong reasons to stay
- People will be pissed at me if I quit/I’ll let people down
- I’ll feel like a failure/people will think I’m a failure if I quit
- I’m not ‘a quitter’
- It's selfish to quit
- I’m afraid of what will happen next
- I’ve put so much time/effort/money into this
- It will be a step backwards for me if I quit
- I’m obliged to stay/I feel responsible
- This will look good on my resume
The right reasons to stay
- I need more time to figure out what’s next/to make a plan to leave gracefully
- I need more information to make a decision
- I haven’t tried all of the options yet
- Deep down I actually do enjoy this but I’m going through a rough patch
- This is necessary to get me where I really want to go/it's worth it
Figure out what’s behind your impulse to quit, and see where it fits in.
Want some help getting clarity on your reasons for quitting (or staying)? I made a Quitting With Clarity workbook for you. Enter your name and email address to download it right away: