Why You Should Stop Worrying About Failure & Embrace Quitting

Photo: Terry Doyle/Eyeem
"If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again." That was the phrase my year five maths teacher extolled with a smile after informing me that I’d be repeating the test I failed in detention. I remember rolling my eyes and thinking, 'I don’t like maths, I don’t want to succeed and I don’t want to miss the Fresh Prince of Bel Air'.
But as the years went on, that headstrong little girl disappeared and I turned into someone who prioritised what she should do over what she really wanted. I refused to give up on anything or anyone, often to my own detriment. The boyfriend who constantly played mind games, the friend of over 10 years who belittled me at every opportunity and the job I felt unfulfilled in but stuck out because quitting always equated to failure.
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The fear of what will follow when you decide to give up on something is deep-rooted, explains psychologist and co-director of Positive Change Guru, Gill Thackray.
"Committing to something – be it a resolution, job, or partner is akin to making a promise or giving your word. Failing publicly can bring on feelings of embarrassment and paranoia about what people will think of you going forward. Failing privately can often be even worse on the psyche as we really can be our own worst critics."

Failing privately can be worse than failing publicly because we really can be our own worst critics.

Gill Thackray, Psychologist
I could wholeheartedly relate to these sentiments until I recently decided to quit learning to row. Frankly, rowing was a lot harder than I thought, and meant waking up early every Saturday. In quitting I had a lightbulb moment. Letting go of something that didn’t serve me, although slightly embarrassing (since I’d told everyone I was doing it) instantly brought a sense of relief and empowerment and I realised that perhaps giving up other things in my life didn’t have to be fraught with such anxiety and seen as a failure.
Author Daisy Buchanan agrees. "When my dream job coincided with a massive relapse of my anxiety disorder, I was forced to question everything. When it hit me that the one thing that would make me happier was walking out of the office and never going back, I agonised over whether I should quit or not. However, when I started fantasising about being knocked down by a bus so I didn’t have to go in to work, I knew it was time to leave. It felt as though I was leaping into the dark but once I began to look at this as an opportunity to live a life that I loved, everything immediately became brighter and lighter. I discovered that there was no shame in giving up, in fact by quitting I finally put myself first."
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How you construct your inner dialogue can determine the effects of quitting. It’s no surprise that we frame failure in negative terms – flunking a test gets you detention, quitting a job prematurely has future employers questioning your work ethic, and the end of a relationship always brings about self-doubt. But what if we began to see failure as a tool for positive growth?
Research in this area from Stanford University professor Carol Dweck could be life-changing. Dweck, who coined the terms 'growth mindset' and 'fixed mindset', discovered that as humans we either possess a fixed mindset and see failure as all-defining, or a growth mindset, which acknowledges failure as the route to mastery, goal accomplishment and ultimately success.
If you possess a fixed mindset, you’ll not only be more self-critical but will worry that others will judge you if you quit something you’ve committed yourself to. While those with a growth mindset personality have the aptitude to recognise when something isn't working, analyse what happened, learn from it and adapt their strategy going forward – which means they have no qualms about quitting in order to reap the benefits later down the line. The good news is that if you don’t operate that way naturally, you can learn to develop a growth mindset. The key is to "reframe your thinking, and transition a negative mindset into a positive one," says Thackray.
"I’ve never been one to look at my life from a place of negativity; to see things as black and white, or good or bad. Which is why when I quit my fundraising job that saw me advise the government, I didn’t feel anxious at all," shares comedian Sarah Southern. "When I stopped getting the job satisfaction I craved, I went to see a life coach who challenged me to try stand-up comedy. It opened the creative side of me that I’d totally forgotten existed. In one year alone I did 50 gigs, and even performed at the Edinburgh Festival. Leaving a steady salary and a really good pension was a risk but not taking the leap and trying something different might have been a bigger regret."
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It’s not just unfulfilling work situations that we find hard to let go of. Relationships can be harder still, especially if they look picture-perfect to the outside world. Marketing manager Jenny Shaw says: "When I met Dan I'd been single for a while and had forgotten all those perks of being a couple – someone to go on holiday with, a person to help change the lightbulb. I quickly settled into the reassurance that comes with being a two. Everyone really liked him and things were good but there was just something that wasn't 100% right. My friends thought I was mad, but after just over two years I decided to finish things.
"It took three false starts; we kept getting back together because, after all, he hadn't done anything 'wrong' and I'd have awful pangs of loneliness but now, six months on, I'm so happy I did it. I'm still single and yes, I do get lonely sometimes but I like myself so much more – hanging onto something that I knew wasn't right didn't make me feel good about myself. I actually felt like I couldn't trust my own instincts and that made me doubt myself in other ways, like in decisions at work or issues with friends, and left me wondering if I really knew my own mind."
And that’s the part of quitting that so many of us fail to acknowledge: Throwing in the towel is not a passive move, it’s a calculated action that’s empowering and screams, ‘I know my own mind and refuse to do anything that doesn’t make me happy, no matter what anyone thinks of me’, because at the end of the day, it’s what you think of you that matters.
So if you’ve cast some New Year’s Resolutions aside because they actually weren’t working for you (I gave up on 6am workouts, one week in), don’t waste time feeling bad about it. I’m not.
If you’re standing at the precipice, unsure whether to quit something bigger, then it might be time to leap.
Thackray's advice: "Just learn to tune in to your inner voice and decipher why you really want to give up. If it’s because you’re scared of failing, persevere, but if you feel like something is wrong for you in your gut, quitting is the way forward."
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