Perseverance and grit vs. knowing when to quit

Published by Lori Pickert on September 21, 2012 at 08:31 AM

In my book, I write about the importance of teaching your kids how to finish.

Many adults, let alone children, stall in the information-gathering stage of a project. They keep collecting inspiration and ideas without ever moving forward to the point of making something of their own. Forget about finishing — they can’t start.

Finishing is a key skill. The beginning part of a project is the least difficult and often the most fun. There are materials to buy and inspirational photos to look at. The middle is when things get harder. And sometimes we never make it past the middle. Everything gets shoved into a bag and then into the back of a closet, and we move on to another fun beginning.

Perseverance and grit are key traits for successful people. But prioritizing learning how to finish doesn’t mean you never, ever quit anything. An equally important skill is figuring out when it’s okay to not finish.

If we determine to never, ever quit anything, ever, then we will spend a lot of our time just gritting our teeth and stumping to the end of something we wish we’d never started in the first place. There’s probably not a lot of useful learning there. You can’t get where you want to go if you spend months trudging in the wrong direction after you figured out long ago you turned left when you should have turned right.

Good quitting requires

- being able to admit you made a mistake.

- recognizing when the path you’re on isn’t taking you where you want to go.

- being able to let go of the time and effort you’ve put in.

- accepting new information that changes your old plan.

- acknowledging you aren’t getting the results you were after.

- realizing you have better options.

So how do we balance the importance of finishing with knowing when to quit?

Persistence and fulfilling your commitments are character traits that are very important to most parents. We want our kids to go the distance. We want them to stick it out when the going gets tough. We want them to be determined, and we want them to meet their commitments. These are all good traits to have, but they don’t exist in a vacuum. What if our kids are in a bad relationship? What if their coach is destroying their love for a sport?

Do we want our kids to learn that if they start something, we will always make them stick with it — so maybe it’s better not to start, so you don’t end up doing something for months that you don’t enjoy? With all due respect to Tiger Mom, you’re not teaching kids persistence forcing them to complete something *you* want them to do. Perseverance and grit are traits that come from the inside. If someone else is making you persist, then you’re not developing persistence any more than a person being dragged by a rope is learning to walk. 

We need to learn to find our way — through exploring, through experience — to the richest areas for potential growth. This may require adjusting your sails, reworking your plan, replanning your route. We need the freedom and flexibility to shift to a path that’s going to give us a better outcome. This is a learned skill and an equally valuable trait: learning when to cut your losses, being able to recognize a better opportunity.

There is good and bad persistence. Good persistence allows you to forge ahead through difficulties to accomplish what you set out to do. Bad persistence keeps you on a nonproductive course because you can’t bring yourself to admit you made a mistake. You don’t want to lose the time and money you’ve already invested, so you end up losing more. It’s important to learn the difference between the two. It’s important to learn how to examine what’s happening and determine whether it’s in your best interest to stick with what you’re doing … or quit. And if quitting is the best course, then it takes just as much strength of character to make that call as to stick with a path that’s taking you in a direction you don’t really want to go.



Comment by Lori Pickert on September 21, 2012 at 09:04 AM

bonus! Amber Dusick’s interview about being a quitter:

Comment by janet on September 21, 2012 at 03:58 PM

love it! thanks for the link!

Comment by Verity on September 21, 2012 at 09:36 AM

Yes, yes. When I left grad school, I had to struggle with this distinction. It doesn't help that for most people, there's only one kind of quitting-- the bad kind. So when it comes to decisions to quit big things, you have the weight of others' judgment upon you, too, and that can make it hard to do what you know is right for you for fear of being labeled a "quitter". Teaching our kids about this in a principled way, starting early, can only help them in the long run.

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 21, 2012 at 12:32 PM


for most people, there's only one kind of quitting — the bad kind

yes, and parents need to move beyond that — they need to make the effort to dig down and really listen to their kids so they know whether it’s a good quit or a bad quit. and they need to help their children articulate and explore their own feelings so they can, with time, learn how to figure it out for themselves.

it’s a life skill to be able to determine whether you’re just scared/bored/frustrated and should push yourself or whether it’s a situation where quitting is the better option. we need to help our kids develop that skill!

Comment by priest's wife on September 25, 2012 at 01:01 PM

This came at a good time- we might need to 'quit' some activities- but I want to quit well

This is getting bookmarked!

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 25, 2012 at 06:59 PM

thank you! :)

Comment by Cristina on September 28, 2012 at 09:20 AM

I love what you've said here. I usually gauge my children's interest by how much I have to "encourage" them to go. They get attached to their teachers, even though their interest may fade in a class. My son took a big step this summer in deciding to quit taekwondo. He had been going for years, reached second degree black belt, but his heart was no longer in it. He wasn't interested in teaching it, which is the next step for third degree, but his affection for his teachers kept him plodding on.

I helped him to understand that quitting doesn't diminish his past achievement. I'm still very proud of his accomplishments. It simply meant he squeezed all he could learn out of the class and it was time for something new.

I should copy your list for good quitting. Is it in your book? I have it, I just haven't finished it yet.

Peace and Laughter!

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 28, 2012 at 09:38 AM


hi cristina! :)

that’s a great example of a good quit. and it is hard to let things go for a lot of reasons — for us adults, too.

i think this “knowing when to quit” skill is essential — especially for people with a lot of interests. we need to be able to let some things go so we can get on with the best stuff.

only the subtext is in the book, but not the actual list. ;o)

great to see you here!


Comment by Bethany on January 27, 2014 at 02:59 PM

So, so good, Lori. Thank you for sharing!

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