Hi. My name is Amber and I’m a quitter.
Learning how to be better at quitting was life-changing for me. “You mean if I’m not enjoying something… I am not obligated to continue to do that thing?” ← This was me.
For me, quitting has become a strength and a marker of my own personal growth. It’s a bit like Marie Kondo-ing my life. (We use her name as a verb now right?)
But I haven’t always been this way.
I have the super annoying ability to be good at whatever I decide to throw myself into. I use my inherent enthusiasm for new things and deep dives for information, tips, tricks and ways to improve my skills. I also have the ability to be interested in anything that is interesting. 1
My attention holds for however long it holds.
And then it doesn’t. 2
Trying to control this interest only ends in tears. I’m much better off riding the wave of interests and deep-dives for information and knowledge. 3
But this means that I can tell jokes on stage, grow and preserve vegetables in my garden, talk your ear off about anything from quarks and gluons to stories about ancient Mayan history. I can (poorly) play a handful of instruments and can tell you more than you ever would have want to know about motorcycles, congenital heart defects, regulations for baseball bat manufacturers and way too much information about a bunch of different mental illnesses.
My projects are discussed with so many people while I flesh out ideas, see what else there is to learn and make connections with people who are also interested in whatever is my new idea or obsession. I buy the tools, the how-to manuals and then I talk about whatever my new thing is incessantly.
I get excited. I get other people excited. Then my focus turns elsewhere.
In my wake I leave shelves of half-read books (digital and physical), half-finished projects or half-started projects 4. I leave people wondering “whatever happened to…?”
I have so much random knowledge in my brain, but not all of it is useful. At least not traditionally. 5
All of these things are seen as negatives if you talk to neurotypical people. As a child (and then as a parent) I heard and then repeated things like, “if you sign up for a team you have to finish the season!” or “Clean your plate, you have to finish your dinner!”
I heard echos of these ideas when I donated a precious moments ABC’s cross-stitch I had started in anticipation of my first baby. I reached the letter J and then never picked it up again… except to pack it for a move half a dozen times. when I donated it (with the pattern and remaining thread) to a thrift store my fourth baby was about 10 years old. The guilt was still heavy and laden with shame from not finishing the project.
The same shame I had about the 60,000 words of a fantasy novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo and then never touched again, or the parenting book that’s been *almost* ready for a couple of years now. Shame made me try and not quit, but I quickly learned that not following joy meant I would become someone that I didn’t feel like I was… anymore.
When your obsession becomes your identity
My then husband would get exasperated every time I picked up yet another new hobby. Then I took a Wilton cake decorating class from a local craft store and by the third level of the class, hundreds of dollars in cake decorating supplies and multiple free cakes given away to friends and neighbors, that same now ex-husband (I only have one of those) told me that I needed to either start charging for cakes or find a cheaper hobby.
Amberlicious Desserts by Design was born.
As a current business owner (of a completely different business) I know that my mindset then wasn’t a business owner mindset. I wasn’t an entrepreneur. I just wanted to make pretty cakes. But Amber the Cake Maker became my identity. Pretty soon I was also catering. Before I knew it seven years had passed and I felt very stuck in an identity that wasn’t bringing me joy.
It was a very familiar feeling during this part of my life. I was mired in a sunk cost fallacy, my nemesis.
Through some other life changes (mostly ignited by quitting my religion) I went back to school. I decided to get a marketing degree, in order to grow my business into something bigger and more “real” thinking that would help me gain clarity.
My first marketing class we created business plans for real businesses. Bonus points if it was a business you owned. (I’m all about the bonus points). We spent the semester doing research, writing different sections of our plans and then incorporating the feedback from the professor to improve each section. We compiled business plan for our final project and then were scheduled to meet with the professor to discuss our final grade.
The professor spent the semester using examples from my already functioning business for the class. He loved the numbers, spreadsheets and calculations I had already made for the cost of each type of cake, filling, frosting and other ingredients. (Thankfully, the aforementioned husband insisted on proper accounting from me, since he was a tax accountant.) My professor was VERY excited to discuss my next steps, which included securing a loan and opening a brick and mortar store.
Unfortunately for him, I had recently listened to a podcast episode from Freakanomics, The Upside of Quitting. It covered the choice to quit from the perspectives of three different people. They all appeared to be making what looked like very bad decisions, but that had very good outcomes. The entire premise of the show was that sometimes the smartest choice was to quit something to make room for something new, or, to not over look opportunity costs in favor of sunk costs.
Learning to Quit
Culturally the words quit, quitter, quitting all have very negative, shame-filled emotions attached to them. So much so that when I tell someone I’m a great quitter they try to reframe the word to make it positive. I don’t need it to be made positive, “You just know when to pivot!” I need it to have the power over my life to decide what brings me joy, and to discard the rest.
That podcast was the first shift in my view. Quitting something meant I was leaving space for something else.
Back to my professor’s office. He enthusiastically reviewed my marketing plan for Amberlicious Desserts by Design. I proceeded to crush his dreams when I told him that my marketing plan made it clear that this business wasn’t right for my life. In order to make about $30,000 a year I would need to work 10 hour days, 6-7 days a week. I would lose a lot of evenings and weekends because that’s when people have events they want catered or to have cakes delivered for their celebrations. I would lose the time I had with my kids while they were kids. The numbers told a story that I didn’t want to live.
I closed the business that week.
The class taught me a few other things about what I did and didn’t want to do, including looking at the numbers of a business without talking about the people and stories of a business. I changed my major to advertising and public relations.
I had quit my religion about nine months earlier, and about four years later I would quit my marriage and then a year after that, the first job I’d landed after my graduation. I’ve quit relationships when they no longer make me happy and I’ve quit business partnerships that aren’t working anymore.
These are some examples of the harder things I’ve quit, but there are hundreds more. I’ve learned to quit projects that don’t work and allow myself to be consumed by my current fascination… until I’m no longer fascinated.
It isn’t necessarily the quitting that I got better at, I’ve been doing that my entire life. It was the negative perspective and emotions I had about quitting that I have completely changed my perspective about. 6
Instead of feeling guilt and shame for something that no longer worked in my life, I felt pride instead. Some of it had to do with learning about emotional boundaries, some of it had to do with becoming more confident in who I am and what works for me and what doesn’t. Most of that was the product of years of therapy and personal work.
But at the end of the day, I’m a quitter. I quit the things that no longer bring me joy. That joy doesn’t need to be life-long in order for it to be valid. And bringing it back to Marie Kondo, it’s okay to take that half-finished project, half-baked interest or something that you’ve thrown your life into, hug it close, thank it for what it taught you and then let it go.
No guilt. No shame.
Be a quitter. Make room for more joy in your life.
Questions for you:
- What is the hardest thing you’ve ever quit in your life?
- Where are you falling for the trap of sunk cost fallacy?
- What opportunities would you have missed if you hadn’t quit something else?