Nearly a decade ago, designer-turned-Microsoft-executive Liz Danzico wrote a blog post about her expertise at not finishing projects that today could be the prologue to Annie Duke’s new book Quit.
“I’ve quit gardening. I’ve quit German, the language, entirely. I’ve quit living in Japan,” Danzico wrote. ”If there is anything that has been successful in my life, it’s been the ability to recognize the need to quickly jettison a project, an idea, a thing, and move on.”
Danzico is known in her field for all that she’s completed. But her professional success is due, in part, to a high level of comfort with unrealized side projects. Honesty about this is rare in a culture that scorns switching directions or quitting, in Danzico’s telling: “We don’t celebrate stopping things, changing our paths, or our minds. Just the opposite. We celebrate finishing things.”
Duke champions this idea that we’re over-practiced in persisting through a project or job, even when it’s harmful. Duke, a former professional poker player who is now a consultant and author, might say that Danzico was just being picky about what she decided to stick to, and that more of us should practice such discretion. For Duke, waste is a forward-looking problem, not a backward-looking one: “Spending another minute or another dollar or another bit of effort on something that is no longer worthwhile is the real waste.” (p. 246)
Duke is out to rehabilitate quitting. Her reader is left with no question that our work culture needs a superior vocabulary to describe the act of strategically opting out: “Unlike grittiness, there aren’t that many positive words for quittiness, as evidenced by the absence of quittiness itself from the dictionary.” (prologue p. xx) She isn’t writing about “quiet quitting”—the current buzzwords for lowering your effort and emotional investment in your job—but rather intentionally, outwardly moving on.
Duke’s manifesto for quitting doesn’t fully acknowledge the extent to which people are already doing so—over 30 million Americans quit their jobs in the first eight months of this year alone, on top of the tens of millions who quit last year. She covers this Great Resignation only breezily over three pages. Our cultural openness toward quitting has increased in the time Duke was writing the book, but she treats business impacts of the pandemic as inconvenient to her argument.
Duke identifies how concerns about embarrassment, cowardice, and not leaving an impression or a legacy can keep us from moving toward more promising opportunities. But not quitting can be detrimental, as shown in an example of Olympian Lindsey Vonn incurring unrecoverable injuries before finally deciding to retire from skiing; ultimately the sacrifices she was bearing became too high (she was still criticized). Duke stresses that long-held beliefs and diligent effort aren’t enough when new information surfaces: “Sticking to something that’s no longer worthwhile is going to stop you from reaping the benefits that were the original reason for setting the goal in the first place, or it’s caused you to incur more costs that you were originally willing to bear.” (p. 240)
To identify when that’s the case, she suggests asking yourself: How would you make the decision today, knowing what you now know? “A lot of people who know about the sunk-cost fallacy tell me they’ve come up with a solution,” Duke writes. “Essentially, regardless of the history they have with the decision, they ask themselves, ‘If I were approaching this decision fresh, would I want to enter into this course of action?’” (p. 105)
Other approaches she recommends:
- Duke emphasizes the usefulness of setting “states and dates.” Combine a timeline and “an objective, measurable condition you or your project is in, a benchmark that you have hit or missed.” (p. 122) At Google’s moonshot factory Project X, “projects must have the potential to be 10x world-changing (a state), capable of becoming commercially viable (a state), within five to 10 years (a date),” Duke writes. (p. 122)
- Look at others’ trajectories to determine criteria for when you should divert from your career path. “Figure out as early as you can the interim milestones for those who succeed, whether it’s raises or initial promotions, or additional responsibilities, or whatever is specific in that company or practice,” Duke writes. (p. 125)
- Beware illusions of false progress. In academia, for example, there are a wide range of adjunct teaching and postdoctoral roles that can distract people who aren’t actually moving forward professionally. These “make it harder for people to quit, even when the signals are pretty strong that they should,” Duke writes. ”With every pedestal, you’re accumulating sunk costs, putting more time and effort into the endeavor.” (p. 124) She says that setting “state and date” benchmarks well in advance, then holding yourself to them, can help.
- Conduct a “pre-mortem” to come up with detailed criteria—sometimes known as “kill criteria”—for when you should stop an initiative. Try to project yourself into the future and imagine the project failed, and then think about the most likely reasons it might have failed. Look for criteria that you might otherwise overlook or rationalize, “the kinds of indicators of things not going well that intuitively we should pay attention to,” Duke writes. (p. 119)
- Enlist a quitting coach, or play the role of one for someone who needs an accountability partner. You can use famed Silicon Valley investor Ron Conway’s approach to uncomfortable-but-necessary conversations he has had with founders he invested in:
- “Step 1: Let them know that they think they should consider quitting.
- Step 2: When they push back, retreat and agree with them that they can turn the situation around.
- Step 3: Set very clear definitions around what success is going to look like in the near future and memorialize them down as ‘kill criteria.’
- Step 4: Agree to revisit the conversation, and, if the benchmarks for success haven’t been met, you’ll have a serious decision about quitting.” (p. 195)
Duke believes that employers should view firing as an important tool—effectively to “quit” on workers when, after reasonable effort to make things work, they’re not meeting business criteria. “There is a well-known heuristic in management consulting that the right time to fire someone is the first time it crosses your mind,” she writes. “The heuristic is meant to get businesses to the decision sooner, because most managers are reluctant to terminate personnel, hanging on to them for too long.” (p. 30)
She writes that workers should themselves regularly take calls from recruiters, even before looking for a new job: “One of the goals for all of us should be to, as much as possible, maximize the diversification of interests, skills, and opportunities in each of our portfolios.” (p. 222)
Duke looks at how leaders often struggle to quit activities they need to get out of. She compares Sears, a retailer that sold off its promising financial services operations, with Philips, a manufacturer of lighting, then electronics, and now medical equipment. Both were founded in the 1890s, then made very different decisions regarding what to split off from their core businesses and what to grow: “While Sears sold off its profitable assets to escalate its commitment to its core identity, retail, Philips did the opposite, announcing in 2014 that it was selling off its core lighting business to focus on its healthcare operations,” (p. 177) divesting and then finally selling off the rest of that business in 2019.
Duke writes that a constant for Philips was maintaining its origins as an innovation lab, developing new technologies and diversifying its product portfolio. This freed it to “quit opportunities of lesser quality” (p. 223) in favor of less well-established pursuits with higher expected (and ultimate) value. The takeaway: “quit everything else, to free up those resources so you can pursue your goals and stop sticking to things that slow you down.” (p. 178)
Many of Duke’s examples are dire, and she emphasizes the immense role that social pressure can play in both positive and negative outcomes. There are climbers and guides on Mt. Everest who agreed on the painful decision to descend just before reaching the summit after they hadn’t met turnaround time goals to be able to continue safely; other pairs tried to persevere in similar situations and perished. She tells of our collective tendency to persist in losing endeavors, such as America’s role in the Vietnam War, which came to increasingly be seen as a “living, breathing, high-stakes, slow-motion train wreck of an example of our inability to quit.” (p. 79) She doesn’t mention failing to act in the face of climate change, though it meets much of the same criteria.
Duke, who was a leading money winner among women in World Series of Poker history, writes that “optimal quitting might be the most important skill separating great players from amateurs.” (p. 18) “Deciding which hands are worth playing and which hands are not is the first and most consequential choice a player makes,” Duke writes. ”Playing every hand you are dealt is an easy and fast way to go broke since you would be playing too many hands that aren’t profitable in the long run” (p. 19). It only gets harder to fold with more money committed to the pot, of course, but successful pros become seasoned at looking beyond their current hand. “A necessary part of succeeding in poker is to fold some hands that still might have won,” Duke writes. “To be good at the game you just have to learn to live with that.” (p. 19)
To be sure:
- Quit assumes that readers have a level of financial privilege and alternative options that make quitting their jobs or investments possible. Duke should have better acknowledged that quitting is a luxury not available to everyone.
- The Great Resignation is an example of widespread quitting that Duke—perhaps if the timing of writing her book had been different—could have better acknowledged and integrated into her argument.
- Duke is best at business and sports examples; an extended analogy about monkeys and pedestals falls flat in her otherwise-capable hands.
- “Unlike a committed relationship, in just about anything else, whether it comes to your education, your career, or hobbies, or even the route you take to work, the amount of explorations you’re doing should never go to zero. Diversification doesn’t just afford you a softer landing if you’re forced to quit. It also helps you make more rational decisions about walking away from something that’s no longer worth pursuing.” (p. 223)
- “One of the steps to becoming a better quitter is not to accept ‘I’m not ready to make a decision right now’ as a sentence that makes sense. At every moment in your life, you have a choice about whether to stay or whether to go. When you choose to stay, you are also choosing not to go. When you choose to quit, you are also choosing not to continue. It’s crucial to start realizing that those are the same, active decisions.” (p. 152)
- “Hiring is a much more uncertain decision than most people want to believe…What mitigates the risk associated with such an uncertain decision is that employers have the option to let employees go, just as employees have the option to quit. Of course, that means you have to be good at exercising that option.” (p. 31)
- “Silicon Valley is famous for mantras like ‘move fast and break things’ and implementing them through strategies like ‘minimum valuable product.’ These types of agile strategies can only work if you have the option to quit. You can’t put out an MVP unless you have the ability to pull it back. The whole point is to get information quickly, so you can quit the stuff that isn’t working and stick with the things that are worthwhile or develop new things that might work even better. Quitting is what allows companies to maximize speed, experimentation, and effectiveness in highly uncertain environments.” (p. 12)
- “It’s easier to walk away when you know what you’re walking toward.” (p. 223)
The bottom line is that Quit includes a useful combination of anecdotes, research, tips, and summaries, successfully combining plentiful theories (e.g. sure-loss aversion, prospect theory, escalation commitment) with examples of businesses like Philips that successfully divested from industries they were known for. One of Quit’s most resonant, if chilling, findings is from academic economists Richard Zeckhuaser and William Samuelson that individuals overwhelmingly stick with the status quo: “We are much more bothered by the downside potential of changing course than we are by the downside potential of staying on the path we’re already on.” (p. 151) Duke lays out a clear approach for how you can avoid this trap.
You can order Quit at Bookshop.org or Amazon. (We may earn a commission if you purchase a book through these links.)
Read a transcript of a recent interview with Duke on the podcast “A Slight Change of Plans.” Listen to her recent appearance on the Slate podcast “Working.”
The handbook for this new era of business doesn’t exist. We’re all drafting our own as we go along—and now we’d like to start doing so together. You can sign up here to receive this briefing by email.