A beginner’s guide to perfect disengagement
In the spring of 1994 I left my job as a library assistant in Manhattan and became a serious student of the quit. I was 24 at the time, and until that point the idea of quitting had never even crossed my mind. I had yet to appreciate the power of the quit as a force of (human) nature, a force not to be taken lightly.
I had been craving some kind of upheaval, but my fear of the unknown had been keeping me from bolting. In the end, though, despair about my dead-end situation overtook my fear of change. After resigning my job, I quit my apartment, my boyfriend, and most of my worldly possessions. Then I threw what was left in the back of my pickup and quit New York City. When my favorite green sweater flew off the bed of the truck somewhere in Nevada, I chalked it up to a passive quit and drove on, singing “These Boots Are Made for Walking” at the top of my lungs. Every mile marker was an accomplishment, every state line a feather in my quitter’s cap.
I had used the polyquit to change my life. In the process, the quitting way became my central focus, and I began to see how whenever a bridge is burned, there’s a quitter who lit the match. Moving on, cutting losses, getting fed up: These are not only euphemisms for the quit, they are quitter mainstays.
When I arrived at my new address in Port Angeles, Washington, albeit without the benefit of my favorite green sweater, I created a life in which no barriers to quitting were tolerated: I signed no lease, started no love affair, and took a job as a waitress, which is nothing if not highly quittable. I acquired no kitchen equipment, did not hang a single picture on the wall; none of the bills were in my name. In the absence of the things that had formerly defined and given structure to my life—the companion, the job, the permanent address—I made a home of impermanence and nonattachment. For inspiration, I turned to Emerson, who said that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
From my new vantage point, I discovered a world full of quitters. Some came to visit and plot upcoming quits. Others told me amusing stories of dramatic quits they had witnessed. It became clear to me that sympathy for the quitting way is widespread and growing. There is a whole army of potential quitters out there ready to march, albeit each in a different direction.
Quitting is a hallowed American tradition: The country was settled by Puritans, a group of separatists who quit England. The Declaration of Independence is a quitter’s document. Westward expansion was one big locational quit.
Nevertheless, the art of quitting has long been undervalued. Quitters are slandered and accused of laziness, and bromides such as “Keep your nose to the grindstone” and “Give it time” have all but supplanted the vast wisdom of frustration and impetuosity. This is offensive to me. Quitting demands a great deal of time, attention, and energy; it is an active, not a passive, act. My goal is to reclaim the quitter’s good name, to encourage quitters everywhere to continue their noble work, to quit and keep on quitting.
No matter what the inspiration, quitting takes a lot of work. The smug security of the anti-quitter must be avoided at all costs. The first step is to consider the panoply of quitting options:
Most quitters begin with a measure of native talent, but even the most gifted quitters need working methods. Style is everything. Some quitters are born with it; others have to learn it, sometimes embarrassingly, by trial and error. For those in search of a quitting style, or bored with the one they’ve been using, here are some techniques to add to your repertoire. Remember, the cardinal rule is this: Always quit while you can, but consider quitting the minute it crosses your mind.
1. Be Reasonable
This maneuver is good for beginners and for insecure quitters who worry about seeming flaky or childish. Calmly outline all the reasons you should quit whatever activity is coming up on your quitting screen. Be really grown-up about the whole thing. If you are quitting your job, write a detailed letter explaining your rationale, then arrange a meeting with your boss and deliver the news in a sober manner. If you are quitting your lover, sit down and explain reasonably that it’s over. Do not scream and yell.
2. Change Horses Midstream
Don’t be intimidated by the anti-quitter’s fixation with consistency. Don’t worry about seeing things through or sticking with your original plan. Take your inspiration from Michael Jordan, who quit basketball at the height of his career to play minor league baseball only to turn full circle the following year and return to the hardwood.
3. Quit Bit by Bit
If you need to ease into a locational quit, stop checking the weather report for your city or town. Quit reading the local newspaper. Quit voting in local elections. Stop writing your return address on correspondence. Quit telling people where you live. Quit spending time at home. Move.
If you can’t get it together to leave your husband, do it one step at a time. Quit using his last name. Quit referring to him as your husband. Stop sleeping in the same bed. Stop wearing your wedding ring. File for divorce.
4. Achieve and Vanish
This ploy often makes quitting history. The master of them all was Bobby Fischer, who quit playing chess and vanished for 17 years after winning the world championships. Like J.D. Salinger before him, Fischer rendered absurd the anti-quitter cliché “Quitters never win and winners never quit.”
5. Repudiate Your Ideas
Disown opinions for which you once would have gone to the wall. Meticulously enumerate every little way in which you were mistaken. Apologize for your previous wrongheadedness. Reject the truth as you once conceived of it, even if you have converted other people or written manifestos on the subject and signed them with your own blood. Be like Ludwig Wittgenstein. Write a whole book completely contradicting your original philosophy, just to set the record straight.
6. Deny Involvement
This trick of the trade allows the quitter total freedom. In the face of denial, the reality of your situation is totally immaterial. In order to employ this technique properly, you will be forced to ignore the truth and, sometimes, to lie outright. Deny ever having signed the lease to your apartment, much less crossed the threshold. Claim you have never heard of the company you work for. Say that you never even applied to the college you are dropping out of. Insist that you’ve never met the person you are married to.
Keep in mind that using this technique will inspire intense animosity and suspicion in other people. Other high-impact, potentially hostile quitting techniques like the Bridge Burn and Make a Scene are child’s play compared to this one.
7. Take to Your Bed
This technique is helpful for the quitter at the end of his or her rope. It is suitable for use in quitting ideas (such as the notion that anything matters), hope for the future, and optimism of any kind. When despair is the operative emotion attending the quit, this is the appropriate technique.
Collapse in a heap of depression and disillusionment, driven to your bed in a sweep of psychic exhaustion. Realize everything is hopeless. Intend never to emerge. While opting out is a staple of the quitting way, this particular incarnation of the notion requires a somewhat sedentary nature. Athletic quitters should take to their beds with caution.
Some quitters do their best work taking to their beds. Marcel Proust is a good example. He took paper and pen with him and wrote Remembrance of Things Past.
Many quitters experience a kind of exhilaration, known as quitting euphoria, once they’ve made their move. Unfortunately, this eventually fades, and some have a hard time adjusting to the depression and feelings of worthlessness that inevitably follow. Combating postquit ennui takes some creativity. One neat trick is to tell everyone you know that you’ve quit. If everyone you know already knows this, tell them again. Another trick is to think about quitting something else. For the sake of clarity, think about quitting something you like and have no intention of quitting. If you’re madly in love, think about leaving; if you live in a beautiful house, think about moving; if you’re reading a great book, think about putting it down. Thinking about quitting will remind you of how motivating the beginning stages of the quitting process are—and will eventually spur you on to quit again.
Sometimes, though, the best antidote for the postquitting blues is to get to the root of the problem: Quit the pursuit of happiness altogether. This is one of the more head-bound quits, and it can be something of a turnoff for the quitter accustomed to dramatic farewells. Quitting the pursuit of happiness (love, romance, fame, fortune, the glamorous life) essentially means quitting the belief that things will get better. It demands that you live in your allotted time with the hand that you’ve been dealt. The situation won’t necessarily improve and time may not heal all wounds. There are no guarantees. Quitting is its own reward.
Evan Harris is the author of The Quit (Fireside/Simon and Schuster), from which this article is adapted.