This New Year, Resolve to Quit
Why grit isn't always good.
Like most people, I make New Year’s resolutions every year. Like most people, I don’t achieve them all. I probably quit half of them.
But you know what? I’m ok with that.
A few years ago, I came upon some interesting research on quitting. It suggests that learning when to deploy grit and when to quit is perhaps one of the toughest but most important skills a person can master. Let’s dive in.
Grit vs. Quit: The Difference
Most of us are familiar with the pitch of “grit.” Academics say it’s composed of “passion and persevere for long-term goals,” or basically just picking something you want to do and not quitting. It’s billed as the secret to success. As Angela Duckworth said about her grit research in a popular 2013 TED Talk, “One characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success. And it wasn’t social intelligence. It wasn’t good looks, physical health, and it wasn’t IQ. It was grit.”
The grit idea boomed partly because American culture loves underdogs but doesn’t celebrate quitters. The grit idea allowed us to toss aside IQ and innate talent and buy into a Horatio Alger-ish narrative that life’s winners worked at their goal harder and longer while the losers tapped out.
But recent research shows that grit is misunderstood. Scientists at Iowa State University analyzed 88 different studies on grit. They point out that:
1) Grit studies selectively choose the statistics that make grit seem far more powerful than it is.
2) The correlation between grit and success is only modest and not much better than many other measures of success.
3) Grit is another way of explaining a long-established psychological trait of “conscientiousness.” The Iowa State researchers claim grit is “old wine in new bottles.”
Despite all that, the hype around grit has led many to believe that never quitting is the secret to success. The concept has since been (very controversially) flowed into public school curriculums, picked up by NFL teams, and used by businesses and health care providers.
And it’s reinforced the idea that quitting kills all success. I agree that people often pull the plug too early when the going gets tough. One of my favorite quotes is, “breakthroughs happen on the verge of breakdowns.”
But quitting, paradoxically, can often be the best way to get ahead.
Quitting isn’t Always Easier
Scientists started thinking about the topic of grit while studying West Point cadets going through Beast Barracks. It’s a seven-week freshman boot camp-ish course. Despite the name, it’s not as intense as it sounds. Along with daily PT and marching, Beast Barracks also involves stuff like marksmanship, playing games like dodgeball, and religious services.
One of the most famous grit studies claims that the grittier West Point cadets were 99% more likely to make it through Beast Barracks. While that stat is true, it also lacks any meaningful context. The data, in reality, showed that 95% of all candidates made it through Beast Barracks, while 98% of the grittiest candidates did. Some years the attrition rate at Beast Barracks is only 2.5% (for more context, the college dropout rate nationwide is 40%. And that’s at low-stress party schools).
In fact, with the Beast Barracks passing rate being so high, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the quitting candidates showed up, realized that the military experience just wasn’t what they’d thought it would be, and made the conscious decision to bow out. A former West Point cadet agreed with me on this idea. The life of an Army Officer in movies is far sexier than all the stuff it takes to be an Army Officer.
Couldn’t one argue that the handful of cadets who dropped actually had more courage and emotional IQ? They had to exit the West Point gates, tail between legs, and return home and tell their friends and family that they quit one of the world’s most prestigious, hardest-to-get-into schools. There’s a lot of shame in that. But if military life wasn’t for them, can you blame them?
To understand when to quit, we need to realize that there are two types of quitting. I call the first type “short-quitting” and the second “long-quitting.”
My work in The Comfort Crisis shows that short-term discomfort often drives quitting. But this ultimately stops us from getting a long-term benefit. This is “short-quitting.” It’s quitting to avoid short-term discomfort at the expense of long-term benefits. For example, we might quit an hour-long workout at minute 15 because we’re tired. We escaped short-term discomfort but gave up long-term health benefits that would have come from sticking it out.
“Long-quitting” is the opposite. In it, we embrace short-term discomfort to improve our lives in the long run. In this case, not quitting will actually make our lives worse over time. Take the cadets who left West Point. A military career would have made them miserable. They, in fact, had to experience the short-term discomfort of public disgrace to gain the long-term benefit of living a life true to their innermost selves.
Long-quitting is vital in all kinds of contexts. For example, consider drug addiction. An addict must go through all kinds of hell and discomfort to get off drugs, but their life improves in the long term.
The Science of Quitting
The idea that there are two types of quitting was recently backed up by a team of researchers at the University of Southern California who wondered if grit has any downsides.
The scientists gathered 426 college students and assessed their grit with Duckworth’s Grit scale test. Participants then received a set of 37 anagrams and had to solve as many as possible in 20 minutes. The catch: 16 of the anagrams were unsolvable.
The result of the study: The “grittier” individuals completed fewer anagrams than the non-gritty ones. They got stubborn and sank their overall productivity.
This may seem like a contrived scenario. But similar situations often pop up in real life. Consider any timed test or day when we have a ton to do and not enough time to do it all. Success often requires that we make calculated decisions on what questions or tasks to quit to accomplish more overall.
The researchers point out that grittier individuals, “may not do as well on standardized tests like the SAT where success is improved if test-takers can pass over hard items to first identify and complete the easier items.”
Make Quitting a Skill
Instead of focusing on an overly simplistic “never quit” mindset, we should view quitting as a skill. As a series of decisions about efficiency and our intentions and objectives.
This takes honesty, courage, and an ability to see the long view—radical introspection about why we want to quit and what its consequences will be not just immediately but also weeks, months, and years from the moment of quitting.
And if the long view looks good? Raise that white flag. Or, you know, give up on that dumb New Year's resolution.
2% Top Two
My two favorite things this week:
1. This TikTok
I'm not on TikTok because I'm generally paranoid about Chinese spy technology. (I'm kidding ... sort of?) But Nat Eliason posted this viral video about The Comfort Crisis. Thanks for the love, Nat.
2. This Study on Lifting Weights
The takeaway: lift weights, die later. The scientist Stu Phillips explains, "This systematic review and meta-analysis provides the strongest evidence to date that resistance training is associated with reduced risk of all-cause, cardiovascular disease, and cancer-specific mortality." Also note that there's likely a point of diminishing returns. Most experts I speak with suggest lifting twice a week is a sweet spot for health and efficiency.
Thanks for reading and I'll see you next week,
Sponsored by GORUCK
When I decided to accept sponsorships for this newsletter, GORUCK was a natural fit. Not only is the company's story included in The Comfort Crisis, but I've been using GORUCK's gear since the brand was founded. Seriously. They've been around ~12 years and I still regularly use a pack of theirs that is 11 years old. Their gear is made in the USA by former Special Forces soldiers. They make my favorite rucking setup: A Rucker and Ruck Plate.