Stickability – resilience – is considered a virtue. We all love stories about people not quitting in the face of adversity. But are there times when our love of ‘not quitting’ stops us from taking care of ourselves?
Resilience vs not quitting: two stories
For example, one of my students recently told me about how they spent years learning a musical instrument that they came to loathe. But they didn’t quit – they kept playing even after the joy had gone because they didn’t want the instrument to win. The student wanted to prove mastery; they wanted to prove they were a person who didn’t quit.
I did a similar thing with my PhD. Some time into my research, I came to realise that I hated what I was doing. Worse, I came to realise that I no longer wanted to follow the career in academia that I’d initially desired, which made the degree much less relevant to my future and the struggle far less meaningful. But I valued not being someone who quits things, and so I kept going in spite of the physical and psychological harm I was experiencing.
Resilience and not quitting are not the same
I’m never going to knock resilience as a high positive value. We know from the field of positive psychology that resilience – grit – is a key predictor of success. Choosing not to quit when the going gets tough, but to keep with a challenging process in order to achieve a desired goal is a great skill. But that isn’t what we are talking about here.
When my student didn’t quit music lessons, and when I didn’t quit my degree, we were indulging in a behaviour that isn’t really resilience. We were blindly adhering to a value or belief structure even in the face of compelling evidence that we were hurting ourselves while working for a goal we no longer valued. This is what FM Alexander referred to as a ‘rigid habit of mind’ and said was the cause of many demonstrable evils. In my case, it led to a real struggle with my mental health that took a long time to heal.
Borrowing FM’s idea of travel analogies, refusing to quit in the face of evidence that you’re engaged in the wrong activity is a bit like this. Imagine you’re in the car, driving along the M4. You want to go to London, but you’re heading west (international readers: this is a bad move!). You drive past Bristol, past Cardiff. You realise that you’re heading the wrong way, but you don’t turn around. Instead, you keep driving all the way to St David’s (on the west coast of Wales) just to punish the road. And the further you go, the angrier you get at the road for not taking you where you want to go.
In this story not quitting in spite of compelling evidence sounds like a form of madness, and something to be laughed at. But isn’t this a form of madness that we all indulge in sometimes? It’s not for nothing that at the beginning of the chapter where FM talks about rigidity of mind, he quotes Allen Upward as saying:
“The man who has so far made up his mind about anything that he can no longer reckon freely with that thing, is mad where that thing is concerned.”
So when do you stick, and when do you quit?
That’s a tough question, and there’s no single right answer. But a clear-sighted analysis of the costs and the benefits of what you’re doing, carried out regularly, is going to help you avoid the rigid thinking that is so dangerous. You can try asking yourself these questions:
- How much am I suffering?
- Is the short-term cost worth the long term gain? In other words, is the goal I’m heading for one that I truly desire?
- Is it possible to stop temporarily to give myself a break? (This is what I should have done with my PhD)
- Do I love what I’m doing, in spite of the suffering?
- Is there anything that I haven’t considered – an alternative that I haven’t seen yet?
Only you can decide if you’re following the right path; just don’t let yourself fall into rigid thinking and find yourself going to a place you don’t want.
 See Duckworth, A., Grit, London, Vermilion, 2016, for a discussion on the experimental findings around resilience and success.
 Alexander, FM., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Irdeat complete ed., p.52.
 ibid., p.51.