Month: April 2011

How to Quit Like a Champion

We are told, from the time we are old enough to understand, that we should never, ever quit.  Quitting is seen as a dangerous and worrisome character flaw, a toxic trait to be avoided at all costs. As Vince Lombardi concisely put it, winners never quit and quitters never win.

Okay, then why do so many great performers have histories of quitting, both on the large and small scale? Michelangelo and Leonardo were always quitting projects short of completion (there are entire collections devoted to their half-finished work).

Or businessmen like billionaire Richard Branson, who habitually starts dozens of new projects and ends up quitting most of them (anybody want to buy Virgin Megastores?).

Or there’s Michael Jordan, who quit basketball to play baseball, then quit baseball to go back to basketball.

Or President Harry Truman, who might have wound up a haberdasher if he didn’t have the foresight to quit. And don’t even get me started about great writers, who might be the most quit-happy group of all, a point that can be underlined with a quick glance at Mark Twain’s resume (riverboat pilot, printer, miner, newspaperman, etc.).

The point is, when you trace the paths of many top performers, you find very few straight lines. Beneath their forward progress is a churn of false starts, a steady drumbeat of quitting.

The key distinction, I think, is between quitting with a capital Q — giving up, throwing in the towel — and quitting with a small Q — which might more accurately be called “adapting.” The great performers are small-Q quitters. They quit strategically. They hit a wall, and try something else. They keep moving forward, in a telltale staccato rhythm.

I think this pattern gets at an important truth about persistence. We normally think of persistence as a kind of endless stubbornness. But that’s not it. Persistence is something more supple than that — it’s the quality of responding to dozens of different setbacks in dozens of new, different strategic ways. It’s not like climbing one long mountain — it’s more like climbing a bunch of short cliffs. Or, as Walter Elliott put it, “Perseverance is not a long race; it is many short races one after another.”

The key to persistence, then, is knowing when to quit one race and begin another — when to bail on an approach and start a fresh one. And high-quality quitting consists of two basic acts:

First, recognition. The act of realizing the current path isn’t working.  This is harder than it appears, especially if you’re emotionally invested in the approach. It’s easier if you think of recognition as re-cognizing — literally, rethinking. It’s not enough to see it — you have to think about it in a new way.

Second, creativity. The act of looking around and figuring out what to do instead. This, according to this paper on how great entrepreneurs think, has to do with effectual reasoning: you assess your strengths, and see how to combine them with the existing environment. In this view, persistence is not about following your pre-ordained destiny; it’s more like being a contestant on an episode of Iron Chef: you look at what you’ve got, and you start putting things together.

In all, I think there are two takeaways:

  • 1) Quality quitting involves a strategic mindset, not an emotional one. So be tactical: use a notebook, make lists, map out possibilities. This doesn’t come naturally because we tend to take our ventures deeply personally, until the very moment we quit — and then it’s best if we forget all about it. That’s weird and paradoxical (like pretty much every big truth in life), and like all those things, it’s probably best to acknowledge that it’s weird and paradoxical, not to think too much, and to move on.
  • 2) If it’s a new skill, give it a minimum of eight weeks before deciding to quit. That number keeps coming up, both in the science (see this study on how long it takes brains to change) and in the length of training programs of everybody from the classical musicians at Meadowmount to the Navy SEALs. Eight weeks appears to be a threshold time required for practice to build reliable new circuitry.

I would write more about this, but I’ll leave that to you commenters.  I quit!

(Hey, that feels pretty good!)

A Sneak Preview — and a Question

Quick personal update: I’m working on a new book with a fairly audacious goal: to compile the world’s best talent-development advice into a short handbook for teachers, students, athletes, musicians, parents, coaches, and pretty much anybody.

The book will be called The Little Book of Talent, and it will contain around 75 rules — one rule per page. The rules will address how to improve your practice, increase your motivation, and make the most of the limited time you have.

Here’s a sneak preview:

  • Rule: Remove Your Watch

When it comes to measuring practice, we reflexively obey clocks. We naturally presume that an hourlong practice is twice as good as a half-hour practice. This reasoning is faulty, because it creates the false expectation that you will succeed merely by filling the allotted time. Deep practice is not about time passing, but about the number of times you stretch yourself to the edge of your ability, make mistakes, and fix them. Studies show you can accomplish more learning in a deep 10 minutes than a shallow two hours.

So instead of counting minutes or hours, count your reaches.  Instead of saying, “I’m going to practice piano for 20 minutes,” instead tell yourself “I’m going to do five reps of that new song.”  Instead of planning to hit golf balls for an hour, plan to make 25 quality swings with each club.

  • Rule: Practice in Short Segments

TV executives who schedule commercials have long known what scientists are just figuring out: your natural span of attention is around ten minutes. Therefore, it’s smart to organize your practice into short, intense sessions with a quick breather in between. Using short segments creates a clarity of target, and avoids the pitfall of mushy, vague practice. (This is one of the reasons coach John Wooden set up his drills to last around ten minutes each.)

Divide your practice into segments, with each segment focused on reaching for one particular goal — a new move in your repertoire.  Don’t worry if you don’t perfect the move in that time — you can always come back to it. The point is not to get it perfect the first time, but to build a system that helps you improve steadily and systematically.

  • Rule: Be Willing to Be Stupid

Being willing to endure the emotional burn of failure is a prerequisite for improvement, since without it we are cut off from the wellspring of our progress: reaching, failing, and learning from our mistakes. As baseball Hall of Famer Lou Brock said, “Show me a guy who is afraid to look bad, and I’ll show you a guy I can beat every time.”

  • Rule: “Practice Begins When You Get it Right”

This is a saying from violin teacher Kimberly Meier-Sims, director of the Suzuki program at the Cleveland Institute of Music. I like it because it addresses the common misconception that our first moment of success represents the finish line.  To the contrary: getting it right is not the finish, but the beginning. It marks the moment when the real work begins; the moment when you begin (through reaching and repetition) the process of taking ownership of your skill.

  • Rule: Try Sh*t

Practicing the same thing over and over in exactly the same way seems like a smart thing to do. Problem is, it’s usually not. Studies show that variable practice — where you move around, experiment, try new things and see how they work — is far more effective than “blocked” practice with no variance.  A good example is basketball free throws, where practicing from variable distances produces skill far faster than practicing from the same distance every time.

The reason this works is that embracing variability helps us sharpen our control — our ability to make small, crucial changes to adapt our performance to the situation. When we make a habit of experimenting — when we try sh*t, and do it systematically — we are increasing our ability to modulate our performance.


Now comes the question. One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about writing this blog is the consistently high level of discussion that it generates — the comments, the emails, the links you share with me and the rest of the readers of this blog. So I feel compelled to ask: what nuggets of practical advice have worked best for you or for someone you know?  What other kernels of proven wisdom belong in this book?

Feel free to email me or, better, share your thoughts and ideas in the comments section below so others can use them too.  If I end up including your ideas in the Little Book, you will have both my ardent, heartfelt thanks as well as an inclusion in the book’s not-so-little acknowledgements section. Thanks!

PS — Let me start by thanking the remarkable Dr. Peter Vint of the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Performance Services Division — the “Try Shi*t” rule came from him.