Business leaders struggle to let go of a million-dollar idea that just isn’t taking off. Mountaineers risk death in order to reach the summit. Athletes push their bodies to their limits despite injury, age and defeat. Employees persist with careers or roles that no longer serve them.
It’s difficult to know when to quit – take it from former professional poker player, Annie Duke. Knowing when to quit is not something to be decided on a whim. It’s a skill that needs to be developed in order to make the best decisions you possibly can when it comes to digging deep and sticking things out, or laying your cards down and walking away.
Now an author, corporate speaker and decision-making consultant, Duke uses her experiences as the only woman to have won the World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions and the NBC National Poker Heads-Up Championship to focus on the role that decision-making plays in our lives.
Her book, Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away (2022), explores the importance of quitting, and why our tendency to want to persevere is actually holding us back from success rather than leading us to it.
Here, she sat down with The Beautiful Truth to break down why we should all get a little better at cutting our losses.
TBT: Talk to us about the idea of ‘grit vs quit’, and why you decided to write about quitting.
Annie: People don’t really understand how important it is to have the option to quit. I only wrote a very brief exploration of quitting in my last book, but I realised afterwards that I kept returning to the topic. As a poker player I certainly understood the value of loss cutting; the option to fold is the whole game.
After reading and researching, I found that there’s a very strong confirmation bias against quitting. At which point I said: someone’s got to write a book that’s in conversation with the idea of grit – that’s the other side of the coin.
“The hardest thing to quit is who you are.”Annie Duke
Grit is incredibly important for working through adversity and challenges, but there is a false narrative that the people who persevere are the heroes of the story and the quitters are the losers. The result is that we stick to things that aren’t worthwhile because we think that it’s synonymous with character. I wrote the book to tell people: it’s okay to quit under the right circumstances.
TBT: What stops people from quitting?
Annie: Many people think that not having enough grit is the problem, but actually the larger issue is sticking to things for too long due to the cognitive biases around quitting: the sunk cost fallacy, the endowment effect, status quo bias, omission bias and even loss aversion. They all impact our decision making.
We have issues of mental accounting and often approach goals by grading them pass or fail: you either make it or you don’t. 20 miles of a marathon? You failed. No matter if you gained 20 miles, you still failed.
“There is a false narrative that the people who persevere are the heroes of the story and the quitters are the losers. The result is that we stick to things that aren’t worthwhile because we think that it’s synonymous with character.”Annie Duke
There are also issues of identity: when our positions and jobs start to define us, deciding to walk away and start afresh becomes incredibly difficult. The hardest thing to quit is who you are.
TBT: Where does uncertainty come into decision making and the idea of quitting?
Annie: When we decide to start something, we’re making that decision under uncertainty. There’s a lot of things that we don’t know and luck is going to be involved.
The problem is that when we see signals that we ought to quit, the decision is still made under uncertainty. When you choose to stop, you might also be thinking: ‘Maybe if I keep going it will work out.’ And, ‘What if the new thing doesn’t work out?’
Often we end up not quitting until we’re sure that it’s the only choice, but by that point it’s far too late. You’re already in the crevasse at that point.
We need to get to the quitting earlier because there’s huge opportunity costs that are involved with not switching. We think that quitting is going to stop our progress, but when we’re doing something that isn’t worthwhile, quitting speeds us up. It prevents us from wasting time on something and allows us to switch to an alternative that is worth our time.
If you actually want to achieve your goals more quickly, you have to be quitting at the right time.
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TBT: How can people improve their ability to know when to quit?
Annie: There are three strategies to help people know when to quit.
1. Kill criteria.
What are the signals that are telling me I ought to switch? Are there things happening that indicate my current situation is not going well? We often have the intuition to see those signals, but when we don’t act on them, we escalate our commitment to the failing situation.
A better strategy is to say, in advance: ‘What are the things that I could see that would make me change my mind?’ A simple example would be: ‘I don’t like my job’. Okay, so what are the things that you might see in the next two months that would tell you that things aren’t changing? And those would be your kill criteria.
“Often we end up not quitting until we’re sure that it’s the only choice, but by that point it’s far too late. You’re already in the crevasse at that point.”Annie Duke
You could add into that: ‘what are the things that I could do in the next two months that might help things to change?’ You can also take actions to try to make it better. And then you revisit in two months and if your boss is still toxic, leave, because at that point you’ve already decided.
2. Get outside help.
When you’re in it, you can’t see it very clearly. You need someone who can rationalise the situation. Find somebody who has your long term best interest at heart and give them permission to tell you the truth when you’re struggling with a decision about whether to walk away. And they’re generally going to make one that’s better than you.
That role is intuitive – I’m sure you have lots of friends where you think: ‘Why are you still doing that? You should quit.’ But you don’t speak up because they haven’t given you permission to do so yet. Having a conversation with people that you trust can open up that dialogue and aid in your decision making.
3. Reduce cognitive debris
Reducing the cognitive biases that cloud our judgement and decision making skills makes a huge difference. One example is the sunk cost fallacy. The faster you can determine whether it’s something worth pursuing, the better off you are – the lower the sunk cost, the easier it is to walk away.
If you’re trying to train a monkey to juggle flaming torches while standing on a pedestal, don’t build the pedestal first. Figure out if you can train the monkey. Because if you can’t do that, there’s no point in sinking time and energy into building the pedestal.
“Find somebody who has your long term best interest at heart and give them permission to tell you the truth when you’re struggling with a decision about whether to walk away.”Annie Duke
Many organisations or project managers follow the idea of tackling the low hanging fruit first. But those are pedestals. You shouldn’t do that until you figure out if you can get to the stuff at the top of the tree. Once you’ve done that, go and build a whole load of pedestals – but you should never tackle the low hanging fruit when you haven’t figured out if you can unlock the problem yet.
By starting with the hard thing first, you can get to the answer more quickly and subsequently get to the decision about quitting more quickly.