Quitting, failing and that awkward bit in the middle


This post was inspired by Josh Mabus’s TED talk on Quitting Versus Failing, in which he makes the distinction between failure, which is caused by circumstances outside our control, and quitting, which is a choice we make. When we’ve had a project that hasn’t worked out, I think this is a very important distinction.

If we attempt something and fail, we might feel sad; we might even judge ourselves negatively for not having the necessary skills, knowledge, time or resources to make a success of our project. But what we don’t feel is regret, because we don’t see how things could have gone any other way.

On the other hand, if we decide to quit our project, the emotions are very different. If we later come to regret our choice, we might feel frustrated with ourselves, we might feel angry with others who judge us negatively for our lack of staying power, and we might feel very motivated to try again. These are energizing emotions, in contrast to the depleting emotions triggered by failure.

But in between quitting and failure, there is a grey area. What happens when our project fails because we know deep-down that we didn’t give it our best shot? What happens when we think the reason we failed was because we didn’t try hard enough? The emotions that arise then are some of the most difficult to deal with. At the point the project fails, when we are forced to confront our lack of commitment, it’s too late. At that point, we are dealing with failure, not quitting, because by then we don’t have a choice about it. But this little voice inside us tells us that if we had just put in a bit more time, a bit more effort, taken a different approach, the outcome might have been very different.

It’s when we experience this sort of failure that it’s very easy to fall into the trap of being too hard on ourselves. We tell ourselves we are lazy or stupid for letting things get to this point. But criticizing ourselves for what is already done is not only bad for our mental health, it’s a waste of effort. We can’t change the past. A far better approach is to mindfully examine what happened, and to reflect on what it tells us about ourselves and on what we can learn from the experience.

If you feel you didn’t put enough effort into a project that was really important to you, it can be very illuminating to reflect on why that happened. What were you doing when you could have been working on your project? Why did you feel, at that moment, that the other activity was more important or more appealing than your project? Was your heart telling you that the project wasn’t that important after all, even though your head felt it was? Were you afraid of working on your project because you didn’t know how to move forward with it? Did you think your project was doomed to failure before you even started? Were you trying to avoid expending time and effort on something that might not work out? Were you reluctant to break out of your comfort zone?

By taking time to understand why you weren’t 100% committed to your project, you can gain valuable insight into what you should do next. If you discover that your project didn’t really matter to you – that you were embarking on it because you thought you should, or because you wanted to impress someone – then you might decide that the failure was a blessing in disguise, and you should move onto something else with no regrets. On the other hand, if you realise that you went about the project in the wrong way – that you didn’t plan it properly or didn’t make sure you had the skills and resources to succeed before you started – then you can decide to learn from your mistakes and have another go, safe in the knowledge that your initial failure has increased the chances that you will succeed this time. And if you find that you were reluctant to push outside your comfort zone, that you were afraid to succeed, you can remind yourself that the most rewarding experiences in life are the ones that don’t come easily. Life is a journey – we never know what’s around the next corner, but that’s not a reason not to take the next step, because the true joy of life is in the exploration of what is possible.

If you have failed at something because you didn’t fully commit to it, that could be a sign that it wasn’t meant to be, or it could be a sign that it’s going to be more challenging and more rewarding than you originally thought. Don’t dismiss it without careful reflection, because it could be that trying again is exactly what you were meant to do.



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