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Balancing Perseverance with Walking Away

Growing up we’ve probably all heard the words of wisdom, “A quitter never wins, and winners never quit.” “Never give up.” “A winner is just a loser who tried one more time.” And of course, the contradictory wisdom, “You have to know when to cut your losses.” “Don’t throw good money and time after bad.” There’s also the Chinese proverb, “Of all the stratagems, to know when to quit is the best.”

When you find yourself on the fence (we’ve all been there), what do you do? Maybe it’s a job you’re wrestling with, or a project, or a business you’re struggling with, or (an even tougher one) a relationship that’s getting rocky. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a “one size fits all” answer? Of course it would. Alas, no such luck. Here are some simple ideas to help you determine your path.

Do a simple cost-benefit analysis. This is most effective when you actually take the time to write it down, making it visual. List all the benefits of persevering. Be careful that you aren’t just fantasizing (think data, not hopes and dreams). Then list all of the costs of persevering. Now, one of the key things on this list can be very difficult to determine: the opportunity cost. Opportunity cost refers to all of the things you could do with your time and money and energy if you let this thing go. For example, let’s say you have five dollars. As soon as you decide to spend that five dollars on something, your opportunity cost is all of the other things you may have bought with that same five dollars.

One difficulty with opportunity cost is that it is sometimes unknown and therefore difficult to pin down or define. Nonetheless, it is important to acknowledge that letting go of something might well create the space for what you really want to find its way into your life. The other critically important thing to consider is the opportunity cost of your time. Time is the one thing we cannot make more of, so you need to consider this seriously. What is the time cost, and the opportunity cost of that time? Once you have done the benefits and costs of persevering you must then do the benefits and costs of walking away.

Do a probability analysis. What is the probability of this succeeding? The probability is based on how you define success in the given situation. List all of the things that would be evidence of success. Then, for each item, assign a probability of this becoming reality. A good rule of thumb here is to assign a probability and then reduce it by 10-15%. If that doesn’t land you somewhere above 70% you might be clinging too much to your wishes.

Is your heart in it? If your heart is 100% all-in and you are totally committed you can probably overcome a lot of obstacles and challenges. We are all aware of anecdotal stories of people doing the seemingly impossible. I would be willing to wager however, that in these cases a lot of the above analysis would have actually supported a significant probability of success. But keep in mind that there are plenty of stories of folks running very passionately headlong into their ruin.

If the decision to persevere or walk away is a difficult one, nothing is going to make it easy. Going through the above exercises may clarify things and make your decision more apparent. At the very least, you will have considered both your heart and your head, your emotions and the information, and the subjective and objective viewpoints. If you have someone you can trust to be objective, not invested in the decision one way or the other, it can be very helpful to involve them.

Applying these tools can help you avoid having your strength (a strong sense of perseverance) turn into a painful and costly weakness. As hard as it is to do, knowing when to walk away and embrace the freedom and opportunity that comes with letting go can be the most powerful move you can make.

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