From the bestselling author of Thinking in Bets comes a toolkit for mastering the skill of quitting to achieve greater success
Business leaders, with millions of dollars down the drain, struggle to abandon a new app or product that just isn't working. Governments, caught in a hopeless conflict, believe that the next tactic will finally be the one that wins the war. And in our own lives, we persist in relationships or careers that no longer serve us. Why? According to Annie Duke, in the face of tough decisions, we're terrible quitters. And that is significantly holding us back.
In Quit, Duke teaches you how to get good at quitting. Drawing on stories from elite athletes like Mount Everest climbers, founders of leading companies like Stewart Butterfield, the CEO of Slack, and top entertainers like Dave Chappelle, Duke explains why quitting is integral to success, as well as strategies for determining when to hold em, and when to fold em, that will save you time, energy, and money. You'll learn: How the paradox of quitting influences decision making: If you quit on time, you will feel you quit early What forces work against good quitting behavior, such as escalation commitment, desire for certainty, and status quo biasHow to think in expected value in order to make better decisions, as well as other best practices, such as increasing flexibility in goal-setting, establishing "quitting contracts," anticipating optionality, and conducting premortems and backcasts Whether you're facing a make-or-break business decision or life-altering personal choice, mastering the skill of quitting will help you make the best next move.
Annie is the co-founder of The Alliance for Decision Education, a non-profit whose mission is to improve lives by empowering students through decision skills education. She is also a member of the National Board of After-School All-Stars and the Board of Directors of the Franklin Institute. In 2020, she joined the board of the Renew Democracy Initiative.
Quickly reviewing the reviews, I am not certain that every reader focuses on the real point of this book. It is a good book that explores some old terrain, covered in a new way, and some new terrain that is important for those of us making commitments of one sort or another.
It is by no means, as one reviewer suggested, a self-help book. Ms Duke is too much of a scientist for that. Should recognition of one more component of decision making help us? Of course. But I don't think Ms Duke set out to write a best selling self-help book. I think that her goal was to say "here are a few of the obvious psychological speed bumps that we commonly hit on our way to intelligent decisions. If you can keep the possibility of those decisions traps in mind, you may find your way to a more productive process, and even possibly, a higher "expected value" to your decisions."
I think she accomplishes that, and the book will remain on my list of books to return to, again.
I think there is a major distinction between when to quit and when to stick. During my years in top notch grad school working towards my phd I have seen people who quit too often and people who should have quit a lot sooner. Listening to the author and looking back at my experience I would say it probably come down to two points 1 have you thought it thru? It doesn’t guarantee you to make a right decision but it allows you to deal with the consequences better (either quitting or not) 2 what is at stake? And what are the odds you can make it? If it is something at high stakes and probability is not at your favor, (eg like gambling or building a startup) quit asap when things go sour
A few take away from the author Have a kill criteria, which is about setting a milestone to hit with a deadline attached; thinking ahead of what signs one might see as things going poorly/well
One favorite quo”we tend to be more rational when you are thinking ahead than we are actually at the moment
This was a well written, interesting case for the many reasons people need to reconsider the benefits of quitting early when something is costing them more than its worth (time, money, happiness, etc). The author presents a series of examples supporting her thesis, from Mount Everest climbers who failed to turn back in time to Mohammed Ali who retired too late, among many others. Recommended for fans of Malcolm Gladwell or anyone struggling with a job that is making them unhappy and need help finding the courage to quit. Good on audio.
I don’t have words to describe how much I loved this book, but I’ll give it a try. I was fortunate enough to get an early review copy of Annie Duke’s latest book, and I binged it over the weekend. Annie’s original book Thinking in Bets was the first book to introduce me to cognitive psych and better thinking, and I’ve been in love with the topic ever since. The problem is that there are so many books on making decisions, but so few of them dedicate any time to discussing when to quick. The second I heard Annie was writing this book, I had to read it.
Annie does an incredible job discussing the importance of quitting and makes clear that we need to get rid of our preconceived ideas that quitting is a sign of failure. As usual, throughout the book, in addition to discussing studies and research, she gives real-life examples. In some cases, people could have died had they not quit.
I’m someone who is constantly working on new projects and doing multiple side hustles, so opportunity costs are a big deal to me. Annie’s book is everything I could have hoped for and more, and now I have some better strategies for choosing when to quit. While there are definitely studies she references that people will be familiar with, she makes them feel fresh by discussing how we can use this information to know when to quit.
Did not enjoy this one; it was very repetitive and seemed like an overly padded blog post. This is also one of those books where the author chooses studies to support their theses but only provides high level descriptions, which always makes me wonder how well the study was designed and if the results might've been misconstrued or misrepresented. Impossible to tell from the descriptions.
About halfway through the book I started to question if all this was by design, like some sort of meta concept to try to force me to quit reading, thereby proving the author's point that humans are bad at knowing when to quit? That would've been hilarious and awesome to have that be the last chapter. Like, wow, you're still here? But no, it was just a poorly written book.
(3.5) I loved the concept & got a really good life lesson out of it (have "kill criteria" prepared in advance for any situation you might need to quit - a list of "if this happens, I'm out") - but the rest felt like a blog post straaaaained into a book. It was heavy on anecdotes (some repeated multiple times) and light on actual advice. I love Annie Duke & I'll always read her stuff, but this felt unfinished.
10/5 Stars from me. Standing ovation! This is, to date, the most informative and well written self guidance book I have read. Perhaps it's the timing; I do say books find a person at the appropriate time. Completely transformed the way I look and value decision making and quitting. Love the chapters on making a 'kill criteria', and 'Monkeys and Pedestals'; both of which I have already started implementing in my new job, and concepts that I am sharing with others. A necessary read; one that I will be recommending to many.
"The beauty of having the option to quit is that it makes it easier for us to make decisions under uncertainty. Whenever we make a decision, whether it's starting a race, or starting up a mountain, or starting a business, or starting a relationship, we're making that decision with incomplete information in a world that's stochastic. We're under the influence of luck. The world can change. We can change. For almost anything that we choose to believe or choose to do, we'll have the option to change our mind or walk away at some point in the future. When we face that decision, we'll generally have much better information than at the time we made the original choice to start. But the option to quit is only helpful if we actually use it. ..." (p235)
"When we worry that quitting means we've failed, what exactly are we failing at? If you quit something that's no longer worth pursuing, that's not failure. That's a success. The way we naturally think about failure is to have stopped something short of the goal, as in failing to make it to the finish line. But if you're continuing to pursue something that's no longer worth pursuing, isn't that failure? How do we start to redefine that and think about failure as failing to follow a good decision process? Success means following a good decision process, not just crossing a finish line, especially if it is the wrong one to cross. That means appropriately following kill criteria, .... and recognising that the progress we've made along the way counts for a lot" (p245)
As Stevo’s Novel Ideas, I am a long-time book reviewer, member of the media, an Influencer, and a content provider. I received this book as a free review copy from either the publisher, a publicist, or the author, and have not been otherwise compensated for reviewing or recommending it. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
This book was Stevo's Business Book of the Week for the week of 10/23, as selected by Stevo's Book Reviews on the Internet and Stevo's Novel Ideas. From a former professional poker player and the bestselling author of "Thinking in Bets" comes a toolkit for mastering the skill of quitting to achieve greater success.
It's been a great few months for my "Stevo's Business Books of the Week" selections, as many of them are books that I wish I had read in the early years of my career, which is good news for those who are there now. Annie Duke's "Quit" is one of those titles, as I have been guilty of over-staying in at least two cases, while I watched my co-workers successfully jump from company to company.
As Duke says (and I am a poster-child for it), we are horrible quitters. We see the clear indications that things need to change, yet we still hang on. Like me, you are a workaholic and don't have time to look for a new job, much of your identity is tied to your current job, or you lack the funds to start looking after you quit (thinking, "what if I don't get any offers for a long time").
Duke's tells us that we need to start thinking about quitting shortly after we are hired. We should create a scenario that helps us leave on our terms when the time comes. And we won't be thought of as traitors because smart companies want us to leave when we feel our contributions have leveled off, or even a little before that.
The gem in "Quit" comes from Duke's studies in cognitive psychology. The timing of your worklife decisions are always governed by levels of uncertainty. Not having the option to quit in your arsenal can paralyze you from progressing in your career. You need to give yourself permission to stop doing what's not working and focus on what is.
There are so many books out there telling us how to keep doing our current work - which Duke calls "Grit," - her book is a refreshing reminder that the time will come to move your garden to another plot, and successful moving comes from both mental and physical preparation.
Find more Business Books of the Week on my Goodreads Listopia page at https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/9..., and find many more reviewed and recommended books and products by searching for me on Google.
Annie Duke has produced a second book on an essential life skill, in this case, knowing when to quit. As with many pop psych and self-help books, the core thesis is easy to distill, has a lot interesting ramifications, and then needs to back its claim up with rigor. This book attends to all of them. You will likely be able to find interviews and summaries and they are worth reading, but the book itself also well done. In the case of the audiobook, the author reads it and the emphasis feels useful.
Core claims: *We teach people that perseverance is an important skill, which it is, but continuing past the point where one should quite is a waste of time and resources and can be potentially fatal. *Get someone to help you determine when you should quite, what Duke calls a quitting coach. We are very bad at treating a situation as if it's new and genuinely need outside opinions to make sense of the world. *Set up kill conditions and quit criteria ahead of time. We frequently phrase goals as "I will x" but we should be in the habit of adding phrases like "unless" to them. Goals focus on end state whereas qualifiers focus on process. *We'd do much better to look at how we've done compared to our starting point as opposed to compared to our end goal. In most cases, any progress is great even if we don't reach our intended goals. *Every time we put off choosing, that's functionally identical to proactively choosing our current course. We have a strong bias towards what we consider the default and we should be mindful of this. *Our time and resources are finite, quitting allows us to get onto the next thing. *Life is an explore/exploit tradeoff and explore should never go to zero. No matter how much we want something, gamechanging events can always come in and preclude us from getting what we want and we should be prepared to do something else.
These points may seem obvious but that comes tied with the question of "if they're so obvious, why do people seem to so thoroughly ignore them?" The examples given are wonderful. I heartily endorse this book.
"You gotta know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away, and know when to run. Notice that three of those four things are about quitting. When it comes to the importance of cutting your losses at poker, Rogers got it." Author Annie Duke shows in this well researched and accessible book that the best decision-makers are the best quitters. Quitting is hard. Quitting means being ok with not know how things may have turned out. So bad are we at quitting that when we do quit on time, it will feel like we have quit too early. Yet ours is a culture that celebrates "sticking at it"; nobody celebrates the people who turn around when the summit was in sight. We all know to watch out for the sunk costs fallacy - yet studies show knowledge of this fallacy confers little immunity to it. When we quit something we often stop tracking how it goes - and so we deprive ourselves of half the information relevant to our decisions. Despite being a well written book on an interesting topic, I'm just not a huge fan of this genre; I find they can get repetitive and I get tired of the anecdotes that begin every chapter. This book was no exception - I wondered several times whether I should quit. Anyway, I’m torn on whether or not to recommend this book. It helpfully diagnoses why we are so bad at quitting and yet perhaps I should have quit or just read the summaries at the end of each chapter. Sunk costs fallacy perhaps?
Highly recommend this read! This is one of the best reads in awhile. This book is a game-changer.
This is a must-read for ALL - Great stories, examples, and practical advice. Here is a teaser of tips:
Figure out the hard thing first. Try to solve that as quickly as possible. Beware of false progress. Be picky about what you stick to. Persevere in the things that matter, that bring you happiness, and that move you toward your goals. Quit everything else, to free up those resources so you can pursue your goals and stop sticking to things that slow you down. When you set a goal, creating a list of kill criteria gives you the unlesses that you need to be more rational about when it’s the right time to walk away. Create strong pre-commitment contracts that set out how we’re going to follow through on those kill criteria. Work to identify the monkeys and pedestals. Keep checking back in on the cost-benefit analysis that the goal is a proxy for. Anticipate as many scenarios that might unfold as possible.
We need to recognize that quitting is a skill. And we need to get good at it.
Some of the same behavior that helps us thrive (through grit, determination, and stick-to-itiveness) end up causing our failure (through inflexibility, intractability, and maybe even some hubris).
Also, the author doesn't seem to fully understand the sunk-cost fallacy. Don't get me wrong--the sunk cost fallacy is a true principle, and we need to understand it--but one of the author's examples mistakenly applies the principle. She gives an example of a power plant. When the power plant was half-way built and way over time & budget, she talks about how the builders were blind to the fact that if they could start over, knowing then what they know now, they wouldn't have tried to build the plant.
But this misses an important key--at that point, they had half a power plant built. So the question isn't "If you could start over now, would you try to build a power plant?" The question is, "If you had to start now, would you build the second half of a power plant?"
Example: Let's say, for simplicity's sake, your two options, Plant 1 and Plant 2 will have the exact same output and ongoing costs. So the only question is construction cost. Now let's say you think:
Plant 1 will take 10 years to build and cost $10 billion. Plant 2 will take 12 years to build and cost $12 billion.
So under these assumptions, you go with Plant 1. But then, 8 years into the project, you find you are halfway done but have already spent $10 billion. According to the author, you should not take into account the past 8 years when making the decision, because it's a sunk cost. Therefore, abandon this project because it's way more costly than you anticipated.
But the problem is, you still need a power plant. So if you abandon Plant 1, your only choice is to move on to constructing Plant 2--which means starting from scratch. So looking forward, if everything goes to plan--that means your cost for Plant 2 will be $12 billion and 12 years.
On the other hand, if you don't mistake the fact that you've already built half a plant as a sunk cost (because it isn't). Then you should continue with Plant 1 because even though it turned out the total cost of Plant 1 was more than Plant 2, by the time you came to that realization, you only have the second half left to complete. And the second half of Plant 1 would be $10 billion in 8 years--much cheaper than starting over with Plant 2.
Listened to the audiobook which was read by the author. I liked how the chapters were unique and each covered different aspects and tools to use to make decisions. These tools can be used in many life situations from jobs to personal goals, sports and even relationships. I also liked the real examples and stories she used in explaining the various tools; mountain climbers, basketball coaches and many business examples. She also discussed the great resignation of 2021 during COVID and her theory on why it occurred which made me look at it a bit differently as her theory completely makes sense.
I felt how the author framed quitting as not a negative but a positive “smart” decision in many situations was a very important message. Walking away at the right time is not giving up.
Many of the stories are familiar since they have been mentioned by well-known economists/psychologists such as Richard Thaler, Daniel Kahnemen, Amos Tversky, and Steven Levitt. Much of the content feels like other concepts repackaged from a "quitting" perspective. For example, you go to a concert in a rainstorm because you paid for the tickets. However, if a friend offered you free tickets, you would not go. Your decision should be the same (ignore the sunk cost of the tickets). For readers who aren't familiar with these concepts, this book would provide a good introduction to decision-making and quitting.
Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away is now one of my favourite books. Not only is it interesting and well-written, but I believe it is one of the most important books of our time. I’ve only ever known this historical period (now) where failure has never been an option. But if you, like me, think maybe there is something wrong with that old “adage,” you’ll want to read this book. Author and former professional poker player Annie Duke tells the story of quitting as a decision-making tool, one we’ve long undervalued and ignored. She makes the case for quitting; explains why it feels so hard to quit; introduces us to the cognitive biases and identity attachments that keep us from quitting when we really should; and throughout, shares inspiring stories, including her own, of when winners quit, and, in doing so, ultimately succeed.
I only found the first half insightful, and my key takeaway was that “quitting on time will look and feel like quitting too early” - because doing so requires the foresight to identify what will go wrong in the future, and the courage to give up before it does. So don’t wait until its painfully obvious you’re on the wrong path; if you think you might be taking a dumb risk to hit a “goal”, suffering from sunk cost bias, doubling down to save face, or simply unwilling to admit you were wrong, take a very hard look at where you’re headed, and consider giving up.
A new spin on the age old topic of how to make decisions. Annie Duke is a great writer and although there is nothing ground breaking in this book, it is sharply written and clarifying. A must read for anyone struggling with the question of whether to quit something.
Unpacks the delusions and fallacies that keep us stuck in paths and activities that do not help us. The summary at the end, encouraging us to redefine "failure" and "waste", is worth reading repeatedly until it sinks in.
I highly recommend this book for anyone facing a significant decision in their life or work. I'll be coming back to it any time that I'm contemplating major change, and I'll also consult it at other times to help me recall that change is an option. Even when you're on a path that you're happy with, sometimes there are better paths available.
Learn how quitting can free you to achieve your goals.
Let’s start this book with a quote: “You must not only have competitiveness, but ability, regardless of the circumstance you face, to never quit.”
That’s from soccer star Abby Wambach, a woman whose determination to succeed has taken her to the top of the athletic world. Our culture reveres the idea of grit – of persevering no matter what. Often, it also sees quitting as a sign of weakness.
It’s true that optimism and perseverance can help keep us going in hard times. But they can also motivate us to stick to a losing effort longer than we should. While we usually have to persevere to find success, that doesn’t mean perseverance guarantees we’ll reach our goals. And sometimes, we keep going long after we should quit – with serious consequences.
This book Quit, by Annie Duke, will help you see the value in quitting and make better decisions about how and when to do it. It shows that success isn’t about blind persistence; it’s about finding the right avenue to pursue. If we don’t, we may end up wasting piles of money on a doomed business or years on a dead-end relationship.
By learning to quit at the right time, we can avoid grinding through unnecessary misery or wasting time and money we don’t have. This frees us to work toward what we actually value.
So let’s get started!
Quitting can be a virtue.
There’s something that epitomizes the value of quitting – and it’s called poker. Knowing when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em, as Kenny Rogers famously sang, is the essence of the game.
Do poker pros rely on grit, persevering through tough times, to win hands? Hardly. In fact, pros fold more than half the time – far more often than amateurs. Poker rookies, in contrast, typically play out their hands. They’re driven by the need to see if they can pull out a miraculous straight – and fearful of losing the money they’ve already bet. How are they rewarded? By losing their shirts.
In the narrative we spin about success, we have a bias toward “winners.” We fixate on the inspiration of success stories – like that magical, last-minute straight flush. What we don’t highlight are the people who stopped short of their goal – the thing we might call “failure” – and benefited from it.
But quitting is a wise reaction to changing circumstances, and this makes it a vital skill.
Take mountain climbing, for example. Each year, many people try to make the ultimate climb to the summit of Mount Everest. A number of them make it. And quite a few die, falling victim to the mountain’s famously hostile environment. People in both categories persevered; some reached their dream, and others succumbed to their fate.
Other climbers, though, make it almost all the way to the top of the world’s tallest mountain – only to turn around and give up because conditions become unsafe or they run out of time. These people make a choice that often saves their lives.
If there’s one thing to learn from these sensible climbers and poker pros, it’s this: quitting can be a virtue. And it’s definitely not something to be ashamed of. In the next sections, we’ll look deeper into the benefits of quitting – and when and how to bow out.
We often keep going for way too long.
Stewart Butterfield’s big goal was to create a successful online computer game. What he ended up building was an enormously profitable communications tool. But he was only able to do this because he had the wisdom to quit.
Butterfield’s company, Tiny Speck, was armed with millions in investment capital. It had created a game called “Glitch” that attracted rave reviews and a small but passionate fan base.
But his business model depended on building up subscribers. Unfortunately, even as a marketing blitz grew his subscriber base, he realized the math didn’t work. The company wasn’t going to make it with the current strategy. So Butterfield made a startling decision – with investors still confident and subscriber numbers rising, he decided to call it quits.
Many of us hang on far too long, fighting for our goals to the bitter end. We do this because we feel we’re losing an opportunity by quitting – and that we’re giving up on something we’ve put a lot of effort into. But by not quitting, we’re actually costing ourselves other opportunities we could have been pursuing.
Butterfield quit, but he was a long way from being done. He rolled the investment money into an internal communications tool his team had been using. It was a little something called “Slack.” Butterfield soon sold Slack for $27.7 billion – and helped change the way teams communicate.
So, how can you harness the power of quitting in your own life?
One way to think about whether it’s time to quit is by considering expected value. This involves some mental time travel. Start by looking ahead. Calculate the possible outcomes of decisions – both potential gains and potential losses. These outcomes might not necessarily be money. They could be about time or fulfillment or stress level. When you’re done, look over the results, and consider alternate options for how you could be using your time – just remember to calculate the expected value for those as well.
Considering when to quit like this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take risks. Sometimes, big risks have enormous potential payoffs. But you need to calculate your risks and be realistic about them. That’s what Butterfield did, and it’s how top poker players win millions. It may set you on a more rewarding course.
Sunk cost fallacy (and other barriers to quitting)
Imagine you’re offered a ticket to an outdoor concert, but the weather is going to be terrible. Even if you love the band, a free ticket probably won’t be enough to entice you to suffer through it. But what if you’ve already bought the ticket? You’ll be tempted to go so you don’t waste the money.
Of course, it shouldn’t matter if the ticket was free or cost money. You’ll be miserable either way. But still, you think of the two situations differently.
This is the fallacy known as sunk cost. The more resources we invest, the more likely we are to try to continue, even if it’s a bad idea. We convince ourselves that we’re avoiding waste.
Another example is finishing a college degree in a field you don’t enjoy just because you’ve already spent a lot of money. What happens if you don’t quit? You’ll spend even more money and time just to end up in a career you hate.
This is like an optical illusion. And it’s very powerful. Even if you understand what’s going on, you still see the illusion.
Another barrier to smart quitting is what’s called an escalation of commitment.
Once people decide on a certain course, they often become more committed, even if it’s not working out. Rather than admit their mistake, they refuse to quit – sometimes in the face of enormous cost.
In the Vietnam War, it soon became apparent that the fighting was costly and unwinnable. So what did leaders do? They doubled down, leaving a trail of napalm and bitterness behind them. The war ended up costing tens of thousands of American lives and $1 trillion in today’s money. It also had profound consequences for political leaders and created backlash against the US government.
Then there’s the endowment effect, which was identified by Richard Thaler – the researcher who coined sunk cost. The endowment effect is when we overvalue something we have in comparison to something we don’t.
This ownership extends to our ideas and decisions. When we meet milestones toward a goal or take part in decision-making, we increase our ownership, which magnifies the effect. We also tend to stick with the status quo, preferring to keep things as they’ve always been.
For example, if team management signs a star player to a big contract, it may be harder for the team to bench or trade that athlete if she performs poorly. Management “owns” that decision and values the player more highly than a similar player who wasn’t part of a significant investment decision.
All these traits work together to make quitting extremely difficult. But if we’re aware of them, we can take steps to come out on top.
Your identity can get in the way of you quitting.
Sears was a colossal retail powerhouse. It built an extremely successful mail order business in the 1800s, delivering goods to rural residents. Later, with the rise of retail stores, Sears continued building its empire by switching to that model. But with stiffer competition and a changing market, Sears began a long, inexorable decline.
The company had a potential way out. Along with retail, it had built up a lucrative financial services branch, which included Allstate Insurance, Discover Card, and Coldwell Banker real estate brokers. But it didn’t choose that path. Instead of shifting out of a losing market, Sears sold these successful businesses to finance its retail operation and keep the core of its identity. You can probably guess how this all ended: bankruptcy.
Our identities are especially powerful in our decision-making. And when they’re wrapped up in our careers or ventures, it can make quitting particularly difficult.
The idea of cognitive dissonance plays into this. When confronted with information or facts that challenge our beliefs, we’re uncomfortable – we experience dissonance. To deal with this, we can either change our beliefs, which may be core to our identities, or we can explain away the information. Usually, we do the latter rather than admit we were wrong.
Contrast Sears with Philips, which began life as a light bulb company. Philips later added electronics, and both components were a big part of its business as late as 2012. But Philips, too, faced a changing market – and had options. Philips had long been involved in health care. Rather than sticking with its core identity, the company relinquished its less profitable light bulbs and electronics sectors. And after the switch, the new company was able to bring in almost €20 billion in annual sales.
This just goes to show that the powerful grip of identity can be broken.
Monkeys and kill criteria: Countering our tendencies
We’ve talked a lot about how hard it is to quit when we should. Research has shown it’s almost impossible to avoid these mental hangups. But we haven’t discussed the incredible juggling monkey yet. Wait . . . what?! Let’s explain.
Eric “Astro” Teller, an entrepreneur and academic who helped lead Alphabet’s X branch, is a quitting specialist. His company focuses on big ideas – ones that can change the world – and clearly doesn’t waste much time on creative company names. Because they invest so much money, they have to be willing to ditch ideas that aren’t working and use that money on better ones. If they can’t bring an idea to market and make it profitable in five to ten years, they aren’t interested.
One way the X team analyzes projects is with a colorful metaphor. If you want to launch a traveling show featuring a monkey juggling flaming torches on a pedestal, you’ll likely draw a big crowd – but you have to figure out how to do it first. The pedestal part is easy, and you can fool yourself into thinking you’re making progress by taking care of that. But you still have to train a monkey to juggle objects that are on fire. If you can’t tackle that, you don’t have a show.
X identifies the monkeys and pedestals in each project. The team refuses to go forward if they haven’t figured out how to overcome the main challenge.
Once you embark on a project, it really helps to set so-called kill criteria. This involves setting measurable benchmarks. If you don’t meet them, you quit. Criteria could include a spending level, a deadline, or buy-in from a client.
One way to develop kill criteria is by doing a premortem – imagine your project’s future death. What “were” the warning signs?
Your kill criteria will help you counter harmful thinking, like the sunk cost fallacy.
The problem with goals
Believe it or not, more than one marathon runner has broken a bone and finished the race – in excruciating pain – anyway.
Goals can be incredibly helpful in motivating us to accomplish difficult things. But they also come with a big downside – they can blind us to circumstances, make us inflexible, and actually keep us in negative situations. Like worsening an injury by running with a broken bone.
Part of the reason for this is the finish line mentality. The finish line mentality means you don’t see any accomplishment in completing just part of your goal. It’s a pass/fail situation.
Goals create a false choice: finish, or don’t bother starting. These goals, though, are often arbitrary and ignore all of our accomplishments along the way.
Look at it this way. Runners who fail to run a marathon might go the same distance as a successful 5K run. Mountain climbers who get almost to the top of Everest have still done something that few other humans – or even mountain climbers – have managed.
When we decide on mountain climbs or other goals, our information is incomplete – circumstances change, and we change. But our goals are fixed. And they often stay that way.
You can keep goals flexible and realistic by coming up with “unless” options. This means you’re going to strive for the goal unless A, B, or C happens. For instance, unless the person you’re dating isn’t interested in commitment. Unless you’re not making a profit by year three.
Think about this the next time you’re tempted to run with a fractured fibula.
We fear quitting because we fear failure; we’re afraid of wasting all the valuable resources we’ve poured into an effort. We have to recognize, though, that our definitions of failure and waste may simply be wrong. Being able to quit a situation that’s not benefiting you is a vital skill. And even if you’re satisfied where you are, keep your eyes out for other options – circumstances may change. You may just find that quitting leads you to success.
Get a quitting coach! Has anyone ever told you, after you finally quit a terrible job, that they knew you’d been miserable for months? They didn’t mention it because they didn’t want to hurt your feelings.
Quitting is difficult, so an outside perspective can help you confront your biases and rationalizations. This is where a “quitting coach” comes in – someone who’s willing to tell you the hard truth and work with you to find the right path. The truth might be hard to hear, but it’ll save you trouble down the road.
This is a tricky book for me to rate. I think it is a great topic, and that there should be more books on this topic. For that, I give it high ratings. When it comes to the actual execution of the book, it follows the formula of a lot of other pop psychology books with stories and anecdotes and references to a lot of the same papers with a slightly different angle. I think her execution of the formula is not quite as good as some others, though. I found myself getting frustrated with some of her assertions (because they were misleading or wrong) more than other authors. So, I think the overall message is great, but it’s important to not get tripped up by some of the missteps she makes along the way.
The prologue sets the stage of viewing the optimal time to quit. This is often thought of as the opposite of grit, but while grit is a virtue, so is finding the right time to quit something. “People stick to things all the time that they don’t succeed at, sometimes based on the belief that if they stick with it long enough, that will lead to success. Sometimes they stick with it because winners never quit. Either way, a lot of people are banging their heads against the wall, unhappy because they think there is something wrong with them rather than something wrong with the advice. Success does not lie in sticking to things. It lies in picking the right thing to stick to and quitting the rest…But when the world is creaming at the top of its lungs to quit and you refuse to listen, grit can become folly. Too often, we refuse to listen. This may be, in part, because quitting has a nearly universal negative connotation…Quitting means failing, capitulating, losing. Quitting shows a lack of character.” (xix) I think that the book is assuming that we are taught to value grit so much that we don’t quit and move on to something that is a better use of time. I think she sometimes minimizes the importance of grit a little, but it sounds like she’s working with the assumption that we are overemphasizing it, so puts most of the focus on giving permission and encouraging people to quit bad ideas sooner. As with many things in life, there is a balance.
Section 1 makes the case for quitting. I thought the examples of climbing Mt. Everest and deciding on turnaround times ahead of time was a great example. When we are in the middle of the excitement, we don’t always have the vision to see all the risks, and only focus on the goal. “The first is that persistence is not always a virtue. Whether it is prudent to continue up the mountain depends both on the climbing conditions and the condition of the climbers. When those conditions warrant quitting, it is a good decision to heed those signals. The second is that making a plan for when to quit should be done long before you are facing the quitting decision. It recognizes…that the worst time to make a decision is when you’re ‘in it’…Third, and perhaps most important, the turnaround time [when hiking Everest] is a reminder that the real goal in climbing Everest is not to reach the summit. It is, understandably, the focus of enormous attention, but the ultimate goal, in the broadest, most realistic sense, is to return safely to the base of the mountain.” (5) I didn’t really agree that the main goal is to return, I thought of it more of a constrained maximization – hike up as far as you can provided that you can still get back down safely. She also generalizes to other things in life. It can take a while to find the right path, and you often need to try out a few paths (and end up moving on from them, or “quitting” them) before you find a good one. “The road to sustained profitability for a business is not only about sticking to a strategy or business model (even one that has been profitable in the past). It is also about surveying and reacting to the changing landscape. Similarly, for each of us on an individual level, the road to happiness is not in sticking blindly to the thing that we’re doing, as so many aphorisms cajole us to do. We need to see what’s going on around us so we can do whatever will maximize our happiness and our time and our well-being. And that usually means doing more quitting.” (17) I also liked the chapter on “Quitting on Time Usually Feels Like Quitting Too Early.” The discussion of a doctor doing a lot of administrative work and contemplating a new job highlighted how it can be helpful to reframe situations, and try to view them from a different angle. “After listening to her story, I asked her a simple question: ‘Imagine it’s a year from now and you stayed in the job that you’re currently at – what’s the probability you’re going to be unhappy at the end of that year?’ She said, ‘I know I’m going to be unhappy, one hundred percent.’ I followed up by asking, ‘If it’s a year from now and you switched to this new job you’re considering, what’s the probability you’re going to be unhappy.’ She said, ‘Well, I’m not sure’…At that moment, she realized, ‘Oh, wait a minute, I’m always going to be unhappy if I stay. If I switch, sometimes I’ll be unhappy, but sometimes I won’t. Sometimes I’m going to find real fulfillment in the job that I’m switching to, and that has to be better.’ All that I had done was to reframe her quitting decision as an expected-value problem. She was considering two options: staying in her job or quitting to take the new position at the insurance company. Which one carried the greater chance of increasing her happiness and making her feel better about her relationship with her children? She realized taking the new job had the higher expected value.” (39) I liked aspects of her discussion, but her focus on expected value might make a lot of sense from a poker perspective, but it doesn’t always line up as when it comes to utility maximization, which is what people are often doing. She also doesn’t talk about the fear of the unfamiliar as much as she could. We sometimes stick with a known mediocre over something that could be worse. We sometimes aren’t just aiming for the highest expected value, but trying to minimize the chance of a really bad outcome. She assumes an objective function that might not be what people are actually using, or what people should use. The general point is probably right, but it could have been improved with some more nuance.
Section 2 focused more on escalating commitment and sunk costs. I thought it was good to talk about how we sometimes continue down a road (literally or metaphorically) for a long time sometimes only because we have been taking that road for a while so we will make it work out somehow. Sometimes the longer we’ve worked on a project, the less likely we are to kill it because we have so much invested. She talks about the sunk cost fallacy and how we need to focus more on future outcomes based on where we are, independent of how much effort it took to take a particular route. One thing that didn’t impress me is that she kept referring to biases as mistakes. Just because someone systematically skews their decisions in one direction or another doesn't mean that they necessarily are making mistakes, they might just have different levels of risk tolerance or different sets of preferences. I also didn't like the example of traders holding through stop losses either, because it didn't allow for the possibility that the lower price made it increasingly attractive to them. Not everything can be entirely explained by the sunk cost fallacy, sometimes they are more things involved, but she seemed to try to attribute 100% of a decision to the sunk cost fallacy. Another example was that ants have done well because they are always exploring, and because of that, they have existed for a long time. Other insects have also been around for a long time, like cockroaches, which don't do exploring in the same way. It’s not clear that exploring ensures success the way she seems to suggest. The last part of this section talked about the importance of tackling the tough parts of a project first. “Imagine that you’re trying to train a monkey to juggle flaming torches while standing on a pedestal in a public park…[Eric “Astro”] Teller recognizes that there are two pieces to becoming successful at this endeavor: training the monkey and building the pedestal. One piece of the puzzle presents a possibly intractable obstacle in the way of success. And the other is building the pedestal. People have been building pedestals since ancient Greece and probably before…The bottleneck, the hard thing, is training a monkey to juggle flaming torches. The point of this mental model is to remind you that there is no point building the pedestal if you can’t train the monkey. In other words, you ought to tackle the hardest part of the problem first.” (111) This is mainly focusing on hard things you don’t know if you will be able to do, not difficult things you know are feasible. “One of Teller’s valuable insights is that pedestal-building creates the illusion of progress rather than actual progress itself. When you are doing something that you already know you can accomplish, you’re not learning anything important about whether the endeavor is worth pursuing…On top of that, Teller realizes that when you’re building pedestals, you are also accumulating sunk costs that make it hard to quit even as you find out that you may not be able to train the monkey to juggle those torches. By focusing on the monkey first, you naturally reduce the debris you accumulate solving for something that’s, in reality, already solved.” (114) She gives the example of the California bullet train that keeps building connections between less important locations and saving the biggest challenges – tunneling through mountains – for the end. One solution for our tendency to stick with a bad idea for longer than we should is a precommitment contract, where we specify ahead of time what kill criteria or tripwires exist. “This is in line with lots of subsequent work that’s been done on all parts of precommitment contracts. Whether it comes to following through with diet plans or work plans or study plans, these types of precommitment contracts get people to act more rationally. Essentially, kill criteria create a precommitment contract to quit.” (117) “To develop such [kill] criteria, we started by working with the sales team to generate a list of signals that would tell them that an opportunity wasn’t worth pursuing. To do that, we sent out the following prompts to the sellers and the sales leadership: ‘Imagine you were pursuing a lead that came through an RFP or RFI. It’s six months from now, and you have lost the deal. Looking back, you realize there were early signals that the deal was not going to close. What were they?’ In general, this idea of casting yourself into the future, imagining a failure, and then looking back to try to figure out why is called a premortem. Using a premortem is a great tool to help develop high-quality kill criteria.” (119) I think that having tripwires, or kill criteria, are important when working on a project, or many other things in life. It’s beneficial to set up the criteria ahead of time so you have some guidance when you are stretched for time and under more pressure.
Section 3 talks about the endowment effect, attributes tied to our identity, and the importance of getting honest feedback from others. She talks about the endowment effect, and how we value what we have more than someone else might, as well as how hard it is to move on from the status quo. “Wrapped within all these forces interfering with quitting decisions is that we do not think of sticking with the status quo as an active decision in the same way that we view switching as one. We are much more concerned with errors of commission than errors of omission. We’re more wary of ‘causing’ a bad outcome by acting than ‘letting it happen’ through inaction. This phenomenon is known as omission-commission bias…You’ve probably heard people, when thinking about taking a new path, say, ‘I don’t want to make a decision right now.’ You likely accepted that as a reasonable thing to say. But once you step back and think about it, you realize that deciding not to change is itself a decision…Sticking with the path is as much of a decision as choosing to quit.” (152) I don’t know that I entirely agree with that. I only have the capacity to make so many active decisions in a day, so for most things, I tend to continue with whatever path I set out prior. Am I making a decision every day to not move to a different house? In her framing, the answer is yes, but I think that it could be useful to be more active in big decisions, and not just make it once and stick with the status quo and never revisit it. You might passively choose to continue living in the same place, but it could make sense to periodically make an active decision on big items like that. Overall, we do tend to stick with the status quo and probably don’t revisit decisions or assumptions that we made a long time ago as long as the results are bearable. I liked the chapter “Find Someone Who Loves You but Doesn’t Care about Hurt Feelings.” It’s important to find a way for you to get honest feedback from others, and create an environment where you will get and be able to be impacted by the feedback. I thought the approach of splitting responsibility of buying and selling was interesting. “On a more serious note, this suggests a good strategy for businesses that want to get better at their quitting decisions: when possible, divide and conquer. Have the people who make the decisions to start things be different form the people who make the decisions to stop those things. For clients of mine who are institutional investors, I have suggested that type of strategy as a way to improve their sell-side decisions. Have the committee approving what to buy be different from the committee approving what and when to sell. Of course, that’s only practical when the team is large enough.” (193) I have seen many, many examples of people being very attached to something they spent a lot of time on, even if it might not be what they would be drawn to if they started fresh right now. I liked the recipe for giving advice on quitting as well. People don’t always respond well to someone saying that something should be done immediately, so working on kill criteria with someone that they can review in the near future can be a better way to approach it. “Instead, when someone comes to you [for advice], it’s better to use Ron Conway’s approach, which can be summarized in these four steps. (1) Let them know that you think they should consider quitting. (2) When they push back, retreat and agree with them that they can turn the situation around. (3) Set very clear definitions around what success is going to look like in the near future and memorialize them down as kill criteria. (4) Agree to revisit the conversation and, if the benchmarks for success haven’t been met, you’ll have a serious discussion about quitting.” (195)
Section 4 covers opportunity cost, looking at outcomes when people are forced to quit, and the potential downside of goals. I thought that the anecdotes about people who were forced to change course in their careers were interesting, including her own story of switching from psychology to poker. “We need to find a way to flip the script and stop measuring ourselves solely by how far we are from the finish line. We need to start giving ourselves more credit for how far we are from where we started. If we do that, a silver medal will feel much less disappointing, because in reality it’s a huge accomplishment, as measured against where any figure skater started. Doing that would let you see what an accomplishment it is to earn acceptance as a private student from Itzhak Perlman or, in my case, to have completed five years of graduate-level work. It’s easier to make and celebrate your progress toward a goal if the goal itself is not so all-or-nothing.” (241) I thought the idea that we should celebrate progress, even if we don’t ultimately reach our initial goal was healthy as well. “Success means following a good decision process, not just crossing a finish line, especially if it is the wrong one to cross. That means appropriately following kill criteria, listening to our quitting coaches, and recognizing that the progress we’ve made along the way counts for a lot. We also need to redefine what waste is. What does it mean to waste your time or money or effort? Our problem is that we tend to think about these things in a backward-looking way. We feel like if we walk away from something, that means we’ve wasted everything that we put into it. But those are resources that are already spent. You can’t get them back.” (245)
Overall, I think that she makes some good points, but ends up minimizing the importance of grit more than is appropriate. You do need to stick to things in order to accomplish great things, but it’s finding the right balance of exploration and exploitation – you need to make sure that you’re on a good path before spending a lot of time on something. I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a classmate about the movie the Usual Suspects. He said he watched some of it but didn’t finish it and didn’t know why people liked it so much. I responded that the ending is what made the movie – unless you watch the whole thing, you miss out! A lot of things you don’t reap the benefits of unless you do complete them, and you can’t always go back and finish things up. Sometimes you just have 1 chance at doing something and have to make the best decision given that you might never have another opportunity to do it. I do have a lot of issues with this book, and don’t agree with a number of her conclusions, but it was a useful book to read and made me reflect on different ideas and different things in my life, which is a good thing.
This book is so boring. It’s a string of high-profile examples for a series of concepts related to cost-benefits analyses to be used when deciding whether one should persist or quit in a given endeavor. It’s 10 times too long, and would be better as a blog post. At halfway through, I’m cutting my losses and quitting this book.
The main of idea of the book is sensible: stop doing things that make one's life miserable. Some of the ideas were good: give a trustworthy person permission to give you honest feedback; one's identity is often a reason a person is reluctant to leave a job.
Otherwise, the stories of those who were mentioned were typical: always elite athletes and intellectuals. I found that off-putting.
Would have been nice if there had been stories about people in regular jobs: the plumber who quit and found another pursuit; the truck driver who disliked his job but quit and found another opportunity.
What a timely read for me. Duke argues persuasively about the importance of being able to quit an endeavor that's gone sideways. She make the case that our culture over-prizes "grit", and that the ability to throw in the towel (know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em) is equally important.