Kelly J. Baker

Editor at Women in Higher Education

All in Favor of Quitting?

Full theend cyan


Editor’s Note: Read a Q&A here with Kelly J. Baker about her new memoir on making a career transition out of the professoriate.

It all started with a parenting newsletter in my email. This particular newsletter focused on what to do when your kids want to quit band, sports, or some other extracurricular activity. Like much of the advice on quitting, the newsletter cheerfully suggested that you should make your child stick it out, even when they’re visibly miserable. Quitting, the newsletter suggested, could be read as failure: And surely, parents didn’t want their child to be a quitter or a failure, did they?

As I read, I got angrier and angrier. I promptly deleted the email and almost unsubscribed. (Is that quitting?) At first I couldn't quite pinpoint what made me so furious. Then I realized: It was the newsletter’s assumption that quitting was bad and sticking around was somehow good. Staying signaled persistence and success, but quitting could only be failure.

That is a terrible — not to mention inaccurate — view, but a remarkably common one. People equate quitting and failure all the time but they aren’t one and the same. In fact, quitting — a hobby, a job, or a profession — is but one choice out of many. Treating it as a failure misses the fact that quitting can be so much more. Consider the possibilities:

  • Quitting can be brave.
  • Quitting can be knowing your boundaries and limits.
  • Quitting can be an affirmation that your time is valuable, so you care about how you spend it.
  • Quitting can be about what matters to your life — or what doesn’t.
  • Quitting can be about shifting priorities.
  • Quitting can be about respecting your values.
  • Quitting can be about dignity.
  • Quitting can be about economics.
  • Quitting can save your life.
  • Quitting can be about leaving abusive spaces or walking away from abusive people.
  • Quitting can be about what you need or don't need, and about what you want or don't want.
  • Quitting can be mundane or ordinary. Or it can be a radical declaration that you are done with one way of living and you're trying out a new way.
  • Quitting can be a claim about who you are or who you are striving to be.
  • Quitting can just be a choice.

Likewise, there’s nothing inherently heroic about sticking around. (Most of the time, suggesting that kids stick with activities that make them miserable is bad advice. Suffering isn't heroic. It's just suffering.) Staying put does not necessarily turn you into a success or make you virtuous. It's just another choice. Sometimes it’s a very bad choice that has consequences for your health and life.

All of our choices have contexts and histories. Whether or not quitting is your best option, the important thing is: It's your choice to make, narrate, and live.

Of course that runs counter to the deeply ingrained American belief that “winners never quit.” Don't come at me with that nonsense. Everyone makes decisions to quit things (even the so-called winners), and yet, that's not the message we receive over and over again. The next time someone tries to tell you that quitting is a bad choice or a sign of failure, please feel free to call them on it. Or maybe, gently remind them that your life is yours, so you get to make decisions about it regardless of what they might think. You don't have to explain yourself to anyone, especially those people who only understand quitting as failure.

If I sound like I’m taking all of this a bit too personally, well, I must confess that I used to be one of those people who equated quitting and failure. I assumed that if I just stuck around a particular job or institution long enough, things would change for the better. If I could only bear a little more suffering, I would be on the cusp of success. I suffered through a whole lot of terrible teaching jobs, terrible people, and terrible systems because I was afraid that quitting meant failure.

Now I've learned when to cut my losses. My suffering isn't worth the mere possibility of success defined by someone else's rules. I've quit lots of things, and quitting helped rather than hindered me. Hell, I've failed at lots of things, too. And guess what? I learned more from those failures than I did from my successes. I've quit and failed. And yet, I'm not a quitter or a failure. How strange! (Not at all really.)

Quitting set me free. It can set you free, too.

Knowing when to walk away is a healthy habit. Some things aren't worth the sacrifices. It's good to figure out what those things are for you. For me, if I hadn't quit my lecturer gig and left a dysfunctional department, I would have never become the writer and editor that I am today. I would have stayed at a toxic job in pursuit of tenure-track dreams that were never going to come true. Quitting was my best option.

And it improved my life dramatically. When I decided to quit academia, people were aghast that I would even consider it. You don't quit academia, even if all it does is fail you. Those folks were horrified by my choice. I quit anyway. My life was never theirs to decide. Your life isn't either.

So quit if you want to quit. It’s your choice. (If you need permission, I'll give you permission.) It doesn't mean you’ve failed. It means you’ve decided to live how you need to, which is the kind of choice that all of us should strive to make.


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