Lessons can be learned from quitting

I was cold, terrified and very unhappy with gravity.

It was winter break, and I was flying down a mountain in northern Idaho a few notches above my skiing skill level. Although my run had begun quite well, my skis eventually decided that they wanted to take the fastest route between my current position and the bottom, despite my protests.

“I can handle it,” I thought. “Just turn a little bit more, and you’ll slow down enough to take the rest of the route slowly.”

That didn’t happen.

“Oh, screw it.” I bailed.

From what my friends (who are much better skiers than I) say, the tumble was spectacular. All of a sudden, my skis were four feet in the air, my head was six inches in the snow and powder was everywhere. I skidded to a stop, thankful that I had given up on the run before a tree had made the decision for me.

I learned a lot in those 30 seconds, and I don’t use “learning” as a euphemism for carving a face-shaped track down the mountain. Having averted catastrophe, I stepped away from my disaster and began another run.

We often find ourselves in situations similar to my predicament on the slopes, where we’re forced to make a choice: quit immediately and suffer a few bumps and bruises, or stick it out, hoping to fix things in time to avoid truly crashing and burning.

Silicon Valley is full of people who attempted to create a start-up but saw the writing on the wall after a few months. They eventually quit, but they went forward leveraging the knowledge they had gained from their failures to be quite successful in their subsequent ventures.

After all, when do we learn more than when the whole world is falling apart around us? Mistakes beget negative consequences, and once that link is established you can be sure we’ll avoid that mistake again. Failure teaches us what works and what doesn’t, what we like and what we abhor.

A failed entrepreneur will have learned about the perils of markets, the fickle tastes of consumers, and the warning signs that portend disaster. By stepping away early, he or she will be able to process that knowledge with relatively few negative consequences.

Entrepreneurs have a lot of incentive to bail out of a venture: They have finances tied up in it, they have families to care for, etc. Those factors don’t make the decision to quit easy, but it does mean that there are forces at work in both directions. As students in college, we don’t have nearly the same pressures.

I could easily create a laundry list of things I have quit while in college. I’ve quit extracurricular activities, two majors, projects, relationships and leadership roles. Many of those times I’d stayed longer than I should have, trying to salvage my pride and not wanting to let the situation beat me.

Sometimes (a series of Jan. conferences I’ve planned come to mind) I tried doing the same type of thing again and again, despite knowing deep inside that I received no enjoyment and little value.

If I had bailed earlier in those instances, I could have saved myself a lot of stress and channeled my energy to more useful pursuits.

The hardest thing to deal with when contemplating quitting is the shame and fear of what friends will think. I recently worked with someone who was planning on quitting one of the groups I’m involved with. She went back and forth on whether she should step back, with most of her anxiety directed at what the rest of the group would think.

While I’m sure some of the people we worked with were not thrilled to see her go, none of us begrudged her when she eventually did leave. We all understood that she had to take care of herself, and leaving our group was the best thing for her.

Am I saying that we should quit the moment the going gets tough? Of course not. Perseverance will often result in success down the road. We often need to do things we don’t enjoy in order to get things done.

We need to recognize when it is time for us to step away as gracefully as possible and hand the reins over to someone more passionate or more capable. Quitting will cause discomfort, hurt feelings, and hurt pride. People may get angry and projects may suffer.

But when the alternative is skiing yourself head-first into a tree, sometimes bailing out and starting anew is the best option.