I used to be a really good quitter.
I don’t mean that in a negative way. I just mean that I always knew when to walk away from something that was no longer right for me.
When I was 21 years old, I was made managing editor of a small daily newspaper. Although I soon turned 22, I was still the youngest managing editor of a daily paper in the country at the time. (My technical skills were fantastic, but I was a terrible manager. I didn’t have a clue how to manage people at that age.)
I had been offered a full-time job as managing editor of a weekly newspaper at the end of my junior year at the University of Alabama. I first turned it down, but then I became intrigued. I took the job, thinking I’d spend a year getting experience and then I’d go back to school. But after about eight months at the weekly, I was promoted to sports editor of the daily owned by the same company. Just four months later, I was promoted again — to managing editor of the daily.
After nearly a year in that job, I started feeling that it was time to move on. One Sunday morning, I was driving to church when I realized it was time to quit.
I didn’t go to church that day. I went to Waffle House by myself and ate a late breakfast while I thought seriously about the change. I knew classes started for the new semester at Alabama in the next couple of days. I spent all day considering my options.
On Monday morning, I walked into my publisher’s office and told him it was time for me to quit. I told him classes started this week and I really wanted to leave immediately if he could get by without me. With his blessing, I didn’t even work that day. I drove to Tuscaloosa, found a place to live and registered for classes. I knew I’d done the right thing.
I used to be really good at starting things and really good at quitting them when it was time.
When I was a teen-ager, I did audacious things which I should have known better than to do. But nobody told me those things were impossible, so I did them anyway. And then when it was time, I would walk away from that adventure — ready to try the next.
I’m thinking about this tonight because of an interview I heard this evening with Bob Goff. On a business podcast called Building a Storybrand, Goff talked about his unusual life as a lawyer, humanitarian, businessman and diplomat. (Listen to the episode here.)
Goff talked about his unusual approach to his law firm and to hiring people. He talked about an idea which I had years ago for a newspaper I was planning to start. I never knew anyone had actually done it in real life. Goff said he never committed to giving anybody a job for longer than a year. In fact, he didn’t even commit himself to keeping the company open. Every year, he could start over — and offer another year to the people he still wanted to work with.
One day, Goff went to his office and decided it was time to quit practicing law. He didn’t waste time. He just gathered everybody together and said things were over. The details were vague — because that wasn’t the point of the story — but it appears he just gave the firm to someone else and walked away. He calls it “planned spontaneity.”
There are things I need to quit right now, but I let fear stop me.
Back when I used to be good at quitting, I wasn’t afraid of much. I had enough confidence — maybe arrogance — to believe I could handle anything that came up. I believed I would out-think and out-work anybody who got in my way. I expected the world to stand aside and watch as I conquered, so it never occurred to me not to try incredible things.
I’ve realized this evening that confidence about the next step is the key to quitting things we need to quit. Whatever it is that you need to quit, you’re holding onto that thing — something which is holding you back or making you miserable — because you’re scared about whether the uncertainty of the next step means you’re better off holding onto something lousy. So you hold onto a known bad thing to avoid the uncertainty of what might (or might not) be a better thing.
When I was managing editor of the small daily paper, I could have told myself that I wouldn’t ever get another chance like this. I could have told myself that people wouldn’t understand if I quit. (Many didn’t.) I could have worried about the consequences of moving on without an adequate plan.
When I drove to Tuscaloosa that day, I had no plan. But I soon had a place to live. I soon had a part-time job (as a youth minister at a church). And after another year of school, the same company offered me another job — as managing editor of another one of its small daily papers — and I was employed again on the day I left college for the last time.
I know some things which I need to quit — today, right now — but I haven’t quit because I’m afraid. What am I afraid of? I’m scared about the things I would need to start instead. And because I don’t allow myself to start the things which scare me, I continue to do things which make me unhappy instead.
I need to recover the confidence of my youth. I haven’t lost the abilities I had. I haven’t lost anything I had. There’s still somebody inside me who would go after Moby Dick in a rowboat — in complete confidence that I’d find a way to capture that great white whale.
I know a couple of things I need to quit. Right now. I just have to be willing to jump off a cliff — in full confidence that I’ll find a net before I hit the bottom.
What do you need to quit? You already know the answer, even if you try to lie to yourself.
Both of us need to quit some things — and move on to better things. We just have to find the courage to do what we already know is right.