I was brought up with the mindset that I HAD to achieve. My life, my FUTURE (always spoken about in hushed tones and all caps) depended on my success in anything and everything. At that point in my existence this meant school. A 99? Not good enough. 100? Close but what about the bonus point?
Perfection wasn’t so much a choice, as a lifestyle. Be the smartest, cutest, happiest, most well-adjusted little human, and yet don’t let anyone know that you are because, after all, I must also be the humblest. It didn’t matter that my world inside my heart felt like it was crumbling due to problems at home. Success meant keeping a bright face up at all times.
Still…a part of me wanted to claim ownership of what I put my energy towards.
The first time I quit, I was going into my freshman year of high school. Like testing the waters of a new pool, I dipped my toe into quitting by announcing I would NOT be taking honors English that year. I simply didn’t want to. “The books looked boring,” I announced. And that seemed horrific to someone like me who loved to read. In truth, I just wanted to enjoy school. Learning things - any things - were my passion. It excited me. Nonetheless the colors seemed to have bled out of my day. I was tired of counting points, and many of my friends were in the College Prep class. School was the only place I got to see them.
A miracle happened that year. Perhaps I made a compelling argument, perhaps my parents were distracted, perhaps the guidance counselor didn’t notice the change, but somehow I got away with switching out the class. Once it was realized though, the cost was severe. Agreeing to let me quit one year of honors English led to 3 more years of having to be hellishly perfect. Even to the point of making a 5 on an AP exam after being homebound for most of my junior year with illness. Without a teacher’s guidance, I taught myself the whole curriculum. Failing to do so wasn’t an option to be considered. The FUTURE was riding on one class. Or so I had been led to believe.
But the seed of quitting had been planted. And despite the fact that I do believe perseverance and dedication are elements to success, I’ve become quite adapt at the art of quitting. In recent years I’ve quit:
Relationships in which neither one of us was happy
Cities which weren’t aligned with my sense of community
Jobs that gave me no sense of satisfaction
Foods that left me ill, lethargic, and unhealthy
Acquaintances who were toxic
Ideas that no longer served me
A lifestyle that made me miserable
Apologizing for who I am
Judging myself and finding me lacking
Quitting these things seemed quite reasonable to me. Yet in each instance, I received HUGE pushback on my choices. When I left a long term relationship, I found HATE mail from “friends” vilifying my decision in my Inbox. When I chose to eat a whole foods, plant based diet instead of taking pills to help me digest things my body was rejecting, doctors disparaged my judgment insisting I would become sicker. (Ironically no one has ever told me what the pills would have done, and I am in the best health of my life now from being vegan.) When I changed careers multiple times, people told me I was crazy for leaving the “safety” of a job that gave me a week’s vacation each year. However since that time I’ve traveled the world, run my own business, learned skills that improved the quality of my life, and begun pursing my passions.
In short, every time I’ve resigned from something, the naysayers and doomsayers screamed that I had RUINED my very existence, despite evidence to the contrary. I’m not surprised by these reactions. Our society is built on the premise that quitters never win, and winners never quit. We value those who hang on to their last proverbial breath, even when it ruins them physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, or financially.
The option to quit is actually always available to all. However the consequences of doing so can be scary. I’ve read that the Navy Seals have a bell that anyone can ring at any time they want to voluntarily leave the training. But a 2022 article from the NY Times uncovered that those who drop out - which had a range of 70% to a whopping 93% of a class in recent years - were then punished by being given menial tasks within the military. (*1)
Is that so surprising though? Our culture is based on a hustle mentality. We are bred to believe that life is about achieving. We must read to our children in the womb, send them to the best pre-schools, overwhelm them to exhaustion with sports and extracurriculars. All so we can push them to a college path they may or may not desire or be suited for. Where they will go into debt in order to have a career they may or may not like, to buy a home, a car, a lifestyle that they are not even sure they want, in order to retire and do…well… Perhaps they never make it that far. According to a June 2022 data statistic, 32.9% of college students drop out before completing their bachelors. (*2) But unless they make it big as a celebrity, influencer, or entrepreneur, we don’t seem to get a ton of information on what happens to them after they quit.
It’s as though these dropouts disappear into a void known as mediocrity. Even without the hefty weight of the cost of a college education drowning them in debt, many who abandon the college route possibly traverse the same path of chasing “success”. Be more. Do more. Prove you made it even without the piece of paper. And if you can’t, then appear that you are happily having all the trappings - at least in pictures. Keeping up with the Jones used to mean your next door neighbors. Now in the age of social media it appears that everyone is doing better than you - whether they are or not. So keep going, propelling the hamster wheel of life round and round until…
Retirement. And even that has become a competition of sorts. Do you follow the principles of FIRE and find a way to retire early? Save for the dream home to show you made it? Create a trust, estate, legacy for the next generation? It’s become the golden ticket to strive for. Yet the sad reality is, even among high net worth individuals, a 1/3 aren’t sure retirement is a viable option. (*3) So the hamster wheel keeps turning and we go go go on an existence of pills to stave off the aches and pains of being a cog in a machine never allowed to pause, change directions, or stop.
It’s funny. We have a ton of advantages today. You would think that modern life would be more like the bliss predicted by those old fashioned science fiction novels the future would look like. And perhaps in some ways our obsession with achievements have helped us. People do live longer now with modern medicine and advanced surgical techniques despite the fact that obesity, depression, and preventable diseases are still leading causes of death. We also have incredible technology which gives us access to information in an instant. But the same device simultaneously inundates us with messages that scream we must buy this, look like this, have done this this and this, or else we are not enough. Whatever “enough” is though, is unclear. So we keep going.
Once upon a time, if you had asked me what I want out of life, I would have given you a litany of answers sounding like a classic tale of a high achiever who wanted it all. Cue the holy catalogue of prosperity - the degrees, the lifestyle with the spouse and house and cars and 2.5 mini me’s, fabulous trips and clothes - all with the perfectly curated scrapbook to prove I did it. Now when asked what my life goals are I answer “To be happy and healthy”. And I’m perfectly fine with the “how” being undefined - understanding it will change as I learn and grow on my journey.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating for a life of slacking. There are certainly times to push through, fight harder, go the distance, (please insert the cliche of your preference here), etc. But when you look at your life, see what you want, and realize that what you are doing is not going to get you there, practice saying:
And if that seems terrifying, know that I applaud you for even considering it. In a world, which clearly frowns on the concept of renouncing society’s gold standard, it definitely takes courage and bravery to stand up and say “This just isn’t for me.” But I promise, doing do so has it’s own rewards. And perhaps you will find - like I did - that quitting clears out things that no longer serves, is relevant, or improves upon the quality of your life. And thus creates space to do things you love, with people who value and respect your choices.
*2 Hanson, Melanie. “College Dropout Rates” EducationData.org, June 17, 2022, https://educationdata.org/college-dropout-rates
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Tink, world traveler, positivity muse, and adult entertainer, has also freelance written for a number of companies as their ghostwriter. Now talking directly to YOU on this platform, she is also writing two books at her community's request.