Hindsight is 20/20. We have all had the experience of looking back over our lives, and remembering how we gave up on some important goal or project. Eventually we said to ourselves: “I wish that I hadn’t given up so easily.” This can be a bitter reflection. Of course, though, back at the time that we gave up on those goals, for one reason or another, it probably seemed like it was the sensible thing to do – to give up. This article addresses that exact question: When does it make sense to give up?
Sometimes it makes sense to give up
First off, lets agree that there are times when it certainly does make sense to give up. For example, if you are working towards a goal, but the intermediate results begin to point towards an outcome that would be significantly more expensive in terms of time, money and resources than you had originally budgeted, then it might make sense to just cut your losses and give up.
Commercial research projects (like pharmaceutical drug discovery) often suffer the fate of being canceled midway through. This happens after the big bosses spend a lot of time in deliberating the value of the project. If they decide that the job is not worth continuing on with, then it gets canceled. To continue working on it would be throwing good money after bad.
An important distinction
But there is an important distinction to make in the case of business projects. In the case of a business project, “giving up” on one project really means “re-allocating resources” to work on a new project. In any case, the underlying goal of protecting and growing the company’s value is never given up on.
So what about me? Should I give up?
So what about the day-to-day struggles that we face as individuals? For example, think of the most basic “project” that we all aspire to succeed with: To become self-supporting. Fortunately, most people are able to achieve a measure of success with this important life-project. But some people seem to just “bail out” or give up. So why do some folks give up looking for a job or preparing for a career?
Note: We’re not talking about the disabled or mentally handicapped population here. And we’re not talking about folks who are disabled by depression or other mental illness. This is a question for the generally able-bodied. Why do able-bodied people sometimes just give up? Often these folks give up trying even though success is clearly attainable. Sometimes they can even see it themselves and admit to it: “Yeah … I know that I am giving up too easily … but …”
The “Stay Positive and Keep Trying” Rule
Of course some level of struggle is necessary in order to achieve worthwhile goals. The idea that we ought to “stay positive” and “keep trying” is certainly true. So why do so many people fail to apply it?
In the minds of some giver-uppers, there seems to be a thought process that goes like this: “Sure, I know that I ought to stay positive and keep trying … but … since my circumstances and environment are already so crappy, I kind of think that I should be off-the-hook on the ‘stay positive rule’.”
Now, right away, everybody automatically answers: “You should never give up – you should always keep on trying!” That’s easy to say. But didn’t we just establish that there are indeed cases in which it does make sense to “cancel the project” – aka: “give up?”
How can we rationally decide whether or not it makes sense to give up on the life-project of becoming self-supporting?
Lets look at the extremes
First, lets imagine a person who has everything going for him – lots of money, great health, great contacts, great education and (perhaps most importantly) great momentum in the pursuit of the path that they have chosen. For this kind of person, it clearly makes sense that they should be willing to keep on chugging when they encounter an obstacle.
Now think of the opposite case: Imagine a person who has everything NOT going for him – no money, no contacts (or worse yet, bad contacts), poor education, and (perhaps most importantly) a high level of negative momentum. In this case “negative momentum” means a lot of discouragement. For this kind of person, it kind of makes sense that it would be a rational choice for them to give up – or, at least, we wouldn’t really blame them if they gave up. Lets assume, following “commonly accepted” views on “when it makes sense to give up” that, for this person, yes, it does make sense that they would be expected to give up.
So we have two people. Person #1 “should” continue to persevere in the face of obstacles. Person #2, it is assumed, is reasonably expected to give up.
So here is the question: What is the cutoff-point as the world of Person #1 deteriorates towards the world of Person #2?
Reasonable and Customary
If we are going to answer this question using the “commonly accepted” views on “when it makes sense to give up”, then the answer must, necessarily, be dependent upon our culture. Isn’t our social or cultural training the origin for what we think of as “commonly accepted” views?
But, from the perspective of an individual, does that make any sense? That would mean that, if I grow up in environment A, then I should reasonably be expected to give-up when my circumstances reach a certain point. Alternatively, if I grow up in environment B, then I should be expected to give up when my circumstances reach a totally different point.
The reason that we don’t like this idea of a culturally dependent point-of-giving-up, is that it seems to be saying that the success or failure of a person’s life is dependent upon something outside of the person themselves – really just a set of beliefs (the birth-culture) which have been foisted on the individual by virture of his having been born and raised in a certain place at a certain time.
What is it that really bothers us?
Note that there is an important distinction to be made here. The thing that bothers us about this line of reasoning is not the fact that a person’s success and survival is dependent upon factors outside of themselves, per se. For example, we would not blame an individual (in the sense of a moral failure) for starving to death if they happened to have been born during a period of severe famine.
What really bothers us is the idea that, given the same external circumstances, two different individuals will assess the worthwhileness of struggeling to survive and overcome those circumstances through two different lenses – i.e., the lenses of the birth-culture training that each individual has received growing up. That early training in “how to deal with adversity” sets the bar that tells us as adults when it makes sense to give up – and when it makes sense to keep on trying.
Levels of brain-washing
So it looks like there really is no such thing as a universal answer to the question: “When does it make sense to give up?” We have, however, all been brainwashed by our personal communities to believe that there is a certain point – and that is where we generally do give up! Clearly, there are other folks (raised in different communities) who have different time-to-give-up standards.
There is also a strong sense in which each community expends time and energy to maintain the minds of it’s members at the standard brainwash levels. This happens very naturally, for example, as we copy the life-styles and choices of those around us. Of course, media sources are another powerful avenue through which the community establishes and maintains the how-hard-we-should-keep-trying standards. Normally we think of media-based manipulation of a community standard as being a bad thing – but, the point is, whether good or bad, the messages that we receive do indeed contribute to the standards that we adopt.
Is it time to migrate to a new world-view?
Lets narrow our focus for a minute. Pretend for a moment that you are a person who is discouraged, unemployed and unhappy. In this imaginary scenario, you also have the sense that you have given up too easily in your efforts to find a job. After reading this article, you are beginning to wish that you were in a different community, one that would train you to set the bar on when-does-it-make-sense-to-give-up at a higher level. So how do you go about changing your “community”?
A lot of it comes back to some old sayings like “Watch the company you keep.” We all like to think that we make our life decisions on our own – after carefully weighing the pros and cons. But that is a bit of an illusion. Our friends really do influence us – whether for good or for bad.
So maybe you can’t change the physical environment that you are living in. But how about your mental environment? How would you like to change your mental environment to add in some upbeat, successful friends who could use their own life experience to encourage you?
The community of the mind
It might surprise you to hear this, but they (this group of wholesome, encouraging friends that you want to meet) are currently looking for you. In fact, they have been looking for you throughout your entire life. Long before you were born, these friends were investing their own time in an attempt to communicate with you. They wrote books which they were hoping that discouraged people (just like you) would read and absorb. Their writings contain the essence of the strength and energy that they want to share.
Here are some of the friends who want to be a part of your own, personal “community of the mind”: Benjamin Franklin, Helen Keller, Dr Seuss, Voltaire, Edison, Norman Vincent Peale, Dale Carnegie and Samuel Johnson. There are many others. They took the first step by putting their thoughts into writing. Why not take a look at what they had to say? Dwell on their thoughts about the importance of keeping-on-keeping-on. You can read some easy excerpts at our Medicine page. Use these ancient success formulas to crowd out the dummies from your mind.
Sincerity, insincerity and absolute truth
One concern that people sometimes have is that it would be like denying-the-reality-of-the-way-things-really-are-in-the-world to attempt to change one’s own brain-washing by purposefully exposing oneself to a new mind support system – like our Medicine page. But that is a false problem! It presumes that one’s own social and cultural training just happened to have been the right one – the one that correctly prepared the new “life trainees” to soberly assess reality and adjust one’s willingness to keep-on-keeping-on to just the right level.
Do not fear that you may be fooling yourself by attempting to change your own give-up level. Ask yourself this question: How much pain and fear should a person reasonably be willing to tolerate in order to become self supporting? Are you currently willing to tolerate that level of pain and fear? This kind of question asks you to step away from the standards that you have been taught to believe in. Ask yourself if your current pain-tolerance standard makes sense to you. Now take a look at the give-up levels that other social training systems provide. Ask yourself which one is the right one for you. Which is the one that would best get you to where you want to be? The chances are that your answer will be, as strongly as possible: I am not going to give up!