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When to give up

The cardinal sin of most pieces of advice is to suggest they can be applied universally instead of in a limited setting. Never give up is one of the most popular of these prescriptions. It sounds like a relatively harmless, if corny thing to say, but the consequences of following that doctrine can be a net negative in one’s life if applied without further thought.

Grit and Stubbornness

The line between grit and stubbornness is a thin one. Persevering through hardships is absolutely essential to whoever wants to do great things, as vague a goal it is. Achievements are only truly great if they are so difficult technically, morally, intellectually or physically that most of us would give up before managing to do it. On the other hand, being persistent often amounts to nothing more than losing precious time, self-confidence and a lot of energy. There are no rules as to when grit turns into stubbornness. It may be pretty obvious:

But most of the time, the premises are blurrier. When should an entrepreneur give up their struggling startup? Many major companies have been close to bankruptcy before experiencing lasting commercial success. But many people lost years, or even decades of their lives trying to propel a project which for some reason never managed to live up to its potential.

Never give up don’t convey this dilemma. Which is why it is essential to question it more thoroughly.


In all affairs, it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the thing you have long taken for granted
Bertrand Russell

People generally know what they want, in a superficial way, but rarely do they question why they want it. They too often assert their desire but neglect to question their drive. Your cousin is not lying when he says he would like to be a surgeon. But does he knows why? Is it for the money? For the prestige? For the challenge? Because he wants to help others? Maybe by pride, because during all these years he kept repeating he would become one? Or perhaps to continue a family tradition? Certainly a particular mix of some of these reasons. Finding the answer to this question is essential as it will allow him to realize there are many ways to get what he wants. Many jobs pay well. Many jobs consist of caring for others. His pride will survive switching goals if he finds out a more adapted path for him.

I call this work of finding out what we deeply want and the reason behind that desire reformatting. Reformatting requires honesty with yourself to a degree most of us aren’t comfortable with. It is hard to admit we want something for reasons we deem pathetic, but the freedom we gain in the process is of much greater value than our delusions. And the fact that our drives may be may not be the noblest (usually, a mixture of pride, sex & money), does not mean that the more superficial ways in which these desires manifest themselves aren’t sincere or powerful. Your cousin’s passion for surgery and his respect for its practitioners are sincere. But reformatting will reveal equally satisfying options he might want to consider if his grit starts to look like stubbornness.

We like to base our identities around fragile things like our professional projects when our deep drives are a way ore solid column to think about ourselves. I like to create, design and architect things. I like to create amazement and wonder. I want to do these things while being recognized and valued for my work. This is more me than any professional title. And there are countless ways to stay true to that description.

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