J.K. Rowling was rejected 12 times before publishing the first Harry Potter book. Katy Perry’s first album was a flop. Oprah Winfrey was fired from her local television station job. These stories are meant to inspire us. We are supposed to think if successful people failed at first then we can also be successful if we try again. And again.
On the other hand, our family, friends, and co-workers all have tales of people who never became a success in their chosen endeavor after years of trying. So when is enough enough? When should you quit what you are doing and move on to something else?
I was thinking of this question as I listened to Jonas Kjellberg on the BigSpeak Podcast. You may not have heard of Kjellberg. He’s not famous like Katy Perry, but he was co-creator of the billion-dollar company Skype. Now he lectures at Stanford on entrepreneurship and consults with startups on how to create a successful business.
In the interview, Kjellberg explained he doesn’t “embrace failure” like most people in Silicon Valley do. Kjellberg hates failure. Though he acknowledges that in business he has failed more often than he has succeeded, it hasn’t soothed the sting of failure in any way. But he continues to work because he loves the game.
I thought, there’s the answer to the question, “When should I quit?”
You don’t quit when you fail. Because failure is part of the learning process. No, you quit when you stop feeling happy with what you are doing. And by happy, I mean getting pleasure, engagement, and meaning from the activity, as defined by positive psychology expert Martin Seligman.
When I learned to quit
Let me illustrate with a story from my own life about learning a second language.
In my mid-20s, I decided I wanted to master French. Learning a second language has many practical uses. I, however, was motivated to learn because I wanted to travel Europe on a bike trip and wanted to get a cute French girlfriend.
So I decided to study French. Again.
You see, I had studied French before. Three years in high school and one day in college. There’s a good reason why I only had one day in college.
On the first day of French class, the professor spoke completely in French. My high school teacher had never done that. I didn’t understand what was going on.
I dropped the class and never went back. Since learning a second language was a degree requirement at Penn State, I found no pleasure, engagement, or meaning in the activity. Once I ran into difficulty, there was nothing to sustain my effort.
Fast forward to my new decision to relearn French. I had everything I needed to sustain me through failure. I had pleasure because learning French involved reading classic literature, seeing cool movies, and traveling around with a Eurail Pass. I had engagement because I was motivated to master a language. And I had meaning because I wanted to woo cute French girls.
Little did I know at the time that mastering a language takes years of hard work. Along the way, I stumbled in conversation, had class papers returned to me covered in red, and went through culture shock when I studied abroad in Paris for a semester.
However, I didn’t quit learning French. I still found pleasure, engagement, and meaning in the activity.
When I returned from Paris, I completed a B.A. degree, an M.A. degree, taught French in elementary school, and worked a two-year stint in Normandy teaching English to university students. I got to travel through Western Europe, make great friends, and even got the cute girlfriend. She turned out to be Irish, not French—but that’s not the point. I would never have met her had I not been learning French.
In the end, I never gained native-like fluency, but I continued learning French while I still had pleasure, engagement, and meaning in the activity. When I stopped having those feelings—about 15 years later—I quit.
And you should too if you don’t feel those three elements in what you’re doing. Then find an activity that gives you all three and you will be happy. You might not be a financial success, but you will be happy pursuing your goal.
For me, after I quit learning French, I started to learn guitar. But that’s another story.
DISCLAIMER: This article expresses my own ideas and opinions. Any information I have shared are from sources that I believe to be reliable and accurate. I did not receive any financial compensation in writing this post, nor do I own any shares in any company I’ve mentioned. I encourage any reader to do their own diligent research first before making any investment decisions.
(Featured image via DepositPhotos)
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