The common sentiment that a strong person should “never give up, never surrender” quickly falls apart when subjected to some critical thinking.
For example, any experienced poker player will tell you that knowing “when to fold ’em” is one of the most important parts of the game. A player who never folds (gives up) will quickly lose all their money.
The issue is opportunity cost. We all have limited time, money, and energy. When you’re young, with few responsibilities, you might *feel* like you have unlimited time and energy, but it’s not true. Time you spend doing one thing is less time you have for other things. Money you invest in one project is less money you have to invest in other projects.
Making “course corrections” is a euphemism for giving up (at least on a particular strategy). If a strategy obviously isn’t working (you’ve given it enough time and tries), it’s stupid to keep doing it. Try something else. Give up on the initial strategy.
Sometimes it’s a good choice to give up on particular goals as well, at least for a period of time. For years my wife tried to get an indie film made, and even moved to Los Angeles to work towards this goal. She became frustrated with many aspects of the film business, especially raising money from investors. Eventually she tired of the process, and realized she was much happier doing motion graphics work. Now she runs a thriving motion graphics business, is at the top of her field, and has an excess of demand for her work. Giving up on the film-making “dream” freed up the time and energy to develop a skill set that has led to a thriving practice.
Desire, Dopamine, and Motivation
When is it a good idea to redouble your efforts, or, to continue the poker analogy, to go “all in”?
If you still want to reach your goal, that’s usually reason enough. The experience of striving for something is rewarding, regardless of the eventual reward/success (or lack thereof).
But what if you are experiencing a lack of enthusiasm? Is that reason enough to quit?
It’s important to distinguish discouragement (and mild depression) from an actual fading of desire or change of heart. Experiencing a lack of motivation is often related to low dopamine levels. In animal experiment, high dopamine is associated with a greater willingness to do more work for higher rewards (and lower dopamine is associated with going for the low-hanging fruit/easy reward).
If you are feeling less motivated in general, it’s not a good time to make any decisions about your long-term goals. Instead, get your brain right. The fastest way to do that is:
- pay any sleep dept (reduce artificial light in the evening)
- eat foods that reduce brain inflammation (turmeric, green bell peppers) and increase cell membrane stability and permeability (fish oil)
- eat an anti-inflammatory diet in general (eat less sugar and refined food, less gluten and casein, less grain-fed meat, less processed vegetable oil, and more dark-colored fruits and vegetables)
- exercise daily
- engage in some form of daily active learning (practice a new skill that requires complete concentration and is somewhat difficult) so that your brain utilizes the new neurons generated in your hippocampus
If you are generally feeling happy (reasonably social and outgoing, optimistic, moments of joyfulness throughout your day) but still have very little enthusiasm about reaching a goal that once seemed important, then it’s time to reevaluate. Maybe you’ve changed, and maybe it’s time to pick a new direction in life.
When we’re fighting for our deepest-held moral principles (which I distinguish from beliefs, which should be malleable, based on evidence), we should never give up. There are ideas and feelings worth dying for, like protecting your loved ones, freedom and liberty, and equal rights. It’s always the right choice to double-down and stand up for your core principles. Otherwise you risk living a shadow life.
Controlling Others, Boundaries, and When To Let Go/Give Up
When is it the right choice to give up trying to change someone, or get them to do something?
Personally I draw the line at persuasion. Sometimes, I actively try to change people’s minds and influence their short-term choices via rhetoric (pathos/logos/ethos), incentives, and even “white hat” psychological and nonverbal techniques (use of body language, giving or withholding eye contact, etc). I also consider the use of clear boundaries to be persuasive (I am not always willing to disrupt my own life to cover for the poor planning or unwise choices of other people, and when I am willing to do so, I try to help out without any feelings of resentment or “you owe me”).
But there are two levels of control that I’m not comfortable with; emotional manipulation, and outright coercion. If persuasion doesn’t work, I would sooner give up (and attempt to get whatever I need from a different person) than use these techniques.
I would define emotional manipulation as persuasion combined with deceit used to convince a person to act against their own best interest. Emotional manipulation includes trying to make someone feel guilty or ashamed when they haven’t done anything wrong, or trying to make them feel inadequate or small, or inducing fear when there is really nothing to fear, or promising more than can be delivered. Coercion includes violence or threats of violence, or blackmail. The con-artist and hustler are masters of emotional manipulation, and true psychopaths will resort to coercion.
If someone isn’t behaving the way you want them to behave, it’s often a good idea to give up trying to change them. Accept them the way they are, decide if you want them in your life or not, and make your decisions based on the assumption that they probably won’t change very much (and if they do, it will be on their own schedule, for their own reasons).
If a good friend or family member is truly in need, and you can help them without feeling too resentful, then sometimes it’s a good idea to double-down (even if they are making self-destructive choices). It’s hard to know where that line is. Once I went too far is trying to help a friend who was in some deep shit, and I still haven’t recovered from the stress of the experience. Even though that person is now out of the woods, I’ve been minimizing my contact with them ever since. I just can’t deal.
How Much Time?
How much time should you spend trying to reach a goal before you throw in the towel? If the desire is there, the answer could very well be “succeed or die trying.” I like the story of this Korean lady who, back in 2009, had already failed her driving test 771 times. For whatever reason she kept deciding to take that test again. I don’t necessarily see her actions as virtuous (maybe she should have spent more time studying and practicing, and less time taking the test), but I don’t see anything wrong with her brute-force-perseverance approach either. It may very well be that she just enjoys taking the driver’s test — the pursuit of the goal is the reward.
Sometimes I feel that way regarding Loöq Records. While Spesh and I are often rewarded with minor successes (a track in the Beatport charts, licensing music to a TV show, etc.), we’ve managed to put out 132 releases without a single one blowing up into what could be considered a crossover hit (which is an actual explicit goal we have declared for ourselves). Are we doing it wrong? Probably. Will we keep trying? Yep — I would guess we’ll hit at least two hundred without breaking a sweat. Despite only middling rewards to date, I can’t seem to stop myself from saying “yes” to some of the demos that come our way, and then putting an enormous amount of effort into releasing and promoting that music.
So while there may be no upper cap, there is definitely a minimum amount of time you should dedicate to a goal or life direction that keeps calling to you (if you want to see results). I greatly enjoyed this recent post from Steve Pavlina — he suggests 5 years as a reasonable commitment period.
If a strategy clearly isn’t working, give up (aka “correct course”) and cut your losses. If new evidence contradicts your beliefs, then give up (aka “reconsider”) your beliefs. If a person does not yield to persuasion then give up (aka “let go”) and move on. If you are feeling happy and optimistic but no longer have any desire or excitement when you think about your goal, then consider giving up that goal and finding one that makes your heart truly sing.
If you are feeling depressed or discouraged, don’t give up. Improve your mood, get your brain right, and then decide.
If you feel pressure to compromise your core moral principles, then don’t give up. Double down, and make the world change instead.
If you truly want something, for yourself, or your community, or humankind, don’t give up, regardless of the obstacles you face. Commit long-term, take small steps, and take setbacks in stride.
When were you tempted to give up, but were glad you didn’t?
When did you give up, and not regret it at all?