Tuesday, August 06, 2013

In Praise of Quitters and Failures

“What are you? A quitter??”

These warm words of support, heard by many children, adolescents, and even adults who have dared to vacate an activity, speak volumes about the speaker, not the quitter or failure. The activity left behind may have been the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, a sport, a college, or a job.

Quitting and failing is a natural part of life. Bill Gates quit; so did Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, to mention three notable quitters. And entrepreneurs are notorious failures, failing many times at ventures before, during, and after their successes.

Quitting and failing mean you have been testing many values to find the ones that fit your unique talents and interests, the ones that identify you as you. Staying with one activity that is not enjoyable is a prescription for misery and over the long term can lead to a profound sense of failure in life. Quitting and failing, especially in the early years, helps maintain psychological health.

The self-appointed experts on success in life who denigrate quitters and failures with name-calling and labeling are just the garden variety authoritarians who think they know what is best for the other person. A label that often accompanies the quitter and failure comments is “You’re so lazy.”

For a parent to call a child lazy is the ultimate insult and is in fact a sign of failure as a parent. It also probably means the parent at some point quit trying to learn how to improve as a parent, falling back on traditionally authoritarian techniques of the parent’s parents or grandparents. Learning in the adult has stopped and rather than allowing oneself to feel like a quitter or failure the parent projects this feeling onto his or her children.

Children are not lazy. They often are bored because they have not been taught how to entertain themselves, whether through reading, music, sports or other activities. If allowed and encouraged to freely choose activities, children will not often be bored. If repeatedly told what to do by an adult, however, and punished when “disobedient,” creative and independent thinking eventually shuts down. Action stops while children wait for the next marching order from the parent or teacher. The adult calls this laziness, but it is the adult who has caused the lack of action.*

What children need is not name-calling, but understanding and guidance that they are voluntarily allowed to accept. The grain of truth in the statements about quitting and failing is that children do need to think about what they want to do and if they suffer a misstep must develop resilience, by learning to work hard either to see something through to fruition or to start over again. But resilience is not acquired by being called a quitter or a failure. Quite the opposite is likely to occur.

Hence, quitting and failing are healthy. Sticking to something one does not like and taking unwanted actions to avoid the appearance of a lack of success are not healthy options.

When an adult quits a job, sometimes the boss feels rejected, especially if the employee is valued and a personal relationship has developed over months or years. Technically, psychologists would probably tell us that the boss should not feel rejected, but this is a natural part of the process of moving on to pursue other values. Children should be taught this lesson and be encouraged to act with impunity, following their own choices.

From the standpoint of ethics, it is no one’s moral duty to stick to something he or she does not like, though many think it, especially those who call others quitters and failures. This also is what is behind the labels. Repeating as an adult what one heard in childhood is all too common.

Questioning what one heard in childhood, or better yet, questioning and analyzing in childhood what one is currently hearing from adults, is a sign of an active mind and a growing independence.

But then again, adults have to let these buds blossom. They have to want to encourage independence. Many do not want that.

*Hyperactivity also often results from this type of adult treatment. That, unfortunately, sends children down the path of becoming ADHD drug addicts.