The job you loathe, the relationship that's going nowhere... why do we struggle so much with the notion of being a quitter? Stylist investigates...
She had one of the most coveted jobs in fashion, a front seat at every catwalk show, the ear of the world’s top designers, a wardrobe to die for and she was tipped to take over from Anna Wintour as editor of US Vogue one day.
But just before Christmas last year Carine Roitfeld, the then-editor of French Vogue, did the unthinkable: she quit her job – and without a prestigious new position to tempt her away. In fact, she had nothing specific to move onto, and that was what really shocked. For a woman in her enviable position to step into the void without a concrete next step seemed more than noteworthy, it seemed reckless.
Perhaps the story hit home because we’ve all been there: in the job that sends stress levels soaring or the relationship that everyone else envies but to you feels like it’s going nowhere. But rather than throwing in the towel, walking away and seizing the opportunity to do something completely different, we hesitate. Isn’t it better to stick with what we know than risk uncertainty? And who, after all, wants to be labelled a quitter?
Today many of us clearly define success – and derive our self-esteem – from the importance of our job title and the status of our relationships. No wonder that giving it all up, as Roitfeld did, is frowned upon; everything around us confirms the idea that staying the course is the right thing to do. “The negative connotations of quitting – of loserdom and cowardice – are part of British cultural values,” says Dr Robin Gilmour, a social psychologist at Lancaster University. “There is still pride in the stiff upper lip and not making a fuss. There’s value attached to staying with the known, rather than trying something new. And that attitude is endemic in our institutions – in schools and workplaces. It’s very different from a country like the US, where the ‘frontier spirit’ of pushing boundaries is part of the culture. Even the language is different. In the US, they don’t talk about quitting; they talk about moving on. They’re not giving something up; they’re trying something new.”
The importance of commitment is drummed into us as children, the value of sticking with music lessons has its adult manifestation in a refusal to walk away from a book club even though we are bored of it, or leaving the gym even if we rarely go. We may want to quit, but the power of those formative lessons remain stubbornly strong.
In the US, they don’t talk about quitting; they talk about moving on. They’re not giving something up; they’re trying something new.
The message that quitting is wrong is particularly ingrained in the female psyche. “Women have developed biologically to have and raise children, and that means they have to be present – they can’t leave on a whim,” says Dr Gilmour. “This can translate as being less impulsive in other areas of life; they may think harder and longer [than men] before making a change.” But, says Dr Paul Gilbert, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Derby, we all focus on saving face, even if the price we pay is very high. “A lot of our behaviour is about maintaining reputation in front of our family, friends and work colleagues. We don’t want to appear to lack qualities like determination and courage, and we’re also scared to ‘chicken out’ of situations that are considered so vital by society. But if we’re not careful we become puppets and our life is not our own. We need to realise we don’t have to be approved of all the time.”
One key motivation to digging our heels into a job which doesn’t satisfy us any more or a friendship which feels flat can be traced back to our evolutionary past. “Humans have three emotion systems – the threat system, which comes into play when we’re under stress and is governed by the hormone adrenaline; the drive system, which is stimulated by money and success, prompting drug-like hits of dopamine; and the calm system, which is linked to positive emotions and relationships, and causes the release of feelgood endorphins and the bonding hormone oxytocin,” explains Dr Gilbert. The problem in our Western society, he says, is that our relative affluence means we’re no longer fuelled by the threat instinct – the physical danger from fighting predators and, as our society has become more fragmented and we are more self sufficient, we lack the calming benefits that come from a wider sense of community. So we have come to value the drive system above all others, and we fulfil this instinct by fighting as hard as we can for the visible signs: money and success. This means we get a short-term high from a pay rise but become disconnected from people and situations that create a sense of meaning in our lives. There are other barriers to quitting. Dr Gilmour believes we’re deeply suspicious of those who reject the norm.
“There is a fear of stepping off the prescribed route. It creates a social stigma – it’s OK to downshift to the Cotswolds; not to step blindly off the property or career ladder, or leave a ‘perfect’ relationship for single life.” And then there are personal fears and failings. “We don’t want to admit that our friends were right about our husband; we feel anxiety about the unknown; or simply succumb to inertia,” says Dr Gilmour. “But the biggest problem is what I call ‘the gambler’s fallacy’ – the idea that we’ve invested so much in a situation, we can’t give up now.”
Quitting becomes even more difficult when we’re about to do it. Not only are women more conscious of our emotional investment in something than men but we actually change the way we process information as we reach the point of quitting. So we start by considering what bankers would call a ‘cost vs benefit analysis’ of our job or our relationship – does the fact he’d make a great dad and earns a good salary, say, make up for the fact that there’s no spark? Does the stability of a job make up for the fact it’s making us unmotivated? Then, as leaving seems more likely, we switch to thinking it would be a better bet to stay; if we invest a little more effort, surely the payoff will happen this time. “The risk is that you wake up one day and realise you’ve been funding this slot machine and you’ve run out of money,” says Dr Gilmour.
Not only are women more conscious of our emotional investment in something than men but we actually change the way we process information as we reach the point of quitting.
A recent study by Daniel Molden and Chin Ming Hui, psychologists at Chicago’s Northwestern University supports the idea that it’s our outlook that most affects our willingness to quit. They found that shifting your mindset from what you have to lose (a prevention mindset) to what you have to gain (a promotion mindset), can make quitting a great deal easier. They found that 80% of those in a prevention mindset stuck with a doomed plan (in this case putting a fictional £5.4 million into a failing project) – compared to 60% of those in a promotion mindset.
Of course, giving up is easier said than done in a society like ours. Author of Work Doesn’t Work Anymore, Elizabeth Perle McKenna found that 75% of women said they were defined by the work that they did. Dr Gilmour believes this is partly because we don’t spend time giving meaning to other areas of our lives, we only gain a sense of self worth from these narrow factors. Which is why quitting one of those roles is most often seen as a loss, not a potential new start. “There is a grief process when we give up a position that forms a strong part of our identity,” agrees Dr Gilbert. “We run into problems when we begin to devalue ourselves.”
It isn’t just how we feel inside, friends and colleagues may also struggle with your quitting. “There’s a lot of naysaying in Britain, a fear of stepping off the prescribed route. So people may also be jealous that you’re doing something that deep down they would also like to do,” says Dr Gilmour.
TAKING THE PLUNGE
So how do we find the strength to do what our heart, and gut, is telling us? First, says Dr Gilmour, analyse the situation that you’re in. “Ask yourself, is this a bad day or week, or am I honestly experiencing long-term dissatisfaction?” Next, be specific – do you hate your career, or just your boss? Does your partner really make you unhappy, or is it the fact you don’t see enough of each other? Then, think about where you want to be next, what are your values and interests that you want to see changed? Finally, genuinely consider staying. Quitting sounds more appealing, but will it be as constructive as staying? After this cool, considered analysis you will know if you want to quit, and where you want to be next.
And Carine Roitfeld? It’s just been announced she’ll be styling for Barneys department store in New York. “I have opportunities coming on. The only sure thing I know is that I will keep my freedom,” she has said. Not a bad result for a quitter.
Words: Andrea Childs