By Gaynor Parkin. 

Grit. Determination. Perseverance. Pushing on through. 

Our Western culture celebrates the qualities of persistence and striving. We love stories of people triumphing over adversity of all kinds. Recently we were right there with Olympic athletes overcoming tremendous odds to win medals. 

We are also quick to criticise anyone who appears to “give up”. The great basketball player Michael Jordan declared, “If you quit once it becomes a habit. Never quit.” Not persevering is seen as the “soft option” or taking the easy road out. Some of the recent commentary surrounding the world’s best gymnast Simone Biles’s decision to pull out of Olympic competition was vile. 

I have written this piece in my head many times but haven’t shared it until now. At the, I hope, wise age of 53 I have been learning and practising how to quit.

Grit. Determination. Perseverance. Pushing on through. 

I’ve got these qualities by the bucketful. I don’t give up. When there’s a challenge, I find a way through, or around, or navigate to find alternatives. Quitting has never been an option for me, probably learned early on in my life when my family emigrated to a new country away from extended whānau. I was bullied at school for my accent, for sounding different and not fitting in, my learning suffered, and I needed remedial reading help. And our family struggled without whānau in the country. Somewhere in this journey, I developed a quiet but determined will to make things better. 

On balance, perseverance and determination has mostly been useful. Grit helped me improve at school and get a 1st class honours degree, leading to admission to a clinical psychology training course, which opened up interesting and rewarding work opportunities. I completed further study, became a working mum of twins (alongside a very supportive husband), wrote a book and started a successful business. Despite being short on time, I maintained friendships and connected with my extended family overseas. And this same grit and determination helped me keep going during challenging times in the business. 

The perseverance also kicked in for a breast cancer battle last year. The surgery was tough, but I used my grit, worked hard at the rehab and remained positive. The other treatments were more brutal and I needed to really lean on those pushing-on-through skills, especially on the days where I would dread going into the hospital.

So, I’m grateful for this strength, it’s got me through some tough times. 

The thing with strengths though, is that they can be overused. 

Research studies show that we can rely on them too much, or use them too often, or miss noticing that they are not so helpful anymore. As a psychologist I know this, I have presented and written about learning how to modify strengths and habits! I’ve also coached many people to support them to recalibrate strengths and get smarter about their use.

Even grit has a downside. A 2015 study found that people with high levels of grit often persist with difficult tasks to their own detriment. Participants had to solve as many puzzles as they could – but some of the puzzles were unsolvable. Grittier individuals spent more time attempting to solve unsolvable puzzles, and solved fewer overall than their less gritty counterparts. The researchers’ conclusion? There is value in knowing when to quit.

It’s one thing to know this, quite another to put it into action. Recently, after much debate with myself, I decided not to take on another business challenge. What a tough call that was. We are going to stay focused on core business and not pursue work we know is needed, that we can be good at but will extend our team. Instead, I’m going to conserve my energy and time, and to protect my team from being stretched too thin. Grit. Determination. Perseverance. Pushing on through. I see you, and I choose to put you aside this time. 

Embracing the decision to stop, or to quit striving, is in service of wellbeing. It’s been enormously hard. But it is a tiny step towards using these strengths flexibly, noticing when they are useful but navigating away from them when they are not. 

We know from psychological research that we are more likely to succeed, and lift our wellbeing, with new behaviours if we seek to “add” rather than eliminate (i.e. set ourselves an “approach” goal rather than an “avoidance” goal). So I don’t want to ditch the grit, rather I want to add “letting go” to the perseverance bucket. I’m practising asking for help, learning to ease up on how much can get done in a day, and to replace some of the hard work with more fun and play. 

We use this quote in our workshops and it has resonated with me a great deal recently:

“When you press the pause button on a machine, it stops. But when you press the pause button on human beings they start.” (Thomas L Friedman)

If you have the “pushing on through” strength in bucketsful, I hope reading this gives you permission to gently check in with yourself (and maybe others) – Is this useful for me? When is it not? What else could I do instead? And what other skills might I start to learn that enhance my wellbeing rather than deplete it?