What happened the last time you told someone you wanted to give up on something?
Maybe it was a job. Maybe a relationship. A goal? A dream?
“Cool. I think that’s a good idea.”
Yeah, I’m going to guess most of us don’t get that response.
Because giving up is bad, right? Stay positive! You can do it! Especially if you’re a leader, you must persevere. Leaders who stop in the heat of battle and say, “You know what? I don’t think this is a good idea,” don’t usually maintain their following. Fight at all costs. Conquer!
But sometimes, leadership is walking away.
I teach psychology. In the unit on coping, the textbook lists giving up as a “destructive coping mechanism.”
Hey, I get it. We have all sorts of reasons for this. We want people to have an internal locus of control (“I have power over what happens to me”) and not an external locus of control (“Life just happens to me”). We don’t want people to have learned helplessness (“Nothing I do has an effect anyway, so why even try?”). We want people to be happy and healthy and to believe they can achieve. I get it.
But giving up isn’t always a result of flawed thinking or an inability to deal with stress.
Sometimes, giving up is an act of courage.
We don’t always have control over our experiences. I feel like a rogue psychology professor when I say that. To suggest that we do can be dangerous. There’s some seriously unfair stuff out there.
“But it’s not what happens to you; it’s how you respond.” Yeah, yeah. Here’s the thing: that response doesn’t have to be to keep fighting.
Another psychological concept is the sunk cost fallacy. Here, we keep going because we’ve already put so much into something—that job, that relationship, that dream. The reality, however, is that the costs outweigh the benefits, and it would be much more productive, and healthy, to stop. And that’s where leadership comes in.
Just look at any Instagram feed, and you’ll see that there is a level of shame associated with giving up.
Don’t give up! Climb that mountain! Even if you’re injured and out of breath and about to fall off the side of the cliff, you can do it! Keep going! If you don’t keep going, there’s something wrong with you.
If I see one more post that encourages people to pursue their dreams at all costs, I might punch someone (I won’t; I’m all about violence prevention). Because giving up does not equal failure. Considering costs is healthy. Leaving a situation that hurts you, or at the least doesn’t serve you, is not anything to feel ashamed about.
I’ve watched several of my mentors walk away from jobs and dreams. I’m glad I did. They taught me that I don’t have to keep going in toxic environments when I’m in pain.
That’s leadership. Leadership that says your health and well-being matter. You matter.
We all have different temperaments, dispositions, experiences, and resources. Some of us will plod along, push forward. Some of us won’t. We may persevere in one case but not in another. And that’s okay.
There is nothing wrong with you if you walk away. It’s not always “destructive,” as my textbook suggests. Sometimes, it’s a way to show yourself, and others, that individual health and well-being matter.
So if you’ve put a lot into this thing that’s hurting you and you feel like giving up, I’ll be the last person to call you a failure. To me, you’re a leader, and I honor your courage in walking away.