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When quitting is a good thing: Journalist and author Julia Keller on the new science of giving up

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Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with Julia Keller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, novelist, and teacher, about her fascinating new book, Quitting: The Myth of Perseverance—and How the New Science of Giving Up Can Set You Free.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, and Spotify. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation and The Linda Frum & Howard Sokolowski Charitable Foundation.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Julia Keller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, novelist, playwright, and teacher who has written several books, including her most recent, Quitting: A Life Strategy: The Myth of Perseverance—and How the New Science of Giving Up Can Set You Free, which challenges the story that our society tells itself about quitting as an expression of weakness and instead argues that the ability to quit can be quite positive. I’m grateful to speak with her about not only why quitting is underrated but actually has biological and neurological dimensions to it. Julia, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the book.

JULIA KELLER: Oh, thank you so much.

SEAN SPEER: You have personal experience with quitting. In particular, the book opens with a powerful personal story of walking away from graduate school as a young person. You write that “My mind and my body were offering clear, unmistakable signals that I simply wasn’t ready to be a graduate student at that point.” Julia, can you talk a bit about those signals? What kind of intuition did you have, and how could you discern that these feelings were more than just apprehension or insecurity, or whatever? What made you come to realize that you needed to quit?

JULIA KELLER: I wish I had had the knowledge back then that I have now, and we all say that about a variety of things, of course. But I was so bereft and disconsolate at that moment. I was 19 years old. I’d graduated from college early, and I thought it would be just a dandy idea if I went away to grad school. It actually ended up being a terrible idea. I’d never lived away from home on my own. I was emotionally very immature. Intellectually, I was probably fine, but it was the emotional component that did me in, and I simply wasn’t able to handle it. Had I known then what I know now, I would have listened to myself and I would’ve quickly surmised that this is just not working out for me. But I really fought it. I thought, “I don’t want to be a quitter; how can I possibly leave the situation?”

I’d been given this wonderful fellowship, this great opportunity. Other people did not get this opportunity that I had, so I had the guilt that was layered on top of my own disappointment in myself. And that’s what happens, I think. We come to these watershed moments in our lives.

I began with the personal anecdote; I didn’t want anyone to mistake this for any kind of memoir. It is not; I intended it to be as much reporting and as much cultural meditation as anything else. But I really thought I needed to begin with that personal anecdote of that moment sitting on what I accurately call a grimy linoleum floor in Morgantown, West Virginia, thinking that I don’t know how I’m going to get through the next 10 minutes of my life, much less all the rest of my life.

I wanted to begin with that, though, to let people know that I do know what that feels like when you talk about quitting. It is very emotional. There’s so much layered on top of it, so much cultural baggage, we dig in to that. And the fear too. The great fear. What will happen next? I just wanted to make sure that people understood that I was aware of the very high stakes that we bring to this question of whether to stay on a present path that perhaps isn’t working or abandon that and go to another one.

SEAN SPEER: It’s a powerful story. I’m glad that you opened the book that way, and I promise we’ll come to the extraordinary reporting that you did to produce this book. But I want to stay on this point, but perhaps in a different way. Presumably, there are instances when quitting is a mistake: when it reflects momentary uncertainty or doubt rather than the kind of powerful self-revelation that you’ve described. How can we distinguish between the two? What are some examples, in theory at least, of bad quitting in your mind, or is that the wrong way to think about it?

JULIA KELLER: I don’t know. In a way, I like that phrase though, because it’s just so stark and blunt: bad quitting versus good quitting. But I think you’re quite right. There are, of course, times when we shouldn’t quit. I will tell you, though, then the course of the many hundreds of interviews that I did for the book, asking people about their quitting moments, and everybody does seem to have a quitting moment; everybody has a quitting story. The vast preponderance of people were more regretful about the things they should have quit but didn’t than about the things that they did quit.

That is not to say, however, that there aren’t things that we quit and we regret it. I talked to one man in the book who had quit his college football team, and he just had a moment of fear of like, “I’m not doing very well. I’m going to quit.” Turned out the team went on to have a great season, and he told me, looking back on that now, probably 30 years later, he definitely regretted it. So, you’re quite right; there is bad quitting. And that would be an example of a bad quit, which he readily acknowledges now. He said, “My entire life would’ve been different.” He said, “I’m not unhappy with my life now. I love my life now and my wife, my children, my career. I’m not unhappy with it. However, it would’ve been a different kind of life, and I will always wonder the great, what if I had stayed with it?”

So it really comes down to this question of interrogating yourself in these particular moments. And I think it’s one of the most profound questions we ever ask ourselves: whether to stay on a present path or whether to change. It’s more profound than just like, “Well, do I quit this job or that job, or do I stay in this relationship or not?” It gets really to the very core of our souls, even our spiritual selves, because it’s about how we spend our time during this brief, limited interim that’s our birth and our death. How are we going to spend that time and using all of our gifts and talents to their fullest extent?

SEAN SPEER: I would just say in parentheses that in an earlier episode of Hub Dialogues, we spoke to the economist and public intellectual Russ Roberts, who writes about, in effect, choosing a different path for your life and facing the known-knowns and the unknown-unknowns about how those ultimate choices will manifest themselves. Do you think we can train ourselves to listen to these impulses within ourselves and discern what they’re actually telling us? And on a separate yet related point, Julia, what role do you think peer pressure or an instinct to want to please others plays in explaining the challenges that many of us face in quitting stuff?

JULIA KELLER: Oh, I’d like to take the second question first because you’re so right. In fact, I have a chapter called “Quitters Guilt” because we are so influenced by the opinions of others. How will this look? How will this scene? I used to always joke with friends that if I was in a car full of people and we stopped, we were wondering, “Oh, is this cafe open? I would never want to be—” People say, “Well, just jump out of the car there, Julia. And just go either look at the door,” and I’ll say, “No, no, no, I don’t want to try the door, because then they’ll know I wanted in.” And everybody would see the fact that I was disappointed and thwarted in my goal, and they’d say, “It’s a cafe, and we want coffee. The stakes really aren’t that high, Julia.” But this sense of how we’ll look to others becomes such a powerful influence on what we do or don’t do, and it’s really kind of unfortunate.

We know it as adolescents. I mean, everybody knows what it feels like to be a teenager and to want to be like everybody else, but even as adults, we feel that intense pressure. We don’t want anyone to see us as weak or sniffling and all those adjectives that we tend to pile on top of our behaviour, particularly in the face of if we happen to quit something. I’m not sure we ever do get past that. We do care how we look to other people. But to relate this to your first question of can we ever learn to do it better, to maybe listen more attentively to our own selves rather than other people? I think one of the ways to do that is some of the things that I mentioned a bit in the book is to realize that in the animal kingdom, quitting is a life strategy. And once we know that, I know it sounds a little bit goofy, but I talk about the example of the finches on Galapagos Islands.

Once you know that, and once you know that story about how the finches had to adapt to get their food because if they didn’t, they would perish, if they don’t quit, if they spend too long trying to get a particular seed out of a particular plant, they will die. Animals live on a much thinner margin of survival than we do. Once you understand that and know how animals have handled that, and you realize that we are animals too and we can handle it that same way, but we allow ourselves to be commandeered by all the cultural baggage and all the cultural ideas that we tend to load on top of the idea of quitting. Once we jettison all of that and just do that listening that I mentioned, that deep, attentive listening, I think we’re going to be much better off, and perhaps we can get to a state when we make those decisions based on what’s best for us and not because of how it’s going to look to others.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s speak about that baggage now. You call it in the book the “Gospel of Grit.” What is the gospel of grit, and what explains its resonance in our culture?

JULIA KELLER: I maintainand this is probably where I’m really out on a limb here, but of course, what fun is it when you write cultural commentary unless you make some bold statement and let people take their best shot at it? I really believe that the self-help movement itself and this idea of grit and perseverance—that you must always tough it out, you must grit your teeth and make your fists into little balls, and just stay the coursethat comes very much from the 19th century, when a man named Samuel Smiles wrote a book called Self-Help: with Illustrations of Character and Conduct. And this book was a compendium of short biographical essays of successful men of the day. And of course, back then, all men, of course, because only men could do big, important things women never could.

And in the 19th century, that’s when incoming inequality was first really becoming a thing. Of course, we’d always had it. You had kings and wealthy people, of course, and then you had all the peasants at the bottom. But in the 19th century, you had regular people rising to the top. You had industrialists, you had inventors, you had people that were making vast fortunes—not very many people, but you did have people rising out of the lower and middle classes making a lot of money. And sometimes tremendous fortunes during the industrial age. So how do you reconcile that? If you’re a thinking, feeling person and you care about other people in the world, how do you look at the very few people at the top and the vast number of people at the bottom who were literally dying on the streets?

You had mothers with babies who were dying from starvation. How do you reconcile that? Well, Samuel Smiles’ idea was use grit and perseverance as your measure. Clearly, if someone is poor, they didn’t work hard, they quit too soon. Clearly, if someone is wealthy, they worked hard and they stayed with it, and they hung in there, and they were tough, and they were resilient, and they were gritty. And all of those words and all of those concepts really began to get their hooks into our culture at large. The self-help movement came from that, Samuel Smiles coining the term, self-help, meaning if you follow this course, if you follow these rules that I give you, then, Sean, you too can become Bill Gates. You, too, can become Elon Musk. And in the late 20th and the 21st century that we’re in, now that manifests itself in the way we revere our billionaires and the very wealthy people.

Now, it’s true, they have a lot more money than the rest of us, but the question becomes: why? And the grit and perseverance movement says, “Well because they worked harder. They didn’t sleep late in the mornings. They didn’t press the snooze button; they were out there working.” Well, a lot of times, they were just lucky. And the more honest among the very wealthy people will admit that, we’ll concede that readily. They had some really good breaks. But a lot of these profiles really fawning, adoring profiles of very wealthy people will come up with this idea and say, “Well, no, no, no, it’s because they worked harder.” And people who are not so fortunate economically, right? They’re just bums; they’re washouts; they’re losers; they’re weaklings; they gave up; they quit. And you can see how insidious that idea is, and it allows us to maintain and to put up with the vast level and the increasing level of income inequality and social injustice in the world.

So I really think that in addition to my great discomfort at some of the ideas of the self-help movement, I also think this has larger implications for the society at large, for the way we create a society. What do we put up with? What level of inequality do we put up with? Because things happen, things that we can’t control. And we are all born with different skills and abilities. Some of us are born with disabilities that we have to overcome. So to look at all of us and say, “It’s all a matter of how hard you worked,” is a really sinister ideology. And more than incorrect, it’s actually quite damaging.

SEAN SPEER: I’ll have you elaborate on some of those ideas because I want to cite what is, I think, one of the most engrossing couple of sentences in the book. You write: “The glorification of grit has a dark side; the campaign against quitting has a checkered past, a complicated, and even sometimes sinister history.” Why don’t you just talk a bit about those two sentences and the ideas that you’re aiming to convey?

JULIA KELLER: Yes, I don’t believe there’s a coven of mean rich people who are sitting around trying to get us to accept the current level of income inequality we have. But I do think that there is a general idea that’s adrift in the culture that we need to really keep an eye on and interrogate. This ideaand we see it manifested in our politics often here in the United Statesyou hear it said that, again, people at the bottom just aren’t working hard enough. It’s a matter of how hard you work. People at the top do work hard, and if only you worked hard, you would be doing better. And we simply know that isn’t true. As I said, we’re born with different abilities. We’re born with various burdens that we all have to face. Sometimes we’re able to overcome them; sometimes we’re not. But it’s not a moral failing, and quitting something and making another decision is—to put it on this moral footing, I think gives it, again, this air of one being a bad person if one abandons a particular path.

So I guess that’s really the two prongs of the two ideas that I really wanted to explore in the book. This notion of the gospel of grit as being a negative thing rather than a positive. And also this idea that once we understand that quitting is a perfectly respectable strategy that has enabled the other animals with whom we share the planet to survive and even thrive, we’re going to be a lot better off, and we’re going to be able to apply those lessons to our own lives and shut off this cultural baggage of telling us that we’re a very bad person if we quit.

SEAN SPEER: Before we get to the fascinating science of quitting, let me try to present something of an alternative argument to get your reaction. One commonly hears that it’s not the outcome that matters but rather it’s the process. That is to say, we are the accumulation of our experiences, and even bad ones come to define who we are, such that quitting may stand in the way of us obtaining what may be life-shaping experiences. Why is that line of argument wrong in your mind? What’s it missing?

JULIA KELLER: Well, I think that it’s, again, setting up a false dichotomy between either quitting or staying the course, because I would argue that—and the staying the course gets huddled under this rubric of resilienceI would argue that we quit our way to resilience, that they’re really the same thing. That serial quitting leads us to do this very same kind of character development and self-development that you were alluding to. But we set up this kind of false dichotomy of if you quit, you’re a loser and a bum; if you stay the course, you will achieve resilience and grit and you’ll make a million dollars, and all your hopes and dreams will come true. And there really all of a peace.

And that when we quit, we’re getting to the same place where we want to be. That if we manage to somehow demystify and not demonize the idea of quitting, we would be a lot further along in going to that place. But again, it’s all a matter of taking all those negative connotations away, which is really tough. I mean, I’m under no illusions that’s going to be an easy thing. But I just know in my life, it has helped so much when I need to make a change, major or minor, even small changesas you know, I have a chapter called “The Quasi-Quit”, which is about not changing everything all at once, but I compare it to a rheostat dial. You adjust it with a light; you turn it a little bit up, a little bit down. You can go by gradations, you can go by increments. Even in doing that, it’s very tough, small and large. It’s not an easy thing. But when we’re able to do that, we really can change our lives both outwardly and inwardly.

SEAN SPEER: Your point about our inward life is a good segue to my next question because, as I was reading the book, Julia, I was thinking a bit about religious faith. For a lot of believers, religious faith is an exercise in grappling with doubt. I think it was Frederick Buechner who said, “If you wake up believing in God more days than not, that’s actually a realistic experience with religious belief.” Is quitting, therefore, different in a religious context? Does the inherent faith aspect of religion change the way we ought to think about quitting?

JULIA KELLER: Hmm. I’d not thought of it in quite those terms before. I love that question and in thinking about that, because there is certainly a religious and spiritual dimension to this kind of notion that I’ve posited about quitting and what it can mean to us. And I do think that the greatest doubt is the greatest fidelity in a way. Yeah, I’m always suspicious of people that don’t doubt and who don’t question, because that just doesn’t—we know that the greatest convictions that we have are the ones that have been tested. A friend of mine was a minister, and he used to say, “I just don’t like peopleI want a conviction you’ve come to with some struggle.” That was always his contention, that if you’ve come to it with struggle, then I know it’s durable; it’s been tested, and there’s that ultimate resilience.

So, I mean, I really like that notion of applying this to a more spiritual context. I think we’re all, at times, believers and unbelievers. We are always ping-ponging back and forth because, based on the experiences we’re going through, I mean, there is no person, no matter how severe the believer, that has not had moments—perhaps the unfair death of a loved one, the out of time, the untimely death of a loved one—something that happens that makes you think, just for a fleeting moment, maybe there isn’t any presiding intelligence in the universe. Maybe it is all just a bunch of random molecules bumping up against each other. And it’s when it’s the faith that comes in the wake of that doubt that is the strongest and most resilient, and really most beautiful and radiant faith.

SEAN SPEER: Yeah, well said. That’s beautiful. Okay, let’s come to science now. You argue in the book, as you’ve outlined in our conversation, that quitting is actually quite natural, by which I mean, it’s inherent to our nature. In fact, you describe it as a “survival technique that’s part and parcel of the evolutionary process.” Tell us about that. What did your research uncover?

JULIA KELLER: Yeah, I really loved reading about—I had this idea; the cultural idea came to me first, and then I thought, I’m just sure that this has got to be something that neuroscience has explored. And indeed, as it turned out, it is very front and centre in a lot of neuroscience research right now. And it’s also in a lot of biological research where we look at things like birds and fish, and all kinds of animals in the world, that they use quitting as a strategy, and if not a conscious strategy, then one that they employ at will. Not to be too whimsical about it, but animals don’t have social media. They don’t have all the things that make us self-conscious about our quitting. They just do it because it works.

If you think of a lion chasing prey, if the lion chases that prey too long and it’s maybe too swift for him, and he becomes enervated, then he too will become prey. So it’s like, “All right, I just need to live to fight another day here. I’ll go after something else. Let me stop, recover my strength.” As I mentioned, animals living on a very thin margin of survival, they don’t have the luxury of pursuing something to such an extent where they don’t get the payoff and a nutritional payoff. And I use the example too, of bees. I talked to a very imminent entomologist, actually recently passed away Dr. Justin Schmidt, and as he says, “Animals have two goals: to eat and not be eaten.” And that we really have the same goals, but we kind of dress it up with other things. But it’s true: to eat and to not be eaten. We want to survive, and you find ways to do that. And bees are great at that.

And the example I use, you make probably one of my favourites in the book, is comparing a honeybee to Simone Biles, the great gymnast. Simone Biles quit during the finals of the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo. And some people were horrified: “How can she quit? She’s a quitter.” And I completely disagree. I think she was never a greater champion than when she quit the finals. She realized that she was not physically and mentally able at that moment to do it. As you know it’s very perilous that when you are an elite gymnast, the routines that you perform are your risking catastrophic injury or even death. And she realized she was not in the right place. Her mind or body, or spirit were not in sync. She couldn’t do it. So she stood down.

And in a similar way, honeybees will sting to protect the hive. Now, only the female sting. And when they sting, they perish; it eviscerates them the sting. So a honeybee will make a decision. This is one of Dr. Schmidt’s great discoveries in his research. A honeybee will make a very quick calculation: is the nest fertile enough to warrant the sacrifice of the life of the honeybee? And the honeybee will also decide, “Is this predator real? Is this enough of a threat to warrant my perishing?” And often the honeybee will think and—well, I say, think. I’m using human terms for this, but the honeybee will stand down and not sting because it isn’t worth it, not worth the cost of the life. Either the predator is not enough of a significant threat or the hive is not fertile enough to warrant that. So, like Simone Biles, the honeybee will not undertake it. And that’s, say, the comparison I was making there to say that we can think like a honeybee and we can think like a finch on Galapagos Island and say, “Is this worth the cost of this? Is this worth the cost of my life?” It often is life as I mentioned in there. I mean, you can push yourself to a limit to where if you don’t quit, it actually can have dire physical consequences.

SEAN SPEER: You mentioned the neuroscience; let me ask about that now. What does the zebrafish have to do with quitting, and what do they tell us about the neurological dimension of this complex issue?

JULIA KELLER: Zebrafish, as it turns out, and this was a great surprise to me; perhaps you already knew it, but I didn’t. Zebrafish are often used in neuroscience research, and I thought to myself, “Well, why is zebrafish other than having a really cool name? What is a zebrafish?” It’s a tiny little minnow that’s found in Southeast Asia mainly. They are cheap and easy to procure. And the best thing is in the larva stage, they are translucent, and their genes are very easily manipulated. So neuroscientists are able to literally watch a zebrafish as it’s thinking when they can manipulate the gene so that they will flash in different colours. And Dr. Misha Ahrens at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute has done a lot of work with zebrafish, as have a lot of neuroscientists.

But in these experiments, what they would try to do is to make the zebrafish quit and then monitor what happens. Where in the brain does quitting happen? Where and how in the brain do neurons do this? Now, you think, “How do they come up with this? How do you make a fish quit? How do you make a fish discouraged?” And it’s so ingenious and so inventive the way they came up with these experiments. They basically used virtual reality within the aquarium, where they had the zebrafish. They would have screens on each side, and they would project the water moving in the opposite direction. So no matter how hard the zebrafish swims, he thinks he’s getting nowhere because he looks around and he’s completely disoriented, and he’s being tricked into thinking that he’s getting nowhere. The harder he works, and he’s very quickly becoming enervated, the less progress he’s making.

So the zebrafish will quit. And it’s at that moment of quitting what Dr. Ahrens and his team, that’s what they were monitoring. Where does it happen in the brain? Which specific neurons, and what is the implication of that? They say at that point, the fish has what’s called futility-induced passivity. There’s a moment when the fish just says, “Okay, all right, I’m done. That’s it. I’m out.” And we’ll wait a moment and then go in another direction, and then try another strategy. But there is this moment—there is an actual moment of quitting in the brain that we have identified. And there are all kinds of applications this might have. We’re not nearly there yet, but there are other laboratories where they’re studying it with rats and mice. You can imagine the traditional mice that they use making a mouse quit.

There’s a lab at the University of Washington, Dr. Michael Bruscas works in. And his experiments are about the chemical transmitters—the chemical transmissions that go between the neurons—and what happens at that moment of quitting. And they will try to dial up and dial down a mouse’s level of initiative or inertia. When will a mouse keep going? Or when will a mouse just say, “All right, that’s enough for me”? What makes him press a little bar to get another pellet? And if he keeps pressing and he doesn’t get a palate, when will he stop? And of course, Dr. Bruscas and his team, they compare it to a person at a slot machine—a compulsive gambler. “What makes us stop? What keeps going?” So the point I’m making is these aren’t just esoteric experiments for no reason. What they hope to do, once we discover where quitting happens in the brain, we can perhaps come up with pharmaceutical cures or other ways of helping people who are too motivated, meaning like an alcoholic or a drug addict that is motivated to get that substance, or people who aren’t motivated enough, people who suffer from clinical depression or other kinds of psychiatric disorders. So it has real-world applications to really help people in their suffering.

SEAN SPEER: One tension that you observe in the book is that, while our society conveys to people that quitting is a sign of weakness, it’s actually at the core of major advancements in science or mathematics, or other intellectual pursuits. Let me ask a two-part question. First, how is quitting key to intellectual advancement? And second, what do you think explains the cognitive dissonance in our culture?

JULIA KELLER: When you think about it and you read the history of science, there always comes that moment when we have to leave the old behind. If we still believe we lived in a Newtonian physics universe, we’d still look at cause and effect, and we’d never be able to understand or even have ever discovered the quantum universe. We have to leave things behind. We have to quit old ways of thinking in order to move ahead. Shedding the old is part of the scientific method. We don’t believe the earth is flat anymore. We don’t believe that the evil spirits that inhabit the body create disease. We now know that there’s a germ theory of disease, and we know now that the earth seems to be round; all the available evidence tells us that. So we had to let go of the old; we had to quit old ways of thinking.

So there is a, there is a great imaginative leap that quitting can initiate. And if we don’t do the quitting, we can never make that leap if we’re still back where we were. As far as cognitive dissonance, I think that’s a great phrase for it because that really is what happens. I think we don’t make that particular connection in our minds, which we should. The things that we have left behind—the old ways and the old notions of seeing things—if we leave those behind, that does enable us then to leap ahead and to do different things. Part of the reason is because it’s hard. I mean, not to be too silly about it, but truly, or too simplistic, but it’s hard. It takes a lot of courage. I mean, that’s something that it came across to me again and again in conversations with people. It’s not easy for anybody to make that quitting decision to go in another direction, to abandon one path that might be very comfortable. Well, that might not be where you want to be, but well, it’s comfortable.

I was chatting with a friend about these quitting decisions, and the hardest ones to make aren’t when something is terrible. I mean, when I was sitting on that grimy linoleum floor, really at the end of my emotional tether, it wasn’t an easy decision, but it certainly wasI mean, I had to do something. I mean, I could not go on with the status quo. The hardest decisions we make are when it’s not terrible. It’s not a Dickensian workhouse, it’s just not what we want to be doing. And those are the hard ones. That’s what requires real courage. I think a lot of that disconnect while we don’t do it more often is because it’s really, really hard. It’s not easy for anybody.

SEAN SPEER: It’s a brilliant insight, Julia. It reminds me that Joseph Schumpeter’s theory was about creative destruction.

JULIA KELLER: Yes.

SEAN SPEER: You couldn’t choose one without the other. And of course, as much as we lionize the creative part, we are resistant to the destructive part of his understanding of our economy and society. So there’s so much there. Thanks for those insights.

I just have a couple of more questions for you, if that’s okay. If people follow your advice, we might, as we’ve just been discussing, get more intellectual advancement. But would we lose anything? Is grit and perseverance worth something in say sports or other human endeavours?

JULIA KELLER: Yes, certainly, certainly. And I always used to joke and say that after I’ve talked about this, I would hate it when people would drive home after listening to me or reading the book and get in the driveway and immediately text their partner and say, “Sorry, honey, I’m out.” No, no, no. I don’t intend it in that way at all, because it is very much an individual decision. Everything that you quit or don’t quit is completely up to you. And everybody’s circumstance is different. In fact, the individuality of this, I think, is a key point. And there are times when grit and resilience do serve us well, and they are good things. The great creative challenge is to figure that out: which is which? Which things do we stick with, and which things do we not stick with it?

As I said, it’s easy when we know we have to do something. I mean, if someone kidnapped you and you want to escape, so that’s an easy thing to say: “All right, I’ve got a way out here; I’m going to escape.” No one has to argue that way. I think maybe you ought to take your first opportunity and leave, because otherwise they’re going to kill you. That doesn’t need to be explained to you. But the point I would make too is that part of living, and particularly when into maturity, is knowing what we can change and what we can’t.

There are things in life that we can’t change. When terrible things happen to usand they happen to all of us, everyone suffers. We lose loved ones. We have career disappointments. There are natural disasters. There are things that just happen—unfair things all the time. And then there are things that we can’t do anything about, but there are things we can do something about. So finding that balance is one of the great creative challenges of living. And that’s finally what I’ve come to in terms of figuring out which it would be the stay or go decision, and actually that’s what neuroscientists call it, a stay or go decision. When we’re making that decision, that requires one of the highest forms of cognition that we do. Virtually our entire brain is involved in that. It’s not just one little place. And I talked about finding that quitting place in the brain. That’s true of some easy decisions, like whether to take a next step or to stay still.

But other decisions that we make in terms of quitting or staying, or going, quitting or staying the course, require just an enormous amount of cognitive flexibility, of nimbleness, of taking into account context and history and personality and aspiration. All these elements have to be mixed together. So when we ask our brains whether or not we should quit, we’re really calling upon our—everything that we have has to go into that. And that’s a good thing. I mean, to keep that in motion, I make the argument that quitting is aerobics for your brain, because it truly is. Brains want to be in motion. Brains want to be challenged. The worst thing you can do for your brain is just to sit. Your brain wants to be active, and it gets better and better at doing things the more you ask of it.

SEAN SPEER: Julia, I love the afterword about your father and his inability to give up smoking despite various attempts. It’s a sad but beautiful chapter. You write, “God knows, I wish he had been able to stop smoking for my sake as well as his. I’ve missed him so in the years since his death, but I also wish he hadn’t judged his life by this terrible thing he couldn’t give up, this deadly habit that had him in its grips and wouldn’t let go.” How did your father’s inability to quit quitting, as you put it, influence your own life, including ultimately the ideas and perspective reflected in this book?

JULIA KELLER: Due to a greater extent than I realized, it was really in the midst of writing the book that I thought, “Well, I really need to include this because it certainly shattered my childhood and our family home as I was growing up.” I have two sisters, this notion of quitting because he was so hard on himself over it. Part of me wishes he could have quit cigarettes because we know how deadly they are. There’s no question about it. However, not being able to quit it, I don’t like the idea that this was some kind of a moral failing and that he saw it that way. This was the physical, chemical addiction. I mean, the effect of nicotine on the brain.

I smoked briefly in grad school—a very grad school experience because I thought it looked cool, but fortunately, I was never a person that got hooked in that way. Whatever my brain chemistry is, it was not one that responded to nicotine in the way that his did. I mean, he was very aware of what a terrible habit it was. And as I was writing that afterward, I realized I really needed to bring that up because of quitting this shadow when we see it as a moral failing and we end up being so judgmental of other people. Another aspect of the book that I hope people think about a bit and maybe take away in their own life is to not be so judgmental of other people. I mean, we all have our—and I think smokers nowadays really feel it. I have some friends who are smokers, and my gosh, every villain in every movie is always a smoker.

And somehow, we demonize people who aren’t able to quit things that aren’t our particular addictions. The things that we do, we shouldn’t. And we all have things. Everybody has something they want to be better at or be able to give up, or to pursue. And we’re very judgmental of other people. I really hope that if we look at quitting in a new light, we will not be so judgmental. We’ll be a little more generous toward each other, a little kinder. And again, just realizing that quitting is something that really gets at the heart of who we are as humans. But if we can’t do it, that’s okay.

SEAN SPEER: It’s a profound insight about a profound book. It’s called Quitting: A Life Strategy: The Myth of Perseverance—and How the New Science of Giving Up Can Set Us Free. Julia Keller, thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

JULIA KELLER: Oh, thank you, Sean. This has been a delight.

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