When to Give Up

When to give up


I began a previous version of this post by writing:

The cardinal sin of most pieces of advice is to fail to describe the contexts in which they would be true or not.

I drafted this about 2 years ago. However, reflecting on this idea, I now realize that it assumes that advice should be rigid prescriptions to follow, almost like computer commands for people. Instead, they’re rather heuristic devices to help us avoid both overthinking and maximum downside. So when we hear some variation of “never give up”, it is not meant to be an ever true instruction for success. And yet, compelled by the romantic image of the perseverant hero, many of us keep on wasting our time and resources far longer than reasonable. But when exactly does it becomes reasonable to give up?

Grit and Stubbornness

There is a thin, ambiguous line between being gritty and being stubborn. It feels almost arbitrary. Finding success after having struggled for a long time? You were gritty. But right up until this accomplishment, you could as well have been called stubborn. And yet, the difference is not truly about winning or not. Everything has a price. Whatever you’re trying to achieve, you’ll need to spend time, money, physical and mental energy, or other resources to make it happen. As long as the potential payoff matches the price paid, persistence can be described as grit. Once it surpasses it, one may talk about stubbornness. How to know if the prize is worth the effort? It may be relatively obvious:

  • It is useless to spend 5 years trying to make objects levitate with your mind.
  • It is essential to persevere when learning how to read - the difficulty is irrelevant.

But most of the time, the premises are blurrier. Should you keep on trying to make your business grow when it has been slowly dying for years? I don’t know. Realistically, how big can it become, and would that make all your past efforts worth it? Not always. You may wake up to realize you missed many other important things in your life while working on that one project. On the other hand, maybe your venture is integral to who you are as a person. Maybe it is what gives meaning to your existence, what gets you out of bed in the morning. Surely that’s worth fighting for even through hardships?

Never give up don’t convey this dilemma. This is why it is essential to question it more thoroughly.


In all affairs, it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the thing you have long taken for grantedBertrand Russell

We generally have a good sense of what we want, but rarely do we ask ourselves why we want it. We too often consider our desires but neglect to question our drives. Your cousin is not lying when he says he would like to become a surgeon. But does he knows why? Is it for the money? For the prestige? For the challenge? Because he wants to help others? Maybe it is pride, because during all these years he kept repeating he would become one - failing would make him feel shameful. Or perhaps to continue a family tradition? Certainly, it is a mix of a few of these motivations. Finding the answer to this question is essential as it will allow him to realize that there are many ways to get what he actually desires. Many jobs pay well. Many jobs consist of caring for others. His pride will survive switching goals if he finds out a more adapted path for him.

For lack of a better term, I call this work of reconsidering what we want deeply reformatting. Reformatting requires honesty with yourself to a degree most of us aren’t always comfortable with. It is hard to admit we want something for reasons we deem pathetic, but the freedom we gain in the process is much sweeter than our delusions. And the fact that our drives may not be the noblest (often, a mixture of pride, lust & greed) does not mean that the more superficial ways in which these desires manifest themselves aren’t sincere or powerful. Your cousin’s passion for surgery and his respect for its practitioners are sincere. But reformatting may reveal equally satisfying options he might want to consider if his grit appears to turn into stubbornness.

It is perilous to base our identities on fragile things like our job titles - our deep drives are a much sturdier column.

As for me, I like to conceptualize, design, and teach. I like to amaze and provoke thinking. I want to do these things while being recognized and valued for my work. This is more me than any professional title. And there are endless ways to fulfill these desires.

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