The Value of Giving Up

I am a finisher. I have always been, and I really hate “giving up” on anything, even those things that are seemingly inconsequential. This week, I finally decided to give up on a book that my book club had picked. We had already met to discuss the book when I was about 150 pages in and many of my fellow readers had finished. Two and a half weeks later, and now 157 pages in, I realized I probably wouldn’t be finishing it anytime soon. Yet, I still felt some kind of weird need to see it to its completion.

There’s a twinge of guilt I feel in not finishing tasks.

I see my tenacity as a reflection of who I am, but sometimes to my own detriment. That’s why I’m invested in finding the value of giving up. “Give up” in our hyper-focused, overachieving culture is almost a dirty word. (Or words, I guess. Technicalities.) Quitting is a decision. You elected to not take it anymore! You wanted to stick it to the man!

You quit your terrible job. You quit smoking. You give up candy for Lent. In this way, giving up almost sounds childish, like a kid who gave up on their art project because they resigned themself to never reaching the levels of artistic prowess achieved by their older sibling. When we say “give up”, it’s often paired with the subtext of, “this job/this project/the universe became too much for me, so I just left it”.

Giving up, in a dictionary sense, is to resign oneself to failure. Does resigning oneself to failure mean that failure is inevitable, or does it mean that failure is more likely than not? Either way, quitting or giving up gives the same result. You’re not doing it anymore. Whether you could have failed or succeeded is irrelevant.

Now for a radical idea. We need to embrace the value of giving up, especially on things that stress us out, don’t bring us pleasure, or work against our general mental health and well-being.

Admittedly, this isn’t actually radical. Most of us realize that we shouldn’t be actively causing ourselves distress. Beyond that, most of us realize that sometimes, we have to do things that cause us stress. This year, I “gave up” on something that had been the overarching goal of my entire life. And that was terrifying. That twinge of guilt was an all-consuming monster. It lived in my head for months prior to making a final decision. But once, I committed to giving up, I felt only relief.

The biggest problem I faced during this time wasn’t the decision, but my sense of obligation to myself. As I’ve gone back and looked through months of notes and journaling, I’ve noticed some common themes and potential strategies to avoid them. After writing about the value of doubt, it only seemed right that I address why ultimately choosing the unpopular option (do nothing), can be beneficial. I am working on understanding and defining the value of giving up, and I plan on using these guidelines for future give-ups.

Ask yourself what you stand to gain by continuing to (fill in the blank here)?

Back to the book analogy, because this seems to be a recurring theme. Last year, I was reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanigihara. (Semi-important spoiler) While I reading it, I was recovering from my second surgery due to osteomyelitis. In the novel, one of the characters has osteomyelitis and has to have his foot amputated as a result. Prior to reading this book, I had been having recurring panic nightmares about losing my foot, and this book only confirmed my fears that this was a real, potential outcome of a bone infection.

Despite the fact that this novel was reinforcing my concerns, I couldn’t put it down. Our desire to stick with negative habits or destructive behavior is a result of negativity bias. This is partially due to evolution. The amygdala is responsible for our fear response, sending signals to the hypothalamus to increase our heart rate, dilate our pupils, and overreact to someone saying hi when you didn’t know they were there. A fair amount of research suggests that the amygdala might be overactive in individuals with anxiety.

I don’t want to reduce increased anxiety to an evolutionary need and I am certain there are other reasons I finished that book. But I do have to wonder if the conscious part of my brain was pushing me to finish because it realized that I wouldn’t stop trying to “push through it” for anything less than full-on-panic. I wasn’t listening to my body, so it had to send stronger signals until I got the message.

My point is this: if we feel like we cannot stop behaviors that we admit are flawed, maybe we are gaining something from them that we don’t recognize. Giving up requires that we listen to ourselves and recognize what we need before our bodies try to find a way to force us to give up (through panic, depression, etc.).

Think about the potential impact (or lack thereof) of your actions.

The first time I heard about the Butterfly Effect, it completely changed my worldview. If every small decision has the potential to change something on a large scale, then every choice we make is important. While this can be beautifully interpreted to show us that the world works in mysterious ways, it can also can easily be used to justify overthinking and create a paralyzing fear of making decisions.

Understanding the underlying physics of the Butterfly Effect has helped reduce the anxiety associated with making these seemingly crucial decisions. (Of course, there is science involved, who do you think I am?)

Edward Lorenz, the mathematician/meteorologist who coined the term “Butterfly Effect”, was running a system of equations to predict the weather. He wanted to look more into a specific function but didn’t want the system to entirely start over. He decided to input the values he obtained from a mid-point. When he came back, the resulting function was completely different. This was because the values he had input at that mid-point showed him only 3 decimal places, but the computer saved up to 6 decimal places.

Previously, science would have attributed this to a completely random error, but this revealed that there was an underlying order in these functions. At its core, what Lorenz determined was the basis of chaos theory, combining physics and philosophy to aid in our understanding of the universe. While there is an order to things, the human capacity to understand and measure them will never succeed at understanding the infinitesimal possibilities of the universe.

As much as we can try to control or understand, every atom in our bodies is governed by entropy and chaos. We can rationalize our decisions or stick to a plan, but ultimately, we end up thinking things are significantly more important than they are. Minimizing our “the world is ending!” view of giving up allows us to recognize that things may very well be beyond our control, and that is okay.

Ask yourself what else you’re giving up by not giving up.

I don’t think I really get FOMO, but if it were a thing, I’d definitely get ROMO (regret of missing out). Most of us have said no to something we cared about because we felt obligated to do something else. I have never regretted spending time with people close to me. I have absolutely regretted saying no to someone close to me because I deemed studying/work/moping to be more important.

It’s absolutely fair to assume that we have to make sacrifices in life sometimes, and there is a multitude of ways we can minimize work stress. It’s near impossible to go through life doing everything we want to do all the time. But when we start to notice that the things we feel obligated to care about are consistently taking time away from the things we do care about, it’s time to reconsider.

It shouldn’t feel like you are sacrificing yourself to reach your goals. Your goals should be an extension of yourself.

Calculate how much time you’ve spent mulling over the decision.

The last thing I noticed from my long-stretched out decision is that it takes time. To “give up” on something isn’t trivial. If the decision can be made quickly, and you feel comfortable with it, chances are it won’t really feel like giving up anyway.

If you’re worried enough about finding the value of giving up that you’re reading this, it will probably be a process. It will probably involve tears and pints of ice cream. It might involve waking up at 2 am or not sleeping until 2 am, and it might not feel comfortable or “right” immediately, or even for a while after.

Alternatively, everything I have just said can be summed up with a Drake meme. (Replace “books” as needed).

the value of giving up
@alexandbooks on Twitter

Learning to break cycles of self-doubt and obligation is difficult to do. I’m not willing to compromise on being a hard worker, but I’m acknowledging that hard work doesn’t have to equate to sticking to a singular plan.

I’m dedicated to being more conscious about the decisions I make. I’m giving myself the time and grace to give up on my own terms, in the hopes it will allow me to craft something I’m excited about every day. I’m invested in the value of giving up not because I want to resign myself to failure, but because I am excited about what I can gain from leaving behind what doesn’t serve me.