Above my desk hangs a piece of scrap paper ripped from my journal. On it, the word “FINISH” is written in fat black sharpie. I hung it there last year, and now that I work from home several days a week, I stare at it while I chip away at my daily tasks.
With an air of superiority, I used to tell people that I’ve only quit two things in my entire life: band (trumpet) and 4-H (showing cows). I proudly repeated this through the years as if it demonstrated my grit, my determination, my ability to keep on keepin’ on through all of life’s challenges. It became a joke that Emily and I often recited when I threw out a failed attempt at a recipe or when I called the handyman for something beyond my skillset. The truth is, though, I wore my commitment like a badge of honor. Momma didn’t raise no quitter.
I was an English major in college, and when I graduated I was consumed by the fear that I would never accomplish anything important. I believed that to make a real impact on the world one must begin by achieving the impossible: landing a full-time job that requires 1-2 years experience when you have zero years experience. I had worked gigs in retail and lifeguarding, but really I just loved writing and reading and thinking. Which is to say I didn’t have many marketable skills. So I sat through interview after interview arguing that my experience as a lifeguard proved I could handle high levels of responsibility and pressure because, as you know, at any moment a child could have drowned!
(As you might imagine, I was met with blank stares and patronizing smiles.)
I finally landed a job as a marketing assistant only because my parents had a friend from church who needed to hire one of those, and I learned rather quickly what it felt like to be dissatisfied in one’s career. In this role, I had very few responsibilities. I traveled around the southeast visiting clients, helped prepare some business proposals, and submitted the occasional expense report. I was bored out of my mind.
One evening, on a business trip to Macon, Georgia, I was sitting in a coffee shop feeling depressed about the trajectory of my life, when I stumbled across a YouTube video of someone crafting a leather wallet by hand.
I sipped my coffee and turned up the volume in my headphones, watching a white-haired man in a cowboy hat carefully carve out pieces of vegetable tanned leather, the makings of a bifold. People do this? The video triggered in me something that I hadn’t felt since my creative writing courses in college: excitement at the prospect of crafting something beautiful. So I immediately Googled leatherworking tools, I found a website that sold scrap leather, and I bought everything I needed to get started.
The first thing I made–a wallet my dad still carries–turned out terribly. The edges weren’t aligned, the stitches were uneven, and the leather was cheap. But I beamed with pride when I gave it to him. The act of taking raw materials and making something new, something useful, was exhilarating. And I was hooked.
Soon, I began making laptop cases and key clips and bags and giving them away to friends and family as gifts. My skills improved. Then people started asking to buy the things I was making. Six months later, I had inadvertently started a small business. I loved every minute of it. I loved seeing photos of my work show up on Instagram. I loved talking with customers and designing new products. I loved that I got to make money doing something creative that I enjoyed. I built relationships with wholesale clients. My business grew.
Emily and I were engaged at the time. We were looking for our first apartment, and I was essentially working two full-time jobs. As my orders increased, so did my stress. Emily hadn’t found a teaching job yet, and because two jobless adults needing health insurance, shelter, and a latte budget sounded even more stressful than one jobless adult needing those things, I shut down my leather goods business, deciding that what we needed was the stability of my nine to five.
It was official. I had quit my third thing ever. And boy was I humiliated. It felt distinctly like failure. Hmm. Momma raised a big fat quitter after all.
Since then I’ve quit several more jobs, each time feeling the same sense of shame, the same desire to curl up in a hole and hide from the world. So I started reading about commitment and grit and success, trying desperately to fix my new problem. I dove into the self-help world searching for advice. How do I stop giving up? How long do I have to keep a job before employers consider me a job hopper? How do I stay focused and stop chasing shiny new stuff?
I did things like write the word “FINISH” on a piece of paper to hang above my desk. I corrected people who said I was at my last job for only a year. (“It was a year and nine months, actually. So closer to two years.”) And I lived my life in denial. I’m no quitter, I thought. I’ve only quit three things. Four things. Five things. I forced myself to stay in a job I hated, and I obsessed over my loyalty or lack thereof.
Eventually, I started asking myself some better questions. Why did quitting bother me so much? Why did it take up so much of my brain-space?
The more I dug into it, the more obvious my problem became, like a puzzle taking shape. I didn’t have a quitting problem, I soon came to realize. I had a values problem.
I discovered that my issue was not that I gave up too often or too easily. My issue was that my values told me there was something wrong with quitting. My values told me that a quitter isn’t worthy of success or health or happiness. My values told me that grit and stick-to-it-ness were more important than landing somewhere I actually wanted to be.
When our values don’t align with our actions, it creates something called internal conflict. We haven’t lived up to our own expectations, and the result is shame. What’s the antidote, you ask? We have to bring the things we think, say, and do into alignment. Ensure that our values match our actions.
My quitting jobs and side-hustles conflicted with who I believed myself to be: a committed, hard-working, finisher.
The more I thought about it, the more this made sense. As a kid, I was taught the power of consistency, of never giving up, of sticking to it no matter how hard it becomes. I come from a long line of hard-nosed Pennsylvania dairy farmers, folks who put up with literal shit every day. It’s 5 am, time to milk the cows, but it happens to be negative ten degrees outside? Too bad. For my family, quitting was never an option.
It makes sense that this value is baked into my being, that every time I leave a job or shut down a side-hustle or give up on my exercise regimen, I feel like a failure. It’s my internal conflict talking. It’s my values brushing up against my actions.
But what if we had the ability to choose our values?
Is that something we can actually do? Yes, not only is it possible, it’s something we must do consistently and thoughtfully. Or else we may end up with values that bring about a whole load of internal conflict. Are grit and determination poor character traits? Of course not. But is “I will never quit more than two things in my entire life” a poor value? You betcha.
What if I replaced it with: “I will prioritize my health and family”? How would my relationship with quitting change then?
“It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.”
― Roy Disney
(I just ripped the FINISH paper off my wall.)
Our values are responsible for so much anxiety. We don’t even realize it most of the time. It’s so easy to assume that we are the same person we were yesterday, that our values take care of themselves due to some hardcoded identity that we have no control over. The reality is we are ever-changing organisms. Each and every day, our experiences—our conversations, our decisions, our thoughts—shape us. Change is constant. Your body replaces 100% of its cells every seven to ten years, meaning even your physical body is in a perpetual state of change. We should constantly be reexamining our values.
(Now I’m ripping it up.)
I don’t think “not quitting” is a helpful value for me anymore. I have a family of my own now, who I want to see every day, and I want to be my best self when I do. I have a mortgage and mouths to feed. I’m not a 7-year-old wanting to quit t-ball halfway through the season.
(Now I’m throwing the shredded pieces into the garbage. This feels nice, guys.)
Maybe I need to write “along for the ride” on a piece of paper and hang that above my desk instead. Or “one day at a time.” I know this: my values are not something I will continue taking for granted.
What are your values and how do they impact you? Do they inspire you? Do they help you flourish? Let me know in the comments below.