How To Quit Something Without Quitting It

Quit. It’s short, heavy word, isn’t it? A sharp word for a sharp thing. Sever your ties with a Big Thing in your life. A job. A mortgage. Give up. Walk away. Run.

I’ve quit a few things in my life. I quit a job with an IT company back in 2000. I quit a whole damn city in 2005.

Both of those times, I was lucky. When I quit that job in 2000, I had no idea what I was going to go on to. Thankfully, within a handful of months I was at another job with a bigger company. In 2005, I actually had something to run to – our house here in Cairns – but still no idea precisely how I was going to make a living. As  a result of that move I wound up quitting a hobby and a lot of personal connections.

On the upside, though, I wound up with a great house, a gorgeous pair of dogs, a job that didn’t stress me out and a pretty tight circle of mates. (The gorgeous wife, I already had.)

But in the last week I experienced something new: quitting something I thought I didn’t want only to discover that it was the stuff I was doing around it that was making me miserable.

In my most recent (and second) Get Talking, Rob Farquhar! podcast, I mentioned that not only was I going to participate in NaNoWriMo again this year, but that I’d also ake my project the first Slamdance novel. This gave me a clear goal with a deadline: Complete an outline by October 31st.

When I’d previously attempted to create an outline, I’d been trying to apply Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method of novel design. On reading, it seemed to make sense, but when I tried to apply it, I seemed to come a cropper at Step 2. This time, though, I managed to make personal sense of the instructions, and there’s another blog post in there.

But I hit another wall at Step 4. Once again, I was procrastinating like crazy, avoiding having to sit down with my one-paragraph outline and notes on the main characters. Trying to continue felt like trying to drive a fully-loaded bus up a steep hill.

And another part of my brain insisted on reminding me about the other things I need to be working on, like figuring out how to earn money by writing.

Last week, someone on one of the podcasts I listened to mentioned that one of the guys who wrote Freakonomics (which I haven’t yet read) had recorded an episode of his radio show about how to quit successfully. Something urged me to download it to my iPod and have a listen. I did, and then left the thoughts it spurred in the back of my head.

And then… look, I don’t want to turn this into Another Steve Jobs Post. The most Apple product I’ve ever owned is a pair of iPods, one each for my wife and I. MacBooks and iPads are way beyond our purchasing power and I’ve never seen the need for an iPhone when my MotoRAZRv9 does everything I need a mobile phone to do – call people.

Yet Jobs was always in the outer orbits of my nerd existence. I couldn’t avoid the guy, and I always admired him, his company and his product, even if I couldn’t afford it. I knew, therefore, about his health trouble in the last decade and hoped that his recent step-down from CEOdom was just a sign of a change of personal priorities.

As we all now know, it wasn’t.

In those couple of days after Apple announced Steve Jobs’ passing, there were tweets and Facebook pics with those quotes from address he gave to the graduating class of Stanford University in 2005. On the Saturday morning afterward, I finally watched a YouTube video of that address.

I started thinking about those three stories he told; about how trusting that doing what interests you now will add up to something when you start working on what you love later; about how sometimes you need to fail in order to discover what you really love, and about how about how knowing he was going to die some day made Jobs strip his priorities down to doing what he loved.

Again, I let it percolate while I got some chores out of the way, then in the afternoon, I told Vickie I was going to do some writing. She immediately asked me why I was sounding like I was about to go and do another chore. We talked a while and, as is her way, Vickie kept asking questions until I dug past all the rambling and got to the heart of the matter:

I didn’t want to do what I was about to do.

In that speech, Steve said, “… for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself, ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘no’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.” Vickie had held the mirror up for me until I realised what she already knew: that I’d been saying “no” to something I thought I wanted to do.

Here was this guy who’d dropped out of his uni courses and let his instincts and interests guide him, even when it meant dossing with friends and getting one decent meal a week at a Hare Krishna temple. A guy who started over from scratch with NeXT when his main avenue for doing what he loved, Apple, was taken away from him. A man for whom the only thing that could stop him from doing what he loved was dying.

Me? I’d dropped out of Uni and largely mooched along paying the bills. I stopped writing fiction for the good part of a decade, and when I started again I found I only needed the least excuse to stop.

Maybe… I simply didn’t need to write stories about a powerful alter ego any more. Maybe all the time I’d kept trying, I’d been settling. Maybe I needed to start looking for what I really wanted to do with my life now that I actually believed in my own competence.

Then I put it together with that episode of Freakonomics Radio, “The Upside of Quitting,” and the answer seemed clear. I wasn’t enjoying the doing of writing a book. The next logical step? Quit.

You know what I felt when I told Vickie that? Relieved. I didn’t have to flog myself into writing Slamdance any more. I had no idea what I was going to do instead, but I knew that I’d find out. We talked a little about what I could do instead, other writing projects. I went to be on my own for a while so I could vent ten years of frustration, then I went back to my desk and unsubscribed from a heap of fiction writing advice podcasts in iTunes and blogs in Google Reader. It felt great.

A few hours later, we invited a friend who was feeling a little down over for dinner. She lives a way from us and doesn’t have any transport, so I went and picked her up. She aspires to authordom too, so we talk about how we’re going on the way back home and I tell her about how I just decided to hand the towel in. We talked a little about it – although I’ll admit that I was distracted by some troubling noise coming from one of my car’s wheels – but left it aside once we’d got home, spending the rest of the evening eating and drinking and talking about life and families and other stuff we’d been doing.

I drove our mate home again on Sunday morning, and on the way she asked me what the novel I was giving up was about. I spent most of the rest of the trip talking about the plot, the characters, the back-story, the world. I didn’t have to force myself and it didn’t bore me; it all just came pouring out.

When I was done, our mate said, “You really have to write this.”

She was right.

But why the sudden change? How come I was glad to be shut of the novel almost a day before? What was the difference between Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning?

A Bookcase of Roleplaying Game Books - Like Mine Once WasWhen I was into tabletop roleplaying games a while ago, I’d collect RPG product galore. Rulebooks, sourcebooks, advice books – I’d read them, re-read them. I’d feel like I’d left the house without a limb if I hadn’t put at least one RPG book of some kind in my bag. I’d make notes, think of plot points for campaigns, go over game master advice.

The amount of games I actually played or ran, I could count on maybe two hands’ worth of fingers.

It took me until after we moved up to Cairns and got away from an RPG scene in Sydney that I was never really a part of to realise something. I wasn’t into gaming as a social activity. Instead, I was enamoured with some sort of platonic ideal of all those processes in those RPG books and advice websites whirring away, helping a group create an evening’s entertainment. (Maybe it was just the processes themselves, the rules and dice, I was keen on?)

Unfortunately, that bad habit carried over to when I wanted to start writing. Although I needed help with writing an outline, the flood of information from all those writing blogs I’d subscribed me to had me so convinced that I needed to foind out more in order to Get It Right The First Time that I’d spend more time reading blogs and listening to podcasts than actually writing. I was killing my interest by trying to work by so many rules before I even started instead of just letting myself write as best I could and applying the theory to improve it.

You can’t know how good you are until you try, and you sure as heck can’t get good without practice.

So on that Sunday morning, after I got back home from dropping our friend off, I only re-subscribed to a couple of writing podcasts and left my Google Reader blog roll as it was. In the last week, I’ve gone back to that outline and copied the important points onto index cards so I can get it out of my computer and noodle with pencil and paper during my lunch breaks (that’s another thing that also feels a lot better). Now, I’m actually keen to tackle the Snowflake Method again and get the novel written.

NaNoWriMo? I’m not so sure. I have some other priorities that I need to balance novel-writing with, stuff that I hope will bring in some much-needed extra cash.

The take-away of all this? Giving yourself permission to quit something that you’re resisting doing can actually help you identify whether it’s the thing itself you want to get away from or just certain parts of it – parts that you could get rid of without destroying the thing that you actually enjoy.

So try it sometime. Try it today. Think about one thing that you’ve told yourself you have to do but keep putting off. Listen to the Steve, whether it’s Jobs’ commencement speech, or Dubner’s Freakonomics Radio episode on quitting (or both). Think about that big thing you’re convinced you want or ought to be doing but keep putting off, then give yourself honest permission to quit it. Just let it go.

Then give it a day, a week, a month, and think about that thing. If you can’t get a mate to conveniently ask you about it, maybe try writing down what it meant to you.

You might find yourself with a bathtub empty of all but a wide-eyed, curious infant.

What have you decided to quit in your life? Did it work out okay?

What did you discover that you could keep if you changed it rather than quitting it entirely?