I quit my first ‘real’ job after university. It seemed to be a mistake: it was in my industry of choice, it was the start of the recession, I had just been promoted, and I didn’t have another 9-to-5 lined up… or any real financial assets to fall back on.

It turned out to be the best career decision I ever made. Only by giving up my job as a political reporter in Washington DC could I move to Italy and pursue my dream of becoming a travel journalist. One of the publications I began writing for was the BBC, which led to a full-time job across two continents.

Of course, I didn’t know it would work out that way. And leaving my job wasn’t the only reason for everything that followed. But quitting was a terrifying – and necessary – starting point.

For most of us, the important role quitting can play in success runs counter to deeply-held beliefs. In previous generations, the usual narrative was that success (and financial stability) followed the workhorse who stuck with their job, or career path, no matter what. As promises of job security have dwindled, that role model of a company lifer has been replaced by the entrepreneur who never gives up.

Both narratives share one lesson above all others: ‘winners never quit and quitters never win’. Whether in a job, a relationship or a dream, we’re taught that giving up is synonymous with failure.

If you never quit anything, you’re going to have less time for the things that really matter – Eric Barker

“What nobody talks about is that, sometimes, quitting is really good. It’s really important,” says Eric Barker, author of Barking Up the Wrong Tree. “There are only 24 hours in a day. If you never quit anything, you’re going to have less time for the things that really matter.”

Of course, persistence is important. If you abandon a marathon at the 5km mark, you’ll never succeed. But rather than thinking of quitting as the absolute last resort, we may want to reconsider its value, say experts. Research suggests that, when done for the right reasons, walking away from a workplace, relationship or even an ambition can make you happier, healthier and more successful.

For one, people often are working towards the wrong goals to begin with. Even if a goal was once a good fit, it might not be so appropriate a few years later. “If I never quit anything, I’d still be playing tee-ball [a children’s version of baseball] and playing with Transformers,” Barker jokes.

But once we have realised we want to take a different direction, most of us still find it difficult to abandon our current path.

Would you rather lose $5, or turn down the opportunity to earn $5? Most of us find the latter easier, even though the result is the same

This reflects a particularly human tendency: our excruciating aversion to loss. What we have already invested, whether time or money or something else, reflects our sunk cost. That investment is hard to abandon. Would you rather lose $5, or turn down the opportunity to earn $5? Most of us find the latter easier, even though the result is the same.

It’s the same reason that someone with an expensive, time-intensive law or medical degree may be less likely to leave their career path, no matter how unhappy they might be.

But as Stephen Dubner points out in the Freakonomics podcast The Upside of Quitting, we’re so loss-averse that we favour sunk cost over an equally important consideration: opportunity cost. “For every hour or dollar that you spend on one thing, you’re giving up the opportunity to spend that hour or dollar on something else. Something that might make your life better – if only you weren’t so worried about the sunk cost,” he says.

Exacerbating our dilemma is our fear of the unknown. We don’t know what will happen if we quit to take a different path. But we do know what we’d lose by leaving.

What we forget is that just because we have more information about our present situation doesn’t mean those facts will stay the same in the future. (Just ask the employees of once-thriving chains like Blockbuster, Borders or Woolworths) And not knowing what will happen after a big change doesn’t mean that path is worse.

Meanwhile, a job you hate can leave you prone to depression, anxiety and physical illness – so much so that when it comes to mental health, no job at all may be better than a thankless one.

Quitting one job after another may not be a bad thing either: despite commonly-held belief, frequently job-hopping can actually make you more successful. Economist Henry Siu found that young people who switched jobs more often earned higher salaries in later life. Of course, job-hoppers may just be more proactive overall – and switching jobs can be a better way to secure a higher salary than staying put and begging for a raise. But Siu also posits another theory: by trying out different career paths, people may find their ‘true calling’ and therefore become more skilled and valuable, he says.

Job-hopping also may help you climb the career ladder. In one survey of 12,500 alumni of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, respondents who had fewer than two roles in 15 years had a 1 in 50 chance of becoming a top-level leader. Those who held five or more positions were nine times more likely to reach senior management. Head researcher Edward Lazear suggests that, to be a top leader, you may need a wide range of skills best provided (and proven) by a variety of roles.

Recent research has found that people who hustle on the side first ultimately have better-performing companies than people who jumped in feet-first

Not all research has borne out the same result. One study of 15,000 employees found that the more years an executive stayed with their company, the faster they got to the top. But the same research also found that switching industries or careers often proved to be a good move for respondents.

What about leaving to start your own company? Quit with caution, experts say. As we all know, a minority of new businesses make it. And despite the idea that you have to quit your day job and devote yourself 100% to ensure your endeavour succeeds, recent research has found that people who hustle on the side first ultimately have better-performing companies than people who jumped in feet-first.

They were all ‘quitters’: the study’s more cautious ‘hybrid entrepreneurs’ eventually walked away from their day jobs, too. But their patience paid off.

Abandoning one job or path for another may bring greater rewards. Far from failure, pivoting can lead to success. Twitter started as a podcasting platform, YouTube as a dating website and Android as a camera operating system. Had they all stuck with their original vision, they likely wouldn’t be household names today.

Meanwhile, numerous studies have found that people are best off when they not only abandon an unattainable goal, but choose another. Some of the world’s most successful people have proved that. Fashion designer Vera Wang began her career as a figure skater, then became an editor at Vogue. Alibaba founder Jack Ma applied unsuccessfully for dozens of jobs before he began designing websites. And Charles Darwin first studied to become a doctor, then a parson.

Ending toxic relationships

Meanwhile, the importance of interpersonal relationships for our health and happiness has been widely researched. But quality is key. And here, too, we often hang onto dissatisfying situations for too long.

Numerous studies have found that negative interactions with a loved one like conflict, criticism or feeling ‘let down’ increase the risk of developing a depressive episode (or depression), heart disease and even dementia. Meanwhile, unhappy marriages can lead to depression, a lower sense of well-being and even the onset of chronic health problems and physical disability.

Of course, walking away from a relationship can be difficult, too. Studies have found that divorced women experience more physical illness and heart attacks long-term than their married counterparts. But, researchers point out, many of those studies haven’t controlled for various factors, such as someone’s social connections overall. In other words, it may not be divorce itself that is damaging. It’s the loss of the central relationship most people rely on for support. The more other connections someone has, the more they’re protected against the physiological and emotional downsides of divorce.

“When you do the studies that way, what you find is, guess what: what really matters is the extent to which you have supportive relationships where you feel connected and you feel safe, and that you have a good amount of social connection and social capital. Those are the things that matter,” says Heather Helms, a human development and family studies professor who studies marital relationships at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

If there’s toxic stuff going on in the development of the relationship, get out. Don’t stick around. It’s time to cut it – Heather Helms

In fact, other research suggests that people who stick with a dissatisfying relationship may be the worst off. One study found that unhappily-married people had worse health and lower levels of life satisfaction than those who chose to leave. Another study found that along with middle-aged women in a satisfied partnership, their single and divorced peers were far less likely to have metabolic syndrome, a significant risk factor of heart disease, than unhappily-attached women.

But new relationships are the easiest to end. So if it’s not working well from the start, leave, says Helms. “If there’s toxic stuff going on in the development of the relationship, get out. Don’t stick around,” she says. “It’s time to cut it.”

Exit strategy

Walking out of a thankless job or a bad relationship is one thing. Giving up on a dream is harder. But there, too, quitting can be good for you – at least when the goal you’re striving for is unattainable.

Numerous studies have found that people who let go of something they haven’t been able to achieve benefit from better health and well-being. But those who keep battling towards a goal that remains stubbornly out of reach experience more distress and depression.

The idea that we might be better off letting go of dreams can be hard to swallow. After all, we’ve all heard how JK Rowling was rejected by 12 different publishers before finding a publisher for the Harry Potter books or how Walt Disney was fired from his job as a cartoonist for not being creative enough. Their experiences show ‘grit’ – the ability to stick to something and see it through. We’ve all experienced its importance. If I had quit freelancing after my first, or even fifth, pitch to an editor was rejected, I’d never be a journalist today.

So how do you know when to persevere and when to quit?

  Nobody’s going around talking about people who were persistent and died alone in a gutter because they stuck to being persistent for way too long – Stever Robbins

“This is the quandary of life. We just don’t know,” says life coach and consultant Stever Robbins. “But what you read about are the stories about the people who were persistent and it worked. Nobody’s going around talking about people who were persistent and died alone in a gutter because they stuck to being persistent for way too long. I think way more people fit the latter category than the former.”

To decide when a goal should be left behind, Barker recommends thinking through the WOOP framework (wish, outcome, obstacle, plan). If you’ve gone through each step and the idea of following the plan depletes your energy and enthusiasm, maybe it’s time to give up and turn to something else, he says.

Remember that persistence and quitting don’t have to be polar opposites. As Barker points out, “If you quit the stuff you know isn’t working for you, you free up time for things that might.”

It seems the old adage may be wrong. Winners do quit. But rather than seeing their quitting as failure, they turn their energy to the next venture… and the next, and the next. That, in fact, may be their secret to what we never associate with quitting: success.

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