Do your students know when to give up?


Is knowing when to quit the key to success? Dr Stephanie Thornton explains why the art of strategic quitting can improve students’ outcomes.

When should you give up? It’s a more intriguing question than it may at first appear. We live in a culture that admires persistence: a society which believes that when the going gets tough, the tough should get going.

We work to instil our children with grit, the “can-do” mentality that will help them push on that extra mile toward success. 

In fact, our language is full of clichés extolling the virtues of dogged persistence. And yet, at some level, we all know that there are limits to how far one should go on trying to achieve an elusive goal. 

As Albert Einstein famously said, doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is insanity.

Research on top athletes is rediscovering what genius in any area has long known: as important as persistence is to success, it is equally important to know when to abandon a goal. Intelligent, strategic quitting is often the creative response, and can serve our fundamental values at least as well as sticking with the original goal. 

The great example of 2013 was Andy Murray, who dropped out of the French Open to protect his injured back – thus abandoned his goal of winning four successive grand slams, but preserving his chances of winning the great prize: Wimbledon.

Perhaps paradoxically, it can be more difficult to quit and abandon a goal as Murray did than to persevere pointlessly, if you really care about that goal. 

And thereby hangs the challenge for educationalists. Poorly motivated students, of course, have no problem abandoning the goals we set them! It is the able students, the highly motivated, the students who actively make those goals their own who find it hardest to let go of an elusive goal and move on.

Sometimes, their perseverance is rewarded. But sometimes it is destructive. Persevering beyond a certain point with a task you are not managing is exhausting and demoralising. When defeat has finally to be faced, the conscientious student can feel demoralised and disempowered – the self-belief and will to try new challenges seeps away.

The problem here is that in our “can-do” society we have made failure a taboo, to be avoided at all costs. Of course, we’re still British – still capable of taking an heroic failure to our hearts (“Eddie the Eagle”, the least successful of winter Olympians, for example). 

But we don’t want to be a failure. The conscientious don’t want to fail at anything, don’t want to admit defeat – that would wound their amour proper. We’ve lost sight of the value of strategic withdrawals, making it hard for the conscientious student to do the intelligent thing – and fostering the tendency to persevere beyond the point of sanity.

Yet “who fights and runs away lives to fight another day” is wise counsel, as our ancestors knew better than we do. They who struggle and drop a fruitless effort may well open the door to finding a better way – in fact, may open the door to creativity.

How do we change student attitudes to success and failure in fruitful ways? How do we teach the value of dropping an elusive goal and changing tack? In sum, how do we teach the subtle art of knowing when to persevere, and when to quit? 

Different heroes?

Fifty years ago, children were taught that Scott of the Antarctic was the true British hero: he stuck it out, he did what he set out to do – not like that Shackleton fellow, who failed. 

Scott and all his companions died, of course. And history has changed its view of Shackleton, who abandoned the search for glory and brought all his men home alive. We’ve learned that persistence is not to be admired in and of itself – values matter too. But we still offer the young models of success and failure that distort sensible thinking: stories of pure success, with the inevitable setbacks and switches of direction airbrushed away.

Yet no-one succeeds without setbacks. Indeed, it’s precisely how you meet those setbacks which determines whether you go on to soar or crash – as is clear from the Andy Murray story, or Richard Branson, or virtually any other successful individual. If we want the young to manage setbacks creatively, to know when to quit and move on without descending into demoralised self-doubt, we need to offer them more role-models with a more nuanced history of success and failure – a Branson or a Murray, whose “failures” were only setbacks triggering a switch to a more successful path.

When to persevere and when to quit? 

A key skill in making this decision is the ability to differentiate the possible from the impossible – and we’re not good at that.

One school, concerned that their pupils could not draw this distinction, set some tests which could not possibly be completed. The resulting “emotional” reactions formed the basis for a valuable classroom discussion of how one goes about deciding whether it is or isn’t feasible to reach a given goal, and when it is time to drop that goal and move on.

It is one way to raise the issue! And certainly, discussion is the way forward here. Individuals differ: typically, some drop a strategy too soon, some persist with a given goal too long, and only a few get it just right. Explicitly discussing how we decide when a thing is impossible and when it’s time to try something else brings this important matter into consciousness. It allows the development of the reflective meta-skills and strategies that are vital for managing one’s own efforts better.

Getting it right

Actually, we all know how to quit strategically – we just need to notice that, and learn to transfer the skill: In fact, all forms of problem-solving depend on quitting as much as on persisting. If the route to the solution is obvious, then there is no problem to be solved. It is when the first thing we try (hit it with a hammer, say) doesn’t work that we have a problem. 

Worth giving that same strategy another go, make sure we haven’t simply misapplied it? Certainly: giving up too soon is a major cause of failure in problem-solving (so hit it again – and maybe, again, or harder). But if that first strategy clearly isn’t working, then the intelligent answer is to try something else: find another way to achieve the goal. 

Changing strategy in that way necessarily involves quitting regarding one goal and switching to another – not dropping the overall task goal (fit the block into the hole), but changing the sub-goals that structure the strategy we use in working toward that overall goal. 

So we give up on the sub-goal of using brute force (for example) and see if the new sub-goal of rotating the block might work better. 

So automatic is this process that we seldom notice that ordinary problem-solving demands a flexible quitting and switching of goals in this way – a process of using failures as the springboard for a new and more successful path. Calling this to students’ attentions makes the power of giving up on one goal and embracing another salient: it’s not failure but a strategic response. In fact, it is intelligent and creative.

Generalising the lesson 

Goals come in all shapes and sizes. We’re happy to switch sub-goals (the exact targets we set in trying to get from A to B), but find it much harder to abandon the overall task (the goal of getting to B) in favour of another. 

It is a problem of horizons: we forget that “getting to B” is seldom entirely an end in itself – but rather, is only a step (a sub-goal) toward some larger goal (for an athlete like Murray, even winning Wimbledon is not the ultimate goal – though it has been a major focus for many years).

In school, of course, many overall goals are not elective, but fixed by the curriculum. But even here there is benefit to focusing on the bigger picture: a setback here does not put ultimate goals out of reach. The ability to put any particular task in that larger perspective can foster a more constructive attitude to setbacks and difficulties that is a skill not just for school, but for life.

  • Dr Stephanie Thornton is a chartered psychologist and former lecturer in psychology and child development.


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