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Quitting as a Tool for Achievement Overcoming Cognitive Biases

  • Author: Luis Sanchez
  • Published On: July 30, 2023

Quitting holds a stigma in the American culture, seen as an act of weakness and defeat while perseverance is glorified as the path to success. But strategically quitting endeavors at the right junctures can actually help us adapt, redirect resources, and reach our goals more efficiently.

As Annie Duke explains in her book "Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away", when we first commit to something, we face uncertainty about whether it's the best path. As new information arises, our goals may shift. Rigidly sticking to the original plan, come hell or high water, can lead us astray. Quitting done thoughtfully and strategically allows course correction, freeing us from the sunk cost fallacy and other cognitive biases that cloud judgment in the moment.

Pre-set "kill criteria" are essential, as we cannot trust biased minds to make objective quitting decisions under duress. A mountaineer may forge on in worsening conditions, driven by summit fever. An investor might average down on a losing stock, throwing good money after bad. A marathon runner could ignore injuries to finish at all costs. Defining exit conditions in advance provides guardrails against this perilous persistence.

The wisdom of strategic quitting is very well described in the video below. As Victor Haghani (a Long Term Capital veteran) shares in his TED talk, for example, successful traders often follow the maxim "let your profits run and cut your losses short." They use stop-losses - predetermined prices to exit positions - to limit downside. This discipline not only curtails losses on bad trades, but enables profit maximization on winning ones by staying invested in momentum.

Haghani explains herd behavior creates trends in markets. Stop-losses protect investors by avoiding big losses fighting the prevailing tide. Once riding a trend's momentum, they let profits accumulate over the long-term. As Annie Duke notes, judiciously quitting losing propositions liberates resources to devote to more promising opportunities. With discipline and savvy timing, quitting becomes a strategic tool for advancement. When making New Year’s resolutions, build in an “unless” clause, as Duke suggests. For example, plan to train for a marathon unless it proves misery-inducing and harmful to family time. This creates flexibility to quit wisely, not in resignation but to better achieve your highest goals and values.

With the proper mindset, quitting sheds its stigma and instead takes its place as a shrewd tactic for success.