Skip to main content
power points

Kenny Rogers in The Gambler sang about the need to “know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.”

Annie Duke, after earning a PhD in psychology, turned to professional poker as a career, winning more than US$4-million before retiring. She says what distinguishes professional from amateur poker players is a willingness to embrace quitting, three of the four options in the song. More importantly, knowing when to quit can also be the key to your career success.

It’s hard, because of the many admonishments about quitting we routinely hear, such as “quitters never win, and winners never quit.” Quitting is viewed as for losers – even cowards. Sticking with your course of action through adversity is a treasured sign of grit – and heroism. But she counters in her new book Quit: “Success does not lie in sticking to things. It lies in picking the right thing to stick to and quitting the rest.”

Quitting should be seen as a decision-making tool because lack of information can be leading you in the wrong direction. After you have set out on a particular course of action, new information will reveal itself – new facts or new ways to look at the situation. You might need to make a different decision after that happens, and the skill of quitting can be valuable, keeping you from rigidly persisting when it no longer makes sense.

Quitting at the right time, she stresses, will feel like quitting too early, so you are likely to resist the sensible course of action. But you should do it: You’ll live to find another opportunity and move ahead – be it to play another hand of poker, start a new company when your entrepreneurial initiative is clearly not going to make it, or find a new boss or workplace in your career. “Contrary to popular belief, quitting will get you to where you want to go faster,” she writes.

But how do you decide? She says you need to find out the expected value of persisting or quitting. Essentially, you are evaluating the possibilities – including other opportunities – and calculating the probability of different outcomes occurring and how good or bad they might be.

For some possibilities – an entrepreneurial venture, as well as a poker hand – this can be done mathematically. But for most situations, it’s a broader brush. With a client who was overloaded at work, with a resulting huge impact on her family, thinking of quitting and then offered another job, Ms. Duke asks: “Imagine a year from now and you stayed in the current job, what is the probability you will be unhappy?” The reply, “I know I’ll be unhappy – 100 per cent.”

The follow-up was: “If you switch jobs, what are the probability of being unhappy? Is it 100 per cent?” “Definitely not,” was the reply. “Sometimes I’ll be unhappy, but sometimes I won’t.” The expected value suggested quitting.

Ms. Duke tells you to be willing at times to quit when you’re ahead. As well, be willing to quit when you’re behind. Studies, and the American involvement in the Vietnam War, showed when things are going badly the tendency is to double down on the venture, escalating commitment rather than quitting. And she warns the hardest thing to quit is your beliefs and identity. Indeed, quitting is often a challenge to your self-image and it challenges the narrative for most of us that we are consistent and have grit.

Know when to fold ‘em.

Quick hits

  • Leadership has two challenges, says consultant Wally Bock. One is to accomplish the mission through the group. The other is to care for the people. If you are thinking of assuming a leadership position, ask if you are comfortable with that. Subsidiary questions: Are you willing to be the default decider, even when information is incomplete and other people disagree with you? Are you willing to put your fate in the hands of others, because when you’re responsible for the performance of a group, their performance is your performance.
  • You get credit for action, not preparation, warns Atomic Habits author James Clear.
  • The widespread belief that men are willing to negotiate for their interests and women don’t is a myth, argue consultant Kathryn Valentine and Harvard Kennedy School senior lecturer Hannah Riley Bowles. Both genders have a hard time negotiating for resources that are counter-stereotypical for them, particularly because they are more likely to encounter resistance for doing so: Women are thus less willing to negotiate for pay and men for family-friendly work practices.
  • Constant complaining adds weight to your load, advises executive coach Dan Rockwell. The more you complain, the more validated you feel. And the more validated you feel, the more the solution is another person’s responsibility. Your situation worsens.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe