Should People with Grit Ever Give Up?

UPDATED: May 22, 2023
PUBLISHED: May 19, 2023
woman with grit considering quitting

You just started a new job and it’s not going very well. You’re overwhelmed and you’re not sure the job is a good fit for you.

Or your team has worked for months on a new project. You’ve just encountered a major obstacle, and now completing the project will be a lot more expensive and take much longer than you initially planned on.

Or maybe you’ve been at your job for several years and you’re getting restless. You like your colleagues, but the work feels less enjoyable and rewarding than it used to.

Should you quit? Or should you channel your inner grit to push through?

Sometimes, you can do both; sometimes quitting is the gritty thing to do.

Is what you’re pursuing worth the grit?

Having grit doesn’t mean never giving up; it means not giving up on our long-term goals. And sometimes the best way to achieve our long-term goals may be to give up on unproductive short-term goals.

We can think of our goals in a hierarchy, explains Angela Duckworth, Ph.D., psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the one who introduced the world to the concept of grit. At the bottom of the pyramid are the kind of concrete and specific goals we might put on our to-do list, like calling a potential client or enrolling our kid in summer camp. We have mid-level goals that are broader, but still discrete, like learning a new skill or starting a new hobby or business venture.

At the top of the pyramid are the more abstract goals that we might consider our “ultimate aims,” the ones that give our lives meaning and purpose. Duckworth, for example, says her “highest-level goal is to use psychological science to help kids thrive.”

Recognizing how our goals line up can help us know when to quit and when to persist. Here’s what questions to ask if you want to know whether to pursue a low-level goal:

  • How likely am I to succeed?
  • If I do succeed, what’s the payoff?
  • How well does this goal support my mid-level and top-level goals?

The problem with a person with grit continuing unproductive or unattainable goals is that persistence can be costly if it takes time and attention away from other, more constructive goals we could pursue. Sometimes the grass really is greener on the other side, especially if our grass is turning brown.

When unlikely to succeed at a low-level or mid-level goal, even gritty people should be willing to give up. Why can it be so hard for them to give up even when they should?

5 reasons people with grit stick with things longer than they should

1. We’re overconfident.

When deciding whether to quit or continue, one question we need to ask is, “How likely am I to succeed?” But this can be a hard question to answer. So, instead, we might replace it with an easier question: “How confident do I feel?” And if we’re feeling overconfident, we may over-inflate our estimation of our own skills, potentially leading to failure.

How to avoid it:

When it comes to confidence, we want to have enough, but more isn’t always better. What we need is accurate confidence; we need our confidence to match our likelihood of success. Being well-calibrated can help us take more reasonable risks.

According to a Harvard Business Review interview with Don Moore, Ph.D., a professor and the associate dean for academic affairs at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, one of the most useful strategies for making more accurate predictions is to ask yourself why you might be wrong: “Use the most general-purpose debiasing strategy that psychologists have identified: Do a reality check by asking yourself why you might be wrong, because knowing where your perception might diverge from the truth helps you accurately calibrate your confidence. Explicitly consider the other side.”

2. We rely on luck and wishful thinking.

One reason it may be hard for us to give up a goal is that we can’t know for sure what will happen in the future. Even when things aren’t going well, there’s always a chance that our luck will turn, and we don’t want to lose that chance by leaving the game. Fantasizing about positive outcomes may make us even more likely to stay in the game even when our odds of success are low by temporarily taking away some of the discomfort of uncertainty.

How to avoid it:

According to New York University psychology professor Gabriele Oettingen and colleagues, we’re more likely to commit ourselves to our goals if we engage in “mental contrasting”—visualizing the barriers that might get in the way of achieving our dreams. According to one 2015 study by Oettingen and colleagues, participants who had mentally contrasted reported being more successful at managing their time.

3. We fail to consider alternatives.

Another reason we may get stuck on our current path is assuming that it’s necessary to reach our ultimate goal. Bill Burnett and Dave Evans of the Design Program at Stanford University call these “anchor problems.” As they write in Designing Your Life, “Don’t make a doable problem into an anchor problem by wedding yourself irretrievably to a solution that just isn’t working.”

How to avoid it:

Fortunately, low-level goals are often interchangeable. “The way to cut the anchor loose and get free again,” Burnett and Evans write in Designing Your New Work Life, “is to reframe the problem and brainstorm alternatives.” Then prototype those alternatives to find a plan that will help you get where you want to go.

4. We get stuck in a sunk cost trap.

Another reason we may get stuck is that we don’t want to waste all the time, effort and money we’ve already invested in our pursuit. Economists refer to these as sunk costs—costs we’ve already incurred that we can’t get back. This becomes a problem when we continue to invest more in something that’s no longer working just because we have already invested so much in it.

How to avoid it:

Instead of thinking about how much you’ve already invested in your current job or relationship or side hustle, ask yourself: “What do I want to invest my time, money, effort and energy in now?”

Entrepreneur and author Seth Godin advises us to imagine that our current job or side hustle or relationship is a gift from our past self, and we get to decide whether to accept it now.

5. Giving up can feel like failure.

We might also be reluctant to throw in the towel if we think that giving up makes us a failure. If people with grit never quit, then what does that say about us if we give up? And what will other people think if they see us quit?

How to avoid it:

We might not be able to completely avoid a fear of failure. But perhaps it would be easier to get unstuck from things that aren’t working if we were able to reframe them as learning opportunities rather than failures. As former professional poker player Annie Duke notes in her book, Quit, “Having the option to quit helps you to explore more, learn more and ultimately find the right things to stick with.”

The purpose of low-level goals isn’t to succeed at all of them, but to succeed at enough of them to move us forward in our ultimate aims. And when our short-term goals aren’t working, sometimes giving up is the best way forward.

Photo by DimaBerlin/Shutterstock

Jen Zamzow, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor of healthcare ethics at Concordia University Irvine, a writer and a mom to two young boys. She writes about work and life, meaning and motherhood at jenzamzow.comand Psychology Today. You can sign up for her monthly newsletter“A Well-Lived Life” here.