It’s a well-known fact here in America that if you’re a quitter, then you are essentially the worst kind of human being. You’re worse than people who kick puppies and the hosts of reality television shows. You’re worse than anything, because Americans don’t know what the word “quit” means. (I blame funding cuts in the public education system. Stay in school, kids!) Being a quitter is worse than just plain failing at something, because quitting is a character flaw. It makes you essentially a weaker person.
Or at least, that’s the impression I get from my own psyche, which sees fit to torture me with horrible feelings of inadequacy and abject misery every time I quit at something. Which really, let’s face it, is a pretty frequent event. I like to try everything. So quitting kind of comes with the territory.
Recently I tried to learn to play the guitar. Playing a musical instrument or otherwise being musically talented has been a lifelong dream for me, primarily because I am the most musically ignorant person who ever lived. (Well, maybe not as musically ignorant as half the people who audition for American Idol. Seriously, can they not hear themselves?) The two things I most ardently wish I’d been exposed to as a child are music and languages, and they’re two things that I think are much tougher to learn later in life, at least for me. But I was determined. I was inspired (by Glen Hansard, who is a musical genius). I was going to do this thing. Like a boss.
My last roommate knew a little guitar, taught me some chords and let me borrow her guitar. It was fun, but I didn’t practice as much as I should have, and I was frustrated by my inability to produce any sound which could be described as “melodic.” Or “bearable.”
When I moved I thought I’d have to give it up, but my co-worker Brett used to be a touring musician, and he was kind enough to lend me one of his guitars so I could keep practicing. He gave me a little tutorial, and I took a lesson at a music shop in town. And I discovered something important about myself: I don’t understand music. I don’t understand the hows or whys of it, the structure, the terminology… any of it. And I probably will never understand it, because just trying worked me up into such a state of emotional turmoil that my mind would try to just turn itself off. (The reasons for this are legion, but mostly I think they trace back to the junior high school music teacher who turned my enthusiasm for music into a general sense of terror and made me feel like the most worthless human being alive. Thanks, Mr. Jones. You tosser.)
Eventually I reached a point where music brought more stress than happiness, and I just couldn’t justify it to myself. I returned Brett’s guitar. I didn’t schedule another lesson at the music shop. I gave up.
The thing is, there are plenty of good reasons to give up on something, and particularly as you get older, you begin to understand the value of focusing on a few things rather than trying to master all of them. Could I have learned to competently play the guitar, if I’d applied myself and kept practicing? Probably. But I had to weigh all that time — and it would’ve taken a lot of time — learning the guitar against spending that time on something else I’m passionate about. Did I want to be inside inexpertly plucking at chords, or did I want to be outside working with my horse? Did I want to make a commitment to getting up early every morning and practicing guitar for an hour, or did I want to make a commitment to getting up early every morning and working out for hour? (Or did I want to face the reality that my life and “early” aren’t really concepts that work well together?) Did I want to spend my time becoming a mediocre musician, or did I want to spend my time becoming a fantastic writer?
Put in those terms, it doesn’t seem quite so much like I quit playing the guitar as I chose to focus on other things in my life. Lately I’ve gone a bit mad with setting goals, and the more goals I set the more I realize I just can’t reach them all…. and if I don’t narrow my focus to the ones that are truly important to me, I can’t reach any of them.
(Recently while talking to a friend, I asked her whether a five-year plan that I have in mind is truly feasible. She said sure, if it’s the only project I’m working on. I could only answer with a pregnant pause, before admitting that I’m also working on a daily art project, a 101 in 1001 project, a personal fitness project, several novels, and probably a few other projects I’ve already forgotten about. When I started setting goals for myself, I just went nuts with it.)
One of the things I realize about myself is that I have a tendency to take on too much at once — as the list above will demonstrate. I end up missing all deadlines, fumbling all balls, and getting absolutely nothing done. (Recently I lost work — unpaid volunteer design work, mind you — to the local print shop I had referred the client to for shirt pricing. Well done, me.) Previously I simply accepted this as the way my life is, but now I’m working to get things in order, looking for ways to get myself organized, and actively holding myself back from overcommitting. (Er, that last is a work in progress.)
There are things you can change. There are projects you should keep plugging away at, no matter how difficult they are. And there are times when you have to decide which things are worth all that effort and which ones aren’t. Sometimes quitting is the best thing you can do, so don’t be afraid to quit. Be afraid of never trying at all.