Graduating class of 66 students. That’s my high school.
It’s the kind of place where your best friend’s grandmother remembers that embarrassing thing your mother did on the bus in second grade.
So it wasn’t a surprise that, as I started signing up for clubs and jobs, an older kid (whose name wasn’t Jake) was already at many of them.
Not-Jake was my first co-worker at my first job at a small local hardware store, where my only duty was to sweep the floor. And never not be sweeping the floor. For much longer than it really took to sweep the floor. Sometimes I got to make copies of keys and sometimes I cut lengths of chain, but mostly I spent time taking as long as possible to sweep the floor. A few months later, I quit. Jake could keep the place clean for both of us.
Jake was already there when I joined the track team. I thought I might like to be a sprinter, but two hours of running around a track after school each day, and I couldn’t see the point. This time it took only a few weeks to quit. Jake stayed and ran laps.
Being a nice guy, Jake gave me some advice: “You’re a joke!,” he said, “You gotta stick with things to succeed.”
And I think he’s right about that: you do have to stick with things to succeed. It’s true for pianists, baseball players, teachers, police officers, chess players, skilled broomsmen, and runners. But in which things do I want to succeed?
“Winners never quit; quitters never win!”
Remember that slogan on the banner hanging in the school’s gymnasium? Where does this strangely literal idea come from? Adult advice doesn’t sound like that. Adult advice seems to talk more about focus, pruning, and more recently “pivoting” away from what doesn’t work. Try something, see if it works, and if it doesn’t then QUIT! and do something more valuable with your scarce time and attention.
(Or maybe adult advice sounds like Dr. Phil asking, “How’s that working out for you?” after you explain how you’ve been trying the same thing over and over again.)
Jake probably has his own story to tell about how he was fortunate enough to practice the great virtues of persistence, discipline, and grit — of doing things you don’t want to do because you ought to. I might even be the counter-example in his success story. Unlike him, I went through high school and arrived at college without the stick-to-it-tiveness needed for showing up to every class on time and studying even on sunny afternoons. Unlike Jake, those were difficult lessons for my early 20’s.
At 16, I learned that, yes, I should be doing extracurricular “things,” but that I should be strategic about those things. I quit running, but I fell in love with public speaking competitions, where I learned the power of words. I quit sweeping floors, but I fell in love with helping local businesses with IT systems, where I learned to combine geekiness with helpfulness. Most importantly, I started being with my friends and experiencing that naivete and novelty that we never really get again after adolescence.
So, I learned to quit at 16.
Just a Little More…
As I finished writing I remembered how brilliantly Malcolm Gladwell put down a similar thought to close an article called The Sports Taboo about the way we talk about race and gender in sports (hence the allusions to race). Here he describes how he quit running. Clearly, he put his time and attention into another skillset.
I quit competitive running when I was sixteen-just after the summer I had qualified for the Ontario track team in my age class. Late that August, we had travelled to St. John’s, Newfoundland, for the Canadian championships. In those days, I was whippet-thin, as milers often are, five feet six and not much more than a hundred pounds, and I could skim along the ground so lightly that I barely needed to catch my breath. I had two white friends on that team, both distance runners, too, and both, improbably, even smaller and lighter than I was. Every morning, the three of us would run through the streets of St. John’s, charging up the hills and flying down the other side. One of these friends went on to have a distinguished college running career, the other became a world-class miler; that summer, I myself was the Canadian record holder in the fifteen hundred metres for my age class. We were almost terrifyingly competitive, without a shred of doubt in our ability, and as we raced along we never stopped talking and joking, just to prove how absurdly easy we found running to be. I thought of us all as equals. Then, on the last day of our stay in St. John’s, we ran to the bottom of Signal Hill, which is the town’s principal geographical landmark-an abrupt outcrop as steep as anything in San Francisco. We stopped at the base, and the two of them turned to me and announced that we were all going to run straight up Signal Hill backward. I don’t know whether I had more running ability than those two or whether my Africanness gave me any genetic advantage over their whiteness. What I do know is that such questions were irrelevant, because, as I realized, they were willing to go to far greater lengths to develop their talent. They ran up the hill backward. I ran home.