You’ve got to know when to hold ’em,
Know when to fold ’em,
Know when to walk away,
And know when to run.
~~ Kenny Rogers, “The Gambler”
Full disclosure: I can be one of the most persistent and tenacious people on the planet. I don’t give up easily, and this is a good thing. Tenacity and perseverance are vital skills for us creative types. But there’s a dark side to such stick-to-itiveness: refusing to quit can lead to my pouring endless energy into artistic or relational black holes. This is the flip side of perseverance, one that rarely gets talked about.
The problem is that our culture’s motto is “never give up, and never give in.” It’s un-American to quit or to back down. We dare not risk the shame of being labeled a quitter. So we persevere through all obstacles, at all costs, through injury and pain, risking our physical as well as our mental and emotional well-being.
Of course, tenacity is a necessary element of artistic success: it drives novels to completion, fuels grueling hours in the practice studio, and propels artwork out of one’s head and onto the walls of an exhibit. So how do we stay balanced in the midst of our striving? By remembering that perseverance is a tool, one to be used when needed and put in mothballs when it’s not. In other words, grit is a means, not an end.
Here are 5 red flags that will let you know when it’s time to quit:
Red flag #1: When not quitting endangers your mental or physical health.
Taking care of yourself is not selfish. It means that someone else doesn’t have to take care of you. You should work to become strong enough that your presence adds, not subtracts. ~~ Stephen Gaskin, nonviolent social revolutionary
Contrary to the stereotype of the selfish artist, it’s not uncommon for us creative types to give more of ourselves than is good for us. We care deeply about our work, our fellow artists, and our audiences – to the extent that if we’re not careful we end up severely depleted. Working to the point of exhaustion and illness benefits no one, nor does having your time and energy sucked dry by other people’s dramas. Yes, it’s good, even noble, to care for others. But if you’re always at the bottom of your list of people to be cared for, it’s time to quit that behavior and reset your priorities.
Self-care is the opposite of self-indulgence. Putting the needs of your own body and mind first makes you more available to others, not less. Take stock of your life. Look at what’s draining your time and energy. Then make the changes that will keep you well.
Red flag #2: When the satisfaction is no longer there.
One does not love a place less for having suffered in it, unless it has been all suffering, nothing but suffering. ~~ Jane Austen
Let’s get this on the table right now: happiness is fleeting. So quit trying to be happy. Because even if you do achieve happiness, it will be temporary. If you’re dragging yourself through the day, feeling ground down by life, you’re lacking in satisfaction, not happiness. You don’t need a drink, or a vacation, or another distraction, you need a change.
Satisfaction takes time to achieve, but it’s lasting. If we invested as much energy in our art as we did in trying to be happy, we wouldn’t have time to be unhappy. We would, in fact, be satisfied, because we’d be engaged with our passion. And being satisfied injects positive energy into every aspect of our lives.
So take a step back and ask yourself what you could be doing right now to feed your soul. It may be as simple as taking an evening art class, or joining a choir, or setting up a comfortable place where you can read. It may be spending time outdoors, or with special friends.
Whatever you choose, notice how you feel at the end of a day’s work, after being with certain people, or after engaging in certain activities. If you feel drained after each and every contact, it’s time to quit those time-wasting behaviors and make room for more satisfying relationships and activities in your life.
Red flag #3: When not quitting means compromising your self-respect.
The best people possess a feeling for beauty, the courage to take risks, the discipline to tell the truth, the capacity for sacrifice. Ironically, their virtues make them vulnerable; they are often wounded, sometimes destroyed. ~~ Ernest Hemingway
It’s a sad fact, but predators abound in the arts, at every level. There will always be those who exploit the talents of others for personal gain, and they have an especially acute radar for sensitive, artistic types. They demand absolute loyalty, but are always looking past you to “the next big thing.” And when it shows up, you’ll be left in the dust, along with the rest of their abandoned “projects.” Predators appear genuinely helpful and caring. We stay with them because they seem to have our best interests at heart, when the exact opposite is true. By the time we realize the truth, the damage is done.
To regain – and retain – your self-respect, you must build relationships with people who encourage, are interested in, and celebrate you. If those people are already in your life, take a moment to do the happy dance, then make it your priority to keep them! Strengthen and cultivate those ties. If no one currently fills the bill, find someone. All it takes is one person believing in you to turn the tide – they may not understand what you’re doing or why, but they’re still happy to cheer you on.
If you are now – or have ever been – caught in the clutches of an artistic predator, it’s time to forgive yourself and break free. As Ann Landers said, no one can take advantage of you without your permission. Quit those abusive relationships and fill your life with people who build your confidence and self-respect: they’re worth more than gold.
Red flag #4: When changing course is the only path that makes sense.
And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. ~~ Anais Nin
Security gives off the same scent as decay. ~~ Poe Ballantine
We’ve all been there at one time or another: nothing is wrong, exactly; but nothing seems right, either. You have everything you thought you’d ever want. You’re happy. Happy enough, anyway. But you’re not jumping for joy, either. Things are…well, okay. This is what you’ve been working for, what you’re supposed to want, right? Then why do you feel so empty?
There is such a thing as being too comfortable. Too much comfort can make us itch for something new. Again, the change doesn’t need to be a complete reversal. It can be as simple as rekindling your love for drawing or gardening. It may mean a day away from your desk for a change of scenery, or declaring an overly-flogged project dead and moving on to the next one.
Take your emotional pulse. If you’re just this side of comatose, or squirming with boredom, you may be in need of a course correction. Get back in the game, the one called life. Security is a fine thing – but it’s not everything.
Red flag #5: When change will help you grow.
We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us. ~~ E.M. Forster
I’m a planner. On a daily, weekly, even monthly basis, I have a pretty good idea of what I’m going to be doing. Visualizing the future is motivating and keeps me on track. But it can be a trap. When my vision of the future doesn’t square with reality, or I’m unwilling to accept a different outcome, I can get stuck. Growth is sometimes about letting go of the pictures we have in our head of the perfect outcome, and accepting the perfect outcome that’s right in front of us.
Sometimes the life you planned doesn’t work out, or you get there and you realize it’s not what you want. I’ve known talented musicians who exchanged their artistic lives for careers in law or nursing; or successful engineers and financial planners who left the cubicle and the boardroom for a life on the stage. Sometimes you marry the wrong person, graduate with the wrong degree, move to the wrong city, take the wrong job. But there is very little, short of death, that cannot be changed. Yes, you made a wrong choice, but you can make another. Yes, there will be consequences, but you can handle it. More important, you now have a better idea of what you truly want. Making a wrong choice isn’t a failure; but failing to choose again, and choose better, is.
There will be those who accuse you of running away, who feel it’s their duty to warn you of the dangers. They’ll call you a quitter (which you are, in the best way, for the best reasons). Don’t listen to them. They’d love to do what you’re doing, if they only had your guts. You’re not running away; you’re running to the next phase, a better phase, of your life.
So there you have it: stay, or make a change. It’s your choice whether to hold ’em, or to fold ’em.
Now I’ll stop talking and let you get on with the game.