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Know when to fold 'em

Maybe Kenny Rogers isn’t the best source for deep questions about life, but listen to “The Gambler” and ponder this central challenge: “You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.”

What makes for a good quit? Some people abandon tough situations too soon—a rocky relationship or a frustrating job. But you can stay in a fight too long, prolonging pointless misery. I quit piano lessons too soon. I hung onto hard-driving rationalism for too long. I quit being a professor of entomology after 15 years to work on environmental philosophy and nature writing. That one was about right.

Intrigued by the concept of quitting, I’m mulling over a project on this topic. What does it mean to quit? Sometimes it looks like preemptive failure, a way of preserving dignity when the future is bleak. But other times, it appears to be an empowering act—even a victory of sorts.

We quit for complicated reasons. Continuing might not be worth the danger—physical or psychic—relative to the likelihood of attaining our goal. Conversely, we might regret having turned back when the peak was within grasp, if only we’d kept climbing. Where is the sweet spot? How do we find the Aristotelian Golden Mean (perhaps quitting is one of the virtues?)—the space between gutlessness and recklessness?

I could approach quitting with the incisive rigor of the analytic philosopher, but I’m drawn to the spirit of a curious scientist. So I’m launching a voyage to explore the natural history of quitting. So far, I’ve observed that we can quit: relationships (e.g., divorcing a spouse or disowning a child), sports/games (e.g., a boxer throws in the towel or a chess player tips her king), religion (e.g., converting to another faith or leaving the priesthood), medicine (e.g., terminating treatment or kicking addiction), military (e.g., surrendering to an enemy or retreating from a battle), and biology (e.g., a wolf submitting to a dominant male or an injured animal lying down to die).

I need your help. What realms am I overlooking? What are exemplary cases in each realm? What are classic surrenders, memorable resignations, historic abdications, and illustrative desertions? And what are the “great quits”, along with infamous acts of cowardice and foolhardy acts of perseverance? Send me ideas! At this point, I’m an avid collector.

But whatever you do, don’t desert me in my hour of need…

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