NEWSLETTER: Why Are We So Afraid of the Q-Word?

Why Are We So Afraid of the Q-Word?

Tuesday, August 23, 2022 Newsletter


I recently read a tweet from Laura King, a Professor of Psychological Sciences at the University of Missouri, offering advice to unhappy graduate students:

“I have some advice that I am ambivalent about sharing but here goes. If you are in a grad program and just f*cking hate it, like you are getting no joy from anything that you have to do, you should switch to something else. You are smart and smart people can do lots of things. 1/3”

That is great advice.

Regardless of what you’re doing, if your career path is making you miserable, quitting seems like something reasonable to consider. King is not saying you should quit just because it’s hard. She is saying you should quit because, independent of whether it is hard, there is nothing about being a graduate student that you like. Being miserable in graduate school is a good signal that you will be miserable as an academic since the day-to-day of graduate students and professors are pretty similar.

All good so far. Quit when you figure out that what you are pursuing is no longer worthwhile.

But then King followed that advice with a second tweet:

“There is no honor lost in changing direction. It is not quitting. It is finding something that brings you joy.” (Emphasis added.)

Okay, so now I was confused.

In her first tweet she is clearly recommending quitting if you are miserable. She is recommending the same in the first sentence of the second tweet. After all, you can’t switch to something else without quitting whatever it is you’re doing. You can’t change direction without quitting the direction you are currently heading toward.

But then in that second sentence of tweet #2 she denies that she is telling people to quit. So what gives?

King’s thread reminded me of ski-racing legend Lindsey Vonn’s retirement announcement in February 2019:

“My body is broken beyond repair and isn’t letting me have the final season I dreamed of. My body is screaming at me to STOP and it’s time for me to listen.”

Vonn is saying she’s finally going to listen to her body telling her to STOP. She is clearly quitting. But then she follows that with a denial of the very quitting that she’s announcing.

“I always say, ‘Never give up! So to all the kids out there, to my fans who have sent me messages of encouragement to keep going … I need to tell you that I’m not giving up! I’m just starting a new chapter.” (Emphasis added.)

Vonn obviously had the right to walk away from competitive ski racing whenever she chose. And she, in particular, should have been able to do so without fear of judgments about her grittiness. Vonn’s career had been marked not only by phenomenal success but by many serious injuries, lengthy periods of rehabilitation, and remarkable comebacks.

For instance, after being airlifted to a hospital after a horrible crash at the 2006 Olympics, she tried to sneak out before being cleared by doctors and competed two days later. In 2013, following a torn ACL and MCL, another fracture, surgery, and working through a grueling rehabilitation, she reinjured both reconstructed ligaments and had to go through it all again. After almost two years away from competition, she returned to win another 23 World Cup races between late 2014 and early 2018.

Yet, despite her unquestionable grittiness, she felt the need to call her decision to quit something softer, in this case “starting a new chapter.”

That’s exactly what Laura King did. She started by recommending that miserable students quit and then insisted what she really meant was changing direction.

Why do Vonn and King feel the need to wrap their messages about quitting in euphemisms? Why do we give quitting the Voldemort treatment (The-Word-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named)?

There are lots of situations where quitting is the right choice, where gritting it out would be folly. If you are miserable and there is no payoff in sight for that misery, what’s wrong with quitting? If your body is broken beyond repair, what’s wrong with quitting?

We shouldn’t feel the need say “a pivot,” or “moving on to the next phase,” or “strategic redeployment,” or “changing direction,” or “starting a new chapter,” or otherwise serve it up soft.

When you are doing any of those things, just call it quitting. The word needs to be rehabilitated.

But if someone like Lindsey Vonn finds it so hard just to say that she’s quitting, imagine how hard it is for us mere mortals to do it, or advise someone to consider it.