Walking away vs. trying harder: quitting revisited

by Carolyn Thomas     @HeartSisters

When gymnast Simone Biles made the shocking decision to opt out of the women’s team final at the Tokyo Olympics, blowhard pundits (like the insufferable Piers Morgan) declared that there is “nothing heroic or brave about quitting.”

Simone explained that she needed to “focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being”.  Even for narcissistic blowhards, Morgan’s response to her decision was out of line. Sometimes, walking away can be the wisest and most thoughtful choice we could possibly make.      .      .       .              .

Heart patients often learn firsthand about this decision-making challenge when we start practising how to say NO – for some of us, it may be the first time we’ve actually become good at saying it without feeling guilty.  As I like to say, NO is a complete sentence. Many patients tell me how important it has become to say NO when they truly mean NO. Somehow, deciding what we want to do in life (and doing more of it) and what we no longer want to do in life (and doing far less of that) is a learned skill that’s apparently aided by a serious medical diagnosis.

There’s an old saying that goes something like this:

“One of the hardest parts of life is deciding whether to walk away or to try harder.” 

In the past year, I’ve made a number of unrelated ‘walk away’ decisions that will not only permanently alter my future calendars, but were not as awful as I once may have feared. One decision was about leaving a longtime organization I’d held several leadership roles within, one was about a longtime community volunteer shift I loved, and one was about a longtime friendship.  Until very recently, each had held an important place in my life and on my calendar for decades.  DECADES!

So part of me has been waiting for some kind of delayed grief response to kick in ever since I walked away from all three.

Will I wake up one morning, impossibly sad because I’m no longer involved in what had been such major parts of my life all those years? Would I dread running into any of the people I’d walked away from? Would I look back with regret one day, perhaps blaming the chaos of a global pandemic for my decisions to quit? 

So far, the answers are No, No, and NO!  In each case, it was almost as if the skies had opened, a gleaming beam of light had struck my forehead, and I somehow just knew what I must do and say.  

That last pandemic question (“COVID made me do it!”) may seem familiar – because many of us have already become used to saying NO to requests more frequently than ever before based on our COVID safety precautions – NO to holidays, flying, funerals, weddings, graduations, school, eating out and other crowded activities with unvaccinated strangers.

The last time I recall a life-altering “walking away” decision as significant as the ones during this past year was in the late ’90s when I decided to take a 2/3 pay cut to leave my long-established career in corporate public relations in order to accept a new P.R. job with the Salvation Army.  (After years in P.R., I had lots of media friends in those days so our local newspaper at the time ran a cutesy headline that read: “Job Change Lands Carolyn In The Soup Kitchen!”) 

My friends and family were gobsmacked at my surprise career change (mostly because, as a recovering catholic, I knew little if anything about the Sally Ann, and -oh yes!- there was that drastic pay cut, too) – but it all made perfect sense to me at the time.  I’d been feeling increasingly restless at work, wondering what it would be like working on something socially meaningful for a change. (And let’s face it, the world of corporate P.R. is anything but that). 

I immediately knew I was in the right place at the right time.  I’d never worked for a charitable organization, for example, that started every staff meeting by singing a rousing hymn together!  Can you imagine how good you’d feel after belting out four or five verses of All Things Bright & Beautiful with your work colleagues?  Before then, I used to write human interest stories about corporate clients and their products. Now, I was writing about our street outreach programs feeding the homeless. I loved that work, and never for one moment regretted my decision to quit corporate life.

But most importantly, unlike “normal” people who couldn’t afford such a drastic pay cut in mid-career, walking away from my old expense account lifestyle was possible only because the year before,  I’d sold my little cottage on an oversized lot and was able to buy a townhouse across town for cash. As one of my friends observed, with no more mortgage payments and a monthly strata fee of just $110.75:  “Carolyn! You could get by with a paper route!”  Without this specific reality, most P.R. folks like me could never have said YES to that job offer. 

Elite athletes are not generally good role models to follow when considering whether to walk away or try harder – since their required level of focused ambition would rarely allow for the walking-away option – which makes Simone Bile’s Tokyo decision even more remarkable.

And speaking of athletes not walking away. . .   in Part Two of my 3-part series on pain, I cite the incredible story of American sprinter Manteo Mitchell, who competed in the qualifying heat of the men’s 4×400 metre relay at the London 2012 Olympic games despite a broken leg!  He said later that he actually felt and heard his left fibula bone break when he was at the 200-metre mark of his race, yet continued running so he could pass the baton to his waiting teammate Josh Mance – and thus help the U.S. relay team make the finals. Amazingly, despite “excruciating pain”, he still managed a split time of 46 seconds which track fans will recognize as pretty darned fast.  After his race (and before being taken to the hospital for treatment), Manteo calmly explained to sports reporters asking why he didn’t quit running after he felt that break:

“I didn’t want to let the team down, so I just ran on it.”

Now there’s a guy for whom walking away was impossible. Literally! 

Even the word “quitter” is emotionally loaded.  If you’ve ever had a high school coach (on the playing field, the basketball court or the debating stage), you likely know the ominous warning: “Quitters never win, and winners never quit”?

For most of us, however, “quitters never win” simply reinforces the heroic myth that no matter what is happening in life, we must never walk away – no matter how intolerable circumstances may have become.

If you’re like me, you may have already experienced the heady sensation of profound relief after you’ve made a hard “stay or walk” decision, typically because of a strong gut feeling that your choice was indeed the right one. That feeling tells us: “You made the right move!”  

I’ve also had the experience of feeling worse BEFORE having a difficult discussion, but relieved AFTER the actual discussion was over, a reminder that dreading the conversation can often feel far worse than the conversation (and the decision) itself turn out to be.

As Paula Davis (a former lawyer who quit her lawyering job for a better life) writes in her book, “Beating Burnout at Work”:

“Calling someone a ‘quitter’ is shaming. But quitting is a decision, not a character trait or flaw. Resilience is about responding to challenges in a flexible way.

“It can be incredibly brave to push through, and it can be incredibly brave to quit. . .”

Just ask Simone Biles. . .

Image:  Mystic Art Design, Pixabay 

NOTE FROM CAROLYN:   I wrote more about women’s decision-making in my book, “A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease”.  You can ask for it at your nearest library or local bookshop or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon,  or order it directly from my publisher,  Johns Hopkins University Press (use the code HTWN to save 20% off the list price)..


Q:    Has the pandemic made a difference in your own decisions to walk away instead of trying harder?

8 thoughts on “Walking away vs. trying harder: quitting revisited

  1. The beginning was when will I ever not be tired?

    At 75, substitute teaching, church reader, Woman’s Club, Retired Teacher’s luncheon once a month, speaker about my heart attack with groups and took on a huge dinner and dance to raise money for cancer research. I felt I had to prove my heart attack would not slow me down.

    But last year Covid stopped everything. My goal was to see my anniversary of 5 years pass by and to share my life with my husband of 50+ years, our family of five and the grandchildren ages 15 -39.

    I’ve found that the stress is gone and life is easy. I now quilt, make a gel gowns from bride’s dresses, bake, read and enjoy drives in the country.

    I now believe in being thankful for every new day. Yes we are in our Golden Years, but the love grows just knowing to take on one day at a time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Teula – I love your ‘before and after’ story. Your comment “I felt I had to prove my heart attack would not slow me down…” is certainly what I felt too after my heart attack. In fact, my wise friend Heather at one point – after I told her how exhausted I’d felt after doing a particularly long evening presentation, sat me down and asked me “What are you trying to prove?”

      Just as you had discovered, and as my friend had recognized, too – I’d kept saying YES to every invitation, trying to prove that this heart attack would not slow ME down.

      Thanks for your important reminder: one day at a time.

      Take care, stay safe. . . . ♥


  2. Another insightful article among many.

    However, I must admit that referring to yourself as a “recovering catholic” is more than a wee bit of catholic bashing.

    Disappointed because it was not necessary.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Pauline – as you know, I do quite often include personal details in my articles (it’s all part of the joy of writing your own blog!) – but arguably, none of those personal details are ever “necessary”. In this case, my spiritual practice is entirely relevant to a story of a non-Christian going to work for a Christian organization. (I’ve noticed that most of my readers readily accept the personal bits they agree with, but do not like the bits they don’t – just as in your response today).

      The truth is: I AM a recovering catholic, after a lifetime of catholic indoctrination from birth – even convent boarding school (Mount Mary Immaculate Academy) – plus an intensely close family relationship with a church that has been shown to be pervasively corrupt. Generations of unspeakably damaging sexual abuse of minors and (worse!) the deliberate organizational cover-up that protected predator priests/criminals is so heinous that I – and so many other born-and-raised catholics – are still “recovering” from the shame and rage of being unknowingly associated with such institutional evil.

      That word “recovering” is surely the most minimal form of “catholic-bashing” possible.

      Take care, stay safe. . . ♥

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Wow Carolyn, you have captured, yet again, on how I felt right after taking early retirement in March before the heart attack:

    “Will I wake up one morning, impossibly sad because I’m no longer involved in what had been such major parts of my life all those years? Would I dread running into any of the people (my colleagues) I’d walked away from?”

    Thank you for an insightful article, bravo and my hat’s off to you for walking away!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Romi – I hope your early retirement turned out to be far less of an issue than you might have anticipated at the time.

      I think it’s often a matter of whether you’re the ‘dumper’ or the ‘dumpee’. Had I woken up one fine day and announced that I’m going to retire in my 50s and just relax from now on, it wouldn’t have felt nearly as traumatic as being forced out of my career for medical reasons. But when I think about it, the end result remains exactly the same.

      Take care, and stay safe out there. . . . ♥


    1. Thank you Roz – that process of reevaluation and prioritization can take time to figure out. For months after my own heart attack, all I wanted was to be back to “normal” – so I fought that reevaluation every step of the way. I believed that if only I could just get back to work, I could be “normal” again.

      But my half-time return-to-work trial was a humiliating disaster. I simply could no longer function at my “normal” full speed like before. Worse, it was my boss and co-workers who could see that better than I could.

      It takes as long as it takes, but the sooner we can learn to prioritize, the smoother that recuperation can become.

      Take care, stay safe. . . ♥


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