Friday, January 15, 2010

Knowing when to walk away

Does anyone here remember the motivational posters that were so popular back in the late 1990s? Maybe they're still popular. Maybe they were popular even before then. I don't know. I just recall that in the late 1990s, when I was hip-deep in my first and only corporate job, the office I worked in was wall-papered with the damn things. All those posters with images of stunningly beautiful nature scenes and the pithy saying underneath, meant to inspire us drones to give our all to the gods of the J-O-B. I hated the damn things. I already gave my all for the J-O-B, and because of it I spent far more time locked away in a tiny cubicle lit by nauseating florescent lights than I did in the great outdoors pictured in those posters.

Not long after the motivational posters came out, some comedic genius came up with the "de-motivational" posters. Now these were funny, painfully so in most cases, because they held far more truth than the originals they were making fun of. The one that still sticks with me showed some poor schmuck on his knees at a running track, his face a cataclysm of agony and frustration. Beneath the picture it said, "Winners never quit and quitters never win. But if you never quit and you never win, you're an idiot."

I think that was about that time I started seriously re-considering my corporate career.

I've walked away from a lot of things in my life time. When I was eight, my mother signed me up for dance lessons. I started with ballet, and by the time I was 13, I was taking gymnastics, jazz, and point too. Point was excruciating. I couldn't bare to slip my feet into those hard-toed shoes and try to balance on tip-toe. After a year of struggling with bleeding toes and ingrown nails and infections, I told my mom I was done, more than done, with dance and I never took another class again. Considering at the time I was taking four classes a week, and that most of my social life came from the dance studio, that was a hell of a thing to walk away from. I don't recall ever looking back though, and my feet were grateful for it.

From dance I went to band. My favorite cousin played the French horn in her school band, and I just had to play too. I had a good ear for music, so I signed up for my school's marching band and spent the next few years struggling to play as well as everyone else. You see, I had the ear for music, but not the mouth. French horn demands a hell of a lot on the muscles of the lips and face. Some days, an hour of class would leave me with a throbbing mouth and cracked lips. Not a pleasant way to go through the rest of the school day. Plus I always got so damned nervous during auditions and exams that I bombed every single time. I was the worst French horn player in the school, and I knew it. By the end of my junior year, I figured I'd suffered enough, so I didn't bother to sign up for marching band the next year. When my instructor found out, he laid into me like nobody's business. "You're a quitter!" he screamed at me. "A lousy quitter who can't commit and can't finish what she started! And you'll never amount to anything, ever!" You better believe I never looked back when I walked away from that conversation.

It was another 12 years before I was ready to quit something else. That was the corporate job I hated so much. Sure, the money was good; I got lots of raises and bonuses and nearly doubled my salary during the four years I worked there. But while I was getting well paid for 40 hours a week, I was actually working 80 hours a week. And I hated the job. I was good at it, but it was boring, sterile, and at times very degrading. The Hubster understood, fortunately, and we eventually made arrangements that allowed me to quit that particular millstone and once again walk away.

Looking at all this, it might seem like I've made a habit of quitting. But I also have a habit of committing. I completed both my bachelors and my masters degrees, which was no small task. I completed four years of Army ROTC and got my commission in the Reserves, in spite of the fact that I hated ROTC and definitely did not want to join the military. Of course my ROTC scholarship came with an 8-year commitment to the Reserves, which I also completed and then went beyond by a few years.

I have committed to this and committed to that. I have started some things and walked away from them, and started other things and crossed the finish line even if it meant I had to limp several miles to get there. Why finish some things and not others? Pain has a lot to do with it. I have a limit for how much I'm willing to suffer for a cause. Dance, band, and the J-O-B had become intolerable in my eyes, thus they went. ROTC and the Reserves were pretty intolerable too, but in those cases, I had no choice but to finish what I started. My dad refused to help pay for college unless I joined ROTC and went into the military after school.

I have to admit, my days in ROTC and the Reserves did not kill me, but my memories of those times do put me in mind of yet another de-motivational poster. "That which does not kill you can really fuck you up." I keep that in mind any time I confront a situation where staying means more pain than it's worth. I do not hesitate to look at a situation and ask, "Is this really what I want to be doing right now? Is this really worth the agony and frustration?" When the answers to these questions are 'no,' I know it's time to walk.

I can tolerate a great deal of pain and suffering. Hell, I have a husband and kids and I've decided to make a career of writing. You know I can handle pain. But only for the right reasons. Sure, winners never quit and quitters never win, but sometimes we all get into games that just aren't worth the effort to finish. When that happens, it's time to smarten up and just walk away.


I'll be at Marscon in Williamsburg, Virginia, all this weekend, presenting discussion panels on science fiction erotica, so I won't be able to respond to comments until after I get back. I hope everybody has a great weekend!


  1. Helen,

    Wonderful post. Your penultimate paragraph reminded me of my favourite demotivational poster: what doesn't kill you, only prolongs the inevitable.

    I hope you're having fun in Williamsburg.


  2. Hi Helen!

    Oh, you could do a whole blog on this poster thing. Now I want to go out and look for some.

    I really liked this post. Its deals with one of the great questions of life which is when do you keep the faith like the lonely visionary you are, or when do you face up to reality and change your plans? There's no good answer to that. Just ask George Dubya.


  3. But damn, if the day ever comes when I find the balls/financial situation/alternative to be able to walk away from my kennel/cubicle, I will stand on my hood in the parking lot and sing Johnny Paycheck's "Take This Job and Shove It".
    (anybody else ever find it ironic that the man who sang that song had "Paycheck" for a surname?)

  4. And I meant to say before anything else: great blog, Helen! Thanks!

  5. Hey, Helen,

    I'm so glad that you considered the other side of the coin. Commitment one day at a time means that one day, you are free to decide you've had enough. I think that the only commitment where that doesn't hold is kids--and actually, I can even imagine situations where it might be better for all concerned if a parent passed on his or her responsibility to someone else better suited.

    Great post. Hope you're having a blast at Marscon!


  6. I can relate to a lot of what you talk about here—in my own life, I've stuck with many things but walked away from some others. I'm not claiming that my judgment is infallible, but I think when I walked away from something it was usually a good decision.

    All that anti-"quitter" stigmatizing is, imho, symptomatic of simplistic thinking, overgeneralization, and a wish to deny the reality that "sticking with it" will not always result in triumph (nor is the triumph, if it comes, necessarily worth the sacrifices). Not to mention the fact that there's only so much time, so "quitting" thing A means one now has (more) time for the things that are more rewarding.

    Anyway, I'll stop here before I rant too much about the "Horatio Alger" complex in American society. Suffice it to say that I believe there's such a thing as "giving up too easily" in certain situations, but there's also such a thing as "banging your head against a wall" or martyring yourself to some dubious goal. And, finally, it's up to the person whose life it is to decide when to stay and when to go. No one should kibitz, pressure, or bully.

    Terrific post, Helen! Good for you for not being afraid to say "I quit!" Contrary to the Horatio Alger myth, I think sometimes walking away—especially in the face of social pressure to stay—is what shows great "strength of character."


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