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When Rajagopal Raghunathan told family and friends he would be running his first marathon, he didn’t anticipate the twinge he felt in his foot while training a couple months later.
Raghunathan pushed through the pain, continuing to run to prove that he was physically and mentally strong.
He later learned he had a hairline fracture in his right foot, forcing him to drop out of the upcoming race.
If this story sounds familiar, that’s because it is for many people.
From the moment most of us are born, we’re told to never give up – and to try again (and again) if we fail.
That rhetoric is deeply engrained, so it’s no surprise quitting is frowned upon, said Raghunathan, a marketing professor at the University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business. We place a huge emphasis on succeeding and accomplishing goals, and quitting has become synonymous with failure, he said.
Society also puts successful celebrities, athletes and business leaders on a pedestal. These figures often describe failing countless times but never quitting until they achieved their goals. Admirers then conclude that to be successful, you must never quit, he said. But that perception is false, Raghunathan said.
“If you look at all the people who failed, you may also find out they never quit,” he said. As a result, he doesn’t see refusing to quit as the only key to success.
People who refuse to give up on a goal may not realize their decision could be taking a toll on their health and well-being, Raghunathan said – and potentially at a greater cost than quitting.
The consequences were physical for Raghunathan. But when failure is consistent, people may also experience chronic sadness, helplessness and depression, said Theo Tsaousides, a neuropsychologist in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
For example, a couple with infertility issues may spend years trying medical treatments to get pregnant, he said. In the process, their mental health may suffer every time they fail to get pregnant, and this pursuit could also affect their life savings.
If the couple continued to invest in fertility treatments to the point of bankruptcy, or at the expense of self-care, they’re doing themselves a disservice, Tsaousides said.
It’s brave to say, “I am willing to abandon my goal to create space in my heart and mind for something else meaningful,” he said.
Refusing to quit can also lead to obsessing over what you want to achieve without considering feasibility, which can hold you hostage to dreams or goals no longer serving you, he said.
Your drive should come from internal motivators such as wanting to better yourself, rather than external ones such as needing to impress others, Tsaousides said.
Circumstances and priorities inevitably change over time, so a goal you made years ago may no longer fit what you want out of life. Instead of continuing to pursue it, be open to going after new milestones that align with what you want now, he said.
“I don’t think it’s fair for anybody to tell somebody else it’s time to stop,” Tsaousides said.
But there are some questions you can ask yourself to decide when it’s time to move on.
Ask what you’re sacrificing by not giving up on a life goal, Tsaousides said. If you’re compromising your physical and mental health, it may be time to call it quits.
Examples can include sleep trouble or fights with loved ones because pursuing your goal is making you irritable, Raghunathan said.
You may also want to ask if your goal is worth the time, money and effort you are putting into it – and whether those resources could be better utilized elsewhere.
But you don’t have to give up on a goal forever, he said. If Raghunathan had abandoned training when he first felt the foot pain, he could’ve taken a break and likely been healthy enough to run the marathon, he acknowledged.
And if you’re worried about how others will view you if you quit, don’t be, Raghunathan said.
“Everyone has got their own stuff going on,” he said, “and most people aren’t paying as much attention to you and your life as you think they are.”
When he shared with running friends that he had dropped out of the marathon because of his injury, Raghunathan remembered feeling embarrassed and thinking they would view him as a failure.
Instead, his friends shared stories of their own running injuries – and told him they would never have continued running like he did if they were hurt.
“And as it turns out, I’ve never run a marathon,” Raghunathan said. And he’s perfectly OK with that.