When to Quit

Ang Lee Oscars

Before Ang Lee started winning Oscars, he spent six years having scripts rejected while his wife supported him and their two children [1]. Six years went by with nothing to validate his career choice.

But that’s nothing – Harry Bernstein wrote forty novels that were rejected by publishers. He finally had a manuscript accepted at the age of 96, and it became a bestseller.

Tenacity is admirable, but for each Ang Lee or Harry Bernstein, how many unknowns are out there? The ones who spend their lives clinging to a vague hope of future success, only to die in obscurity?

We don’t hear about those guys.

So how do we know when to stick it out or quit?

It comes down to opportunity costs [2]. Quit when the next-best-choice exceeds the value of a goal.

I quit a total of 3 jobs in the past 12 months, but waited too long to quit each one. I wanted my jobs to provide me with validation and belonging, and didn’t quit until those expectations became obviously unattainable. So I held onto each job until its value fell to zero.

Ang Lee could have easily learned to write code or wash windows and gotten a job that paid more than the $0 he was making during those 6 years as an unsuccessful scriptwriter. But his dreams of becoming a director were worth more than the ability to provide income for his family, and the value of those dreams never diminished.

As for all the not-Ang-Lee’s out there, the ones who toil away to their final years only to achieve nothing – so what? There are worse ways to die than with a heart full of hope.


1. Ang Lee and the uncertainty of success –jeffjlin, who, by the way, was the guitarist/co-founder of Harvey Danger. Remember Harvey Danger? Hahaha.

2. The Upside of Quitting –Freakonomics (hat tip to ex-labmate Andy)

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