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The Sunday EssayFebruary 6, 2022

The Sunday Essay: Learning to quit

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Quitting doesn’t always mean giving up.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand

Original illustrations by Sara Moana

 

When I was 17 years old, I quit the only real dream I’d ever had. I was in the conference room of a waterfront hotel with a bunch of other kids who, like me, were planning to study law at uni the next year, listening to the real-world experiences of a real-life lawyer.

Ever since I was 10, I’d stopped answering the question of “what do you want to be when you grow up?” with “a Spice Girl!” and started telling anyone who would listen that I wanted to be a lawyer. 

I’m not sure how it happened to me at just 10 years old, but somehow life stopped being about singing, dancing and girl power. Now it was about cold hard cash, and law was my path to it. 

I stuck to that “dream” for a solid seven years, determined to prove that the Māori girl from little old Te Puke could “make it” on her own. 

But sitting in that conference room, everything flipped in an instant. 

The speaker – an ageing, straight, Pākehā man with an affected accent and crisp suit – was introduced to us as a man who loved his job and was hugely passionate about law.

He then proceeded to give what might still be the single most boring presentation I’ve endured in my lifetime. I didn’t see a passionate lawyer living the dream, I saw a man whose soul had withered in a corner and the rest of him was just trudging about in shined loafers. 

I thought: “If this guy is what the industry defines as ‘passionate’ and ‘in love’, I want no part of said industry.” 

That night, I abandoned my childhood dream and quit my law career before I’d even started it. Inconsequential things like Pippins, kapa haka and various sports aside, it was the first thing I’d ever really quit and it was scary. 

I had only a couple of months to decide what I was going to do at uni (because I’d fully bought into the lie that not going to uni wasn’t an option) and I hadn’t given any thought to anything other than law for seven years. 

I was also a teenager and therefore painfully worried about how others would react. 

There were my peers, of course, but there were also strangers who I imagined saying things like, “of course she quit, who did she think she was believing she could do that in the first place?” (As an indigenous female child of the 90s, my imposter syndrome could not be tamed).

But mostly, after years of watching my mother proudly tell people “she’s going to be a lawyer”, my biggest fear in quitting was letting her down. 

I thought that her excitement meant she was heavily invested in it happening; that she’d imagined my life looking a certain way and that she’d be disappointed if I didn’t get there. I thought that “lawyer” was a profession she held in high esteem and that if I became anything less, it would be just that: less than.

But I quit anyway because I knew I had to. And it turned out, quitting showed me three things:

  1. That I could change my mind and be OK.
  2. That no one cared what I did as much as I imagined they would.
  3. That the only thing that could disappoint my family was if I sold my soul and happiness for money. 

I soon found out that Mum was only excited about law because I was. When I switched my major to psychology, then political science, then threw English literature in the mix, and then pivoted entirely and went to journalism school, she told people about all of those things just as proudly.

The funny thing is, despite learning those three things early on in life, the act of quitting didn’t become any easier. 

Instead, it was as if I felt like I could never quit anything again because I’d already quit something major once, so I persevered at a lot of things when I probably shouldn’t have. 

It wasn’t until very recently – more than a decade later – that I fully embraced the concept of quitting as self-care. I’m not talking about quitting smoking or coffee or any of those supposedly “virtuous” goals. I mean just quitting things that don’t serve you or spark joy. 

I don’t really make resolutions, but I did enter this year – which, for me, started in July with Matariki – with a new mindset; rather than thinking about the things I would do, I thought about the things I wouldn’t do and what I was no longer willing to put up with. 

At the end of 2019, my GP, therapist and every member of my immediate family told me, in no uncertain terms, I had to quit my job for my health.

I was depressed and anxious and work became a major trigger, to the point that I was often suffering multiple panic attacks every day. My mental health was also impacting my physical health, resulting in gut issues, crippling migraines, vertigo and almost constant nausea. 

Most people would take that as a flashing neon sign. I, it turns out, needed a full-scale intervention to give me the kick up the arse I needed to save myself. 

It was hard because, before then, I’d only ever quit jobs to go on to something else; university, another job, overseas travel. This time I was quitting and my only plan was to rest. 

That kind of quitting is a whole other beast; it meant losing my income, and thus, my flat, independence and lifestyle. It meant moving away from where most of my friends were and moving back to the small town I spent a lot of time and energy trying to get out of. 

The hardest part about it, though, was getting past all the rhetoric around being “a quitter”.  

I knew I had to leave because I was incredibly unwell and also, I had become exactly the kind of person I was trying to avoid becoming when I turned away from law. 

Yet still, I spent months trying to force something that didn’t work to work – all because I couldn’t shake the idea that quitting or giving up would make me a failure and somehow worth less. 

Why? Because that’s exactly what the world (see: capitalism) tells us: quitting and being unproductive is bad, lazy and defeatist, while perseverance and productivity are good, admirable and hopeful endeavours.

Which is largely why it took my whole family and two different health professionals giving me the hard word before I actually bit the bullet.

Even then, the conversation with my boss was hard. I never actually used the word “quit”, it was always some variation of “I need to leave”, as if it wasn’t my choice. I now know better, of course, but at the time it felt like I’d let my mental illness beat me and like I’d not only failed at my job, but at being an adult. 

Especially because quitting meant I had to move home with my family – because you can’t pay Auckland rent when you live alone and have no income – and that presented its own set of issues. 

I was a cliched Hollywood rom-com character moving home in her 30s to eat ice cream from the tub while crying in the dark – except there wasn’t a sniff of any rom or com. 

I did get a Hollywood moment though, in the form of a cliched epiphany about what really mattered in life and what I wanted to spend my time doing (spoiler alert: it wasn’t work).

It took a lot of time and even more therapy, but I eventually figured out that I’d invested way too much of my identity and self-worth not just in my career but in my productivity and other people’s ideas of “success”.

Once I learned to stop doing that, my entire life changed. 

I’m happier and far less stressed and it’s all because I learned to question why I was doing something, whether it served me (or the causes or people I care about), and whether what I was getting from it matched what it demanded of me.

I’m now almost dangerously good at saying no to and walking away from things that don’t fit those criteria; since quit-gate 2020, I’ve quit another job, turned down a couple more, let go of relationships that were more effort and heartache than they were worth, and stopped trying to stick to arbitrary goals like working out three times a week.

Last year, I even quit my te reo Māori course with only one assessment to go – and that’s a biggie, because learning the reo is my highest priority right now, and that course was a huge part of my healing journey. But life – as it does – got in the way, and the class stopped meeting the criteria. 

Toward the end of last year, I was dealing with the death of a loved one, mental health issues, keeping up with work and another move back home. I had little capacity to deal with long-distance Zoom classes and high-anxiety assessments, so I emailed my kaiako and quit. 

I could’ve carried on but it would’ve only been so I could say I did it and get a certificate – knowing full well that having proof that I studied the reo is not the same as having the reo.

So quitting was a surprisingly easy choice, firstly because by that point, I’d already become a bit of a pro at quitting stuff but also, I knew that quitting that course wasn’t quitting the reo and that I could and would try again later (I’m pleased to report I am starting a year-long full-time course in March).

Here’s the thing; quitting my job may be an extreme example considering most people don’t have the luxury of being able to do the same, but it taught me a lot about quitting that I can now apply to the rest of my life in ways 17-year-old-me wasn’t able to. 

I learned that rest and self-care as the next steps after quitting are as equally valid as going to another job or retraining – especially because I needed it. 

I also learned that, despite what 17-year-old-me made me believe, quitting something didn’t, doesn’t and will never make me “a quitter” – in the same way that screeching along to Mariah ballads does not, unfortunately, make me “a singer”. 

It doesn’t mean I inherently have no drive, determination, resilience or dedication as a person, it simply means that that particular thing just wasn’t worth the energy it was demanding at the time.

Perhaps the most important thing I learned is that nothing in life is permanent, not even death – not always. I often think about a family member of mine who was clinically dead for something like eight minutes and then he came back, right as rain. 

That’s how I remind myself that it’s OK to change my mind about something, change it back, and change it again if I want to. And that just because I start something doesn’t mean I have to finish it and just because I quit something doesn’t mean I can never do it again. 

That’s why, after everything, I’ve started to think of “quitting” not as a bad thing, or something you have to make up for, but merely as the first step in changing.

And changing something that simply isn’t working for you is the most natural thing in the world. Not only is it how we adapt and evolve, but as I see it now, it is one of the truest forms of self-care.

It’s so natural that even at only 17, before all the therapy and before “self-care” was even a thing, some part of me inherently knew that despite what I’d been told, monetary wealth, high-powered positions, crisp suits and shined loafers would not bring me happiness. 

Even after years of totally singular thinking, I loved and trusted myself enough to change my mind, walk out of that hotel conference room and never look back. 

That’s the kind of energy that has – despite some roadblocks – continued to define my life since, and it’s the one thing I hope I never quit. 

The Sunday Essay postcard set is now available from The Spinoff shop. The set features 10 original illustrations from the series.

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