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Why you should sometimes think very seriously about giving up

Posted on 03 August 2020

Unrealistic dreams can get in the way of your success in life.

In today’s culture of ‘have it all’, the very notion of giving up on something can seem like heresy. But sticking with a vision that isn’t working won’t provide you with anything but pain. Sometimes the right path starts with giving up what you thought was your goal and starting again with a fresh one.

Giving up seems like the opposite of getting what you want out of life, but that can be misleading—even dangerous. It’s easy to become so attached to the wrong version of what you’re looking for that the only way to get a good result is to start by walking away.

There’s often an important difference between your idea—your mental image — of some life goal and the goal itself. If you become too attached to the idea, it may get in the way of the real goal, drawing you aside to pursue appearance rather than reality.

When good dreams go bad

Suppose you have a dream of becoming eminent in your professional field. Stop for a moment and consider exactly what that means. Does it mean earning the respect of your peers and colleagues, and demonstrating outstanding ability? Or having a job with a specific title, a specific salary level, certain perks, and a key to the executive washroom? Or becoming known as an expert whose views are automatically sought on just about all important decisions.

Sometimes the two will go together, but not always. The political maneuvers, ethical compromises, and competitive ruses needed to secure that fancy salary and job title might destroy the peer respect you claim that you want. At the very least, the extra pressure and demands might destroy any enjoyment you could have had in your achievement.

Some actors become so obsessed with celebrity that they do things that compromise the acting skill that produced it. Their dream—to reach a pinnacle of fame — takes over and leads them into a lifestyle that gives fame, but at the cost of their health, their physical and mental well-being, and their ability to do their job. Some end in jail. Many end in rehab. Their focus on a failing dream destroys any pleasure in their craft and undermines their ability to justify their celebrity status.

Certain sports stars are so afraid of slipping down the rankings that they begin to try too hard, hastening the process of decline into mediocrity. Many business executives try to trade on past glories to justify their position, though their former skills are now obsolete (have even have been lost) and people snicker behind their backs.

Losing the dream, gaining the reality

If you’re willing to give up the idea—the false but seductive dream—of becoming someone or achieving a particular goal, you may well increase your chances of doing it for real. That dream may have no longer have anything to do with the reality it mimics. After all, you probably formed it long ago, when you had almost no idea of what reaching your goal would take—or what it would be like when you got there. The reality is what you need to aim for; the dream is mostly compounded of fantasy and ignorance.

How often have you seen someone drop out entirely when they come to believe that they aren’t going to ‘make it’ to their dream? Were they unable to reach any level of achievement? Or was it just that old, fantasy-based dream that they could not attain? Surely it would be better to reach where you can and enjoy the results, rather than walk away in dejection because you couldn’t reach something that may have been largely imaginary anyway?

If success becomes an obsession based on goals that exist only inside your head, is it worth the anxiety and fear of failure?

The major source of stress and burnout for many people is their own inflated, ego-driven expectations. Drop those and the reality might be a more successful and enjoyable life, based on real goals in place of fantastic, twisted dreams. The fear of not living up to an imagined—and likely impossible—level of perfection has probably destroyed more genuinely able artists, writers, scientists, and sports champions than any other setback.

Giving up in this way isn’t quitting. It isn’t simply walking away and admitting defeat. It’s standing back and accepting a new, more realistic goal, based on what you will enjoy and be able to achieve in ways that preserve your health and happiness. It’s letting go of false dreams and images based on ignorance and wishful thinking.

Above all, it’s coming to terms with who you are and what really matters to you. And that, believe me, can be the very highest achievement of all.


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This post was written by:

Carmine Coyote - who has written 293 posts on Slow Leadership.

Carmine Coyote is the founder and editor of Slow Leadership, with a career that stretches from early employment as an economist, through periods in government service, academia and several multinational companies, to retiring as CEO of a US consulting company and partner in a large business services firm. Carmine now lives in Arizona, but is British for all that.

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6 Comments For This Post

  1. Richard says:

    How do you know the difference between giving up and taking a break? For instance, I have a goal of being in business for myself. I have been trying for 2 years and have found it very difficult. I’m not succeeding but I’m not failing either.

    Should I give up and accept a fate of living in the corporate world for the next 30 years or should I keep trying? From everything I have read, business owners struggle for years before “making it”. What’s the difference between a healthy struggle and obsession?

  2. Carmine Coyote says:

    Thanks for your interesting question, Richard.

    For me, the difference is whether the dream is still realistic, given your unique circumstances. An obsession is when everyone else except you can see that whatever you’re striving for is never going to happen — and your continued determination is now harming yourself, your loved ones, and those who depend on you.

    Many people do struggle for long periods before achieving what they desire, but this may simply be inevitable, given where they started from and the uncertainties of life. They keep going, I guess, because their dream is still realistic and they know they have plenty of time on their side.

    If you truly have another 30 years of working life ahead of you, what’s the problem? That’s more than enough time either to make your dream come true or find that you’ve changed your mind and don’t want that particular outcome any more.

    I see no call to give up at this early stage, unless your current efforts are proving harmful in the way outlined above. If so, change your approach, not your goal.

    Keep reading, my friend.

  3. lizthefair says:

    This is very interesting-especially the concept of your dreams actually keeping you from the reality of what you really want.

    I think this happens in relationships all the time. We grow up with this culturally induced understanding of what it means to be in a “good relationship” (i.e. Marriage, big diamond, 2.2 kids, high earning husband, beautiful wife) and then work towards the trappings of that relationship-rather than building it from the inside out.

    In my limited experience it’s only when we are no longer willing to stick with a relationship at all costs-when we can imagine a good life for ourselves with or without the partner in question can a truly strong bond be formed.

  4. Carmine Coyote says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Lizthefair.

    You are quite right. People often cause themselves enormous pain by chasing after the surface trappings of something €” job, relationship, lifestyle €” and ignoring the reality until it forces itself on them.

    Sadly, many of these dreams are not even theirs. They picked them up from the latest fashion, the media, or whatever group of people they hang around with.

    Keep reading, my friend.

  5. Annette says:

    Rather than giving up on a dream, it may help to consider ‘reviewing’ a goal. You go through the same process and determine whether a goal/dream is in line with your purpose and where you really want to go. That can change with progress or as you get in touch with what it is you really want. Giving up can sound like you have to go back to square one. Adjusting can mean that all the work you have done until now will serve you and accelerate you towards your new goal.

  6. Carmine Coyote says:

    Thanks for your comment, Annette.

    You make some useful and sensible points. Even so, sometimes — after all the review you may undertake — the only sensible action remains to give up.

    Keep reading, my friend.

1 Trackbacks For This Post

  1. Rant 42: August 2007 - cut and run « stumptuous.com says:

    [...] As coincidence would have it, quitting has been on many people’s minds lately. In his August Function and Fitness newsletter, Jonathan Sabar announced he was quitting to go full time as a trainer. In his latest Aggressive Strength newsletter, Mike Mahler talked about the timing to take action. And just a few days ago, one of my favourite blogs wrote about why you should sometimes think very seriously about giving up. [...]

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