When giving up is the best option

We tend to think that sticking with a task at all costs shows character, but sometimes you just have to cut your losses

Man with wings falling from the sky

(Illustration by Kagan McLeod)

Perseverance has always been revered as a trait that leads to success in life and business. Research has shown that people with “grit”—the trait of bearing down even in the face of obstacles and setbacks—are more likely to graduate, get married and stay married, complete arduous Army training or remain employed, compared to those who give up more easily. But a new study points to the contrary. Researchers found that it’s not always smart to get so bogged down with a problem that you can’t move on to the next task. Sometimes, you just have to give up.

A team of researchers from the University of Southern California and Northwestern University designed an experiment to measure 400 students’ grit. They were first given a quiz to assess their level of determination (you can take the quiz yourself here). Then, they had to solve 37 anagrams in 20 minutes. For each correct answer, they were rewarded with a ticket to enter a $100 lottery. What the participants didn’t know was that 16 of the anagrams were unsolvable.

The study found that grittier individuals tended to get bogged down in the impossible questions, believing they would eventually solve it them. By failing to keep the larger goal in perspective, they dug in on the hard questions and solved fewer problems overall—even though they knew it was costing them additional chances at the money. Meanwhile, the less tenacious subjects skipped ahead to tackle easier puzzles, thus finishing more problems and increasing their chance at winning.

The lesson here is not to give up on something the moment you encounter resistance. It’s letting the strong-willed and stubborn ones among us know that not every task deserves the same level of commitment, and in some cases, bailing out so you can spend your energy elsewhere is the wiser choice.