Love & Wisdom

The Power Of Quitting

Giving something up is never easy, especially because society rarely rewards such behavior

By Danny O’Neil March 6, 2024

Danny Holden

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2024 issue of Seattle magazine.

I’m not a quitter.

That used to be my standby joke when discussing my consumption of alcohol. It usually got the intended effect, which was a laugh, but there was more than just a kernel of truth in there.

I didn’t want to give it up. I liked the excitement I felt when trying to decide whether I wanted to drink bourbon that evening or beer (spoiler: I often chose both). I loved the moment the buzz first hit my brain, everything getting a little warmer. I enjoyed getting loud and rowdy, especially before a Husky game, and as I started to increasingly drink by myself at home, I liked to come up with bold plans for the book that I was planning to write.

But it wasn’t just what I got from drinking that made me hesitant to get sober: I thought quitting was evidence of my own inadequacy. A sign I wasn’t strong enough to handle my liquor, or at least manage my intake. To quit was to admit I wasn’t capable of making adult decisions to the point I had to resort to abstinence.

Well, I have been sober for coming up on seven years now, and my life has improved significantly in everything from my health to my marriage. I am now writing the very book that wasn’t much more than my alcoholic daydream 10 years ago.

So, what took me so long to stop drinking?

Well, that’s a complicated question, one that encompasses some nature and some nurture. There are examples of substance abuse on both sides of my family tree. My maternal grandmother required inpatient treatment for her alcoholism, so there was a genetic predisposition.

Then came the way I learned to drink, which was largely through the binge-drinking culture that is so common on college campuses and seeps down to high school as well. I was 17 years old, a junior in high school. The first time, I drank so much I blacked out, and that set something of a precedent for me. I never drank more than once, maybe twice per week as an adult, but when I did drink, I tended to proceed with something akin to reckless abandon.

Those things point more toward the reasons I had a drinking problem, though, not why I held onto the habit through my 30s in spite of mounting evidence that alcohol was having a disruptive, destructive effect on my life. And while I certainly have personality traits that lend themselves to addiction, I’ve come to believe that a big part of my reluctance to stop drinking is because I equated quitting with weakness, and I don’t think I’m alone in that regard.

Quitting gets a bad rap in America. It’s seen as the exit ramp chosen by people who don’t have the courage and grit necessary to stick with it. Perseverance, on the other hand, is burned into our collective hard drive as not just a virtue, but a trait that is necessary for success. Perseverance is part of the Protestant work ethic. It’s at the heart of everything from that morality tale of how the tortoise beat the hare to the study of grit by scholars such as Angela Duckworth.

There is certainly value in the ability to stick with something. In fact, my ability and willingness to honor a commitment in spite of discomfort is the single biggest reason behind whatever success I have attained. I worked three jobs the summer after my freshman year in college so I could afford to get back to the University of Washington for my second year, and I spent three years of nights and weekends covering high-school sports for The Seattle Times, building the foundation that allowed me to move up in the media industry.

But my reluctance to quit also caused me to stay at jobs that were having a profoundly negative impact on my health and well-being, and in a twisted way it made it harder for me to make that decision to get sober. I somehow thought if I were just more disciplined, a little bit smarter, I’d learn to manage my alcohol consumption, which flies in the face of most if not all we know about alcoholism.

I never thought about it this way, though. At least not until I read Annie Duke’s book Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away. She’s a professional poker player, but also someone who’s studied decision-making from the perspective of a clinical psychologist. She makes a compelling case that there are many instances in which we’d be better off quitting an activity sooner rather than later.

Now, this book doesn’t mention drinking, and I read it years after I became sober, but the way Duke explores the concept of quitting caused me to examine the difficulty I’d had walking away from alcohol, as well as a variety of things that had become problematic for me.

Duke frames quitting as neither good nor bad, but as an option we can choose to halt an approach or course of action that is either harmful to us or unlikely to achieve the success we’re seeking. After all, there’s no amount of perseverance that would make me a professional singer because I don’t have the voice, the ear, or any of the other traits that would be necessary for success in that profession.

Quitting is a skill, in other words, one that can be developed and strengthened not as the antidote to perseverance, but as a companion. As Duke writes in her prologue: “Success is not achieved by quitting things just because they are hard. But success is also not achieved by sticking to hard things that are not worthwhile.”

I thought quitting was evidence of my own inadequacy. A sign I wasn’t strong enough to handle my liquor, or at least manage my intake.

The question of when to change course, however, is complicated by the various ways in which we are predisposed against quitting. Some of this is the cultural messaging about the value of sticking to it. Some of that comes from the pull of the status quo and the fear of sunken costs. Some of it comes from the feelings of ownership we develop over an activity or idea.

That one resonated deeply with me. I have placed a great deal of meaning in my life on the things that I’ve done, whether it was being a sports reporter at The Seattle Times or hosting a radio show in town. I also saw alcohol as a part of my identity. I enjoyed my reputation as a somewhat rambunctious drunk. It helped that I was usually funloving as opposed to conflict-seeking.

As I got older, I learned more about the alcohol I was drinking. I got into tasting bourbon, reading about it. I even traveled back to Kentucky one weekend to visit a variety of distilleries and encounter some of the loveliest accents in our fine country.

It felt like I’d invested some portion of myself into the activity, which posed a real problem as I reached my 40s. The hangovers grew more pronounced, and I started to increasingly drink by myself at night. What had been perhaps a bad habit was clearly a problem.

Even then, it was hard for me to quit. Wait. That’s not quite right. It was hard for me to decide to quit because making that initial commitment turned out to be much harder than the actual act of turning down a drink.

Quitting isn’t a weakness. It’s a sign of an adult’s ability to take stock of a situation — both the positives and the negatives — and decide you’re better off making a change. It’s a sign of strength, and while I wish I would have learned this sooner, I’m grateful to have figured that out in time to walk away from alcohol.

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