Quitting - How a Well-Planned "Quit" Enhances Success

Michael Burg, MD

Quitting has been important to my success.



Scrutinizing your own professional journey may reveal a few key “quits” that helped you along the way. Maybe “moving on” has value worth considering.

Our paths are strewn with seemingly false starts and missteps. Those career wobbles can be great though, educational in fact, teaching us what we want and what we really don’t.

My flight-of-the-bumble-bee career journey has imparted three pearls of wisdom I’d like to share.

  • All knowledge and experience is useful
  • Quitting at the right time is valuable
  • Enjoying the journey is paramount

And a bonus.

  • Say “yes” to good things

All Knowledge and Experience is Useful

As a serial college dropout, I started and stopped at least three majors before earning a biology degree and moving on to medical school. The gap between high school graduation and reentry into college as a 25-year-old freshman was filled with founding and growing a booking agency for bands, working at various jobs too numerous to list, traveling extensively in Europe and hitchhiking across the US. My land speed record for leaving a job was eight hours. That’s as in … get the uniform with my name on it, work a full day, then quit. Providing “service” at a service station just wasn’t for me. During this same eight-year start-and-stop-apalooza I dabbled in college study of psychology, communications and business.

I vividly remember that during this time my patriarchal Jewish father’s hair went from black to white. He yelled a lot too. “Think!” and “Finish what you started!” were his loud themes. Maybe he was concerned that his first-born son was wasting his life? You too will likely encounter important people who will freely offer that your decisions to go AWOL are frankly nuts.

But, that’s wrong. Learning happens during transitions. I discovered that moving furniture or waiting tables or psychology or ___________ (you fill in the blank) wasn’t for me long term. Fun at the time and transiently interesting, but not my thing ultimately. Along the way one acquires knowledge, abilities, wisdom. I got plenty of practice writing, tutoring, advising and working as a team member. My entrepreneurial and business skills got a boost too. I could go on and on. All this came my way as I started and stopped various ventures. All would serve me well later in life. Even now I can still line load and drive a bobtail truck. Thank you, King Van and Storage. Who knew that furiously multi-tasking in a variety of fancy restaurant kitchens would serve me well during hectic emergency department shifts when I’m repeatedly interrupted and asked to manage crisis after crisis.

That’s the point. Had I not started and stopped so many career adventures I’d never have gained the skills I needed to thrive. For me, that testing, trying, succeeding (and failing too) was useful. Quitting after a time, after I’d tried, gained experience and tired of an experience was key to moving ahead strongly later.

Quitting at the Right Time is Valuable

“The time to quit is before you wish you had.” — Kimberly K. Jones, Sand Dollar Summer.

Charlie, a King Van and Storage big rig driver, my hero. Or he was when I worked moving furniture as a strapping 19-year-old lad. In spite of the fact that Charlie weighed 300+ pounds and would turn a sickly, slightly-greenish hue each day after gobbling his fat-laden lunch (gall bladder disease I now think), that good-ol’-boy could load trucks at lightning speed. Plus he was a excellent driver, accident-free, indefatigable. “Learn to drive like me. You’ll make $100,000 a year.” urged Charlie. This was in 1974, super seductive to a kid working for $7.50 an hour. Never mind that Charlie was never home, owed the IRS a truckload of cash and was probably headed for an early grave; I was tempted. I did a 3-week road trip with Charlie and practiced some driving skills (all illegally) but in the end never committed to acquiring a commercial driving license. Soon thereafter I left King Van and Storage and never returned. Good move as it turned out. Had I truly started making “big money” as a too-young-to-legally-drink youth I might have been seduced into staying for years, maybe even forever. In retrospect, this would have been a disaster. I got out just in time.

Enjoying the Journey is Paramount

I prefer journeys to endpoints. Really there are no “endpoints.” It’s all a journey. One door closes and another opens. We do reach the end of certain things (even I finally graduated from college) but these finales are just conduits to the next set of experiences coming our way.

Author Mandy Hales proffers “Life isn’t meant to be lived perfectly … but merely to be LIVED. Boldly, wildly, beautifully, uncertainly, imperfectly, magically LIVED.”

All those descriptors sing to me. Who wouldn’t want to be magically bold, wild, beautiful, uncertain and imperfect? Bold’s opposite is timid … you choose. Tame is the antonym of wild. Which looks better on you? Beautiful versus ugly? That’s easy. Even uncertain’s obverse is mind-numbing. Who wants to be certain all the time? Besides can you ever be certain all the time? Sounds like a descent into staid, boring, dull, sober mush. Where’s the spark in that?

Quitting, from time to time, has to be part of the journey. If every day is the same as the last, forever and ever until the end, when does bold, wild, beautiful, uncertain, imperfect and magical living happen? Moving on, risk taking, deviating from the “straight and narrow” (call it what you will) brings all that to you. To paraphrase Erick Reahm, the “safety net” (i.e. your next great venture) does not appear until you leap off the cliff … and that requires some degree of letting go of the known, AKA quitting.

Say “Yes” to Good Things

Long ago, I showed my then wife this little ad one evening. It read, “Are you a culturally sensitive academic emergency physician interested in moving to the Netherlands to help establish emergency medicine as a specialty?” At the time, I was two years into a new faculty position in emergency medicine. I’d published next to nothing, was just getting established myself and had absolutely no right to request a sabbatical. I did consider myself culturally sensitive though, so one small point in my favor. “I don’t think I’m right for this and besides I’ll never be granted the necessary time off.” I mused. My now-ex agreed. “Don’t apply,” she said. “You’ll never get it.”

Flash forward to the next morning. What the f&%k I thought. I can’t say ‘no’ to myself. I’ll apply for the post. Let the Dutch say ‘nee’ if I’m not the right man for the job.

Well, I did apply, got the call, flew with the fam to Amsterdam, interviewed for a week, and … got the gig! Then I came home, and you guessed it … quit! Quit my secure, new, path to academic success in emergency medicine in the US. Actually, I carefully negotiated a sabbatical with my grim-faced boss and promised to return. (This failure on my part, to take a complete “burn the boats” approach to this wild new opportunity is one of my few regrets in life. More about this in another piece perhaps.)

Saying “ja” to a good — even great — thing allowed me the opportunity: to be the first emergency physician in the Netherlands, to help found emergency medicine as a specialty in that country, to positively impact the Dutch healthcare delivery system, to spark medical writing and research in a new specialty, and on and on. All I had to do was quit … and say “yes” to good things.

Edward Abbey wrote, “May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.” Maybe the well-timed, well-considered, well-played and joyous “I quit” can set you on your way to an amazing view.

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San Luis Obispo, CA

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