Lessons from Myths, Legends and Fairy TalesMusings

Lessons from Myths, Legends and Fairytales: Part 2. When to Grit and when to Quit

Those of you that know me well, may be amused at this post because I am not known for giving up easily and have been described as gritty, determined, tenacious even. Perhaps I am growing up but when I look at the image of Sisyphus endlessly pushing the rock up the hill, I do question why he doesn’t just give up.

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a cunning king of Corinth. He was punished by the gods for tricking others, including cheating death twice. After his death, he was condemned in the underworld to roll a rock endlessly up a hill. Unlike others who were punished by the gods, Sisyphus has a way to escape his punishment. If he is able to reach the top of the hill, he will have completed his sentence. However, whenever the rock was about to reach the top, it rolled right back down the mountain again, forcing him to start all over again.

And so if Sisyphus could never finish his task, why didn’t he quit?

To my mind, the lessons to learn from the myth of Sisyphus are like most things in life, context and choice: in this case knowing when to grit and when to quit.

As a society, we place a premium on grit with suggestions that being “gritty” is a better predictor of success than talent or intelligence (see Angela Duckworth’s book: “The Power of Passion and Perseverance”). The concept of grit is even embedded in cultural sayings like “Keep Calm and Carry On” or “When the going gets tough, the tough get going”.

But is quitting really such a negative thing?

Don’t get me wrong, I think perseverance is an important quality, but perhaps we need to assess what we are persevering at and why. What if your passion changes? Is it commendable to work persistently toward a goal that no longer serves you? It is dishonourable to re-evaluate your path and move in a different direction? Despite its many virtues, perhaps it is possible that we overvalue grittiness.

I feel that just as important as it is grit, is the self-awareness to know when to quit. As Susan David PhD suggests:
“Grit needs to hold hands with the changing context of our lives. We need to lift the stigma of quitting so it can be rightfully seen as adaptive, and embraced with grace and dignity.”

And so yes, one of the lessons we can garner from the myth of Sisyphus is the importance of resilience and perseverance in the face of adversity. But on the other hand, perhaps we should ask ourselves whether, like Sysiphus, we are stuck in an endless unbeatable cycle because it is too shameful to quit.

And maybe we should commend those ‘quitters’ who know when it is the right time to walk away.

This takes courage.

Quitting is not always a sign of weakness or giving up; it can be a sign of self-awareness and self-preservation. So perhaps we should look at quitting not as leaving something behind, but rather moving forward in the right direction, the direction that is in line with our values, our why.

P.S. some versions suggests that if Sisyphus stops pushing the rock up the hill, he would die and so I guess that is his why!