The Power of No

About a year ago Freakonomics had a podcast called “The Upside of Quitting“. It showcased a number of stories of people who found positive consequences of quitting. In our society—in fact, from our very youth—we’re told not to give up, not to be a quitter. That is very American language especially in times of politics or war. “America will not give up this fight”, we may hear. Quitting then becomes a dirty word and if we do it, it’s mainly a last resort measure.

I’ve met people in jobs they just shouldn’t be in. They often seem stuck in them, but deep down they know it’s not their calling. Our vocations are deep within us and it takes discernment to discover them. Like a college freshman who is undeclared, we have the freedom to try out different jobs or areas of study or relationships, all which guide us to our true calling. Being young has the advantage of time, but older folks also encounter similar gnawings about their life path. Perhaps one is stuck in a job for years or even in an unhealthy relationship. God has no desire for us to be stuck in something that does not give us life. Sometimes quitting might be the answer.

Freakonomics puts quitting in terms of investment and the terms of “sunk cost” and “opportunity cost”:

Sunk cost is about the past – it’s the time or money or sweat equity you’ve put into a job or relationship or a project, and which makes quitting hard. Opportunity cost is about the future. It means that for every hour or dollar you spend on one thing, you’re giving up the opportunity to spend that hour or dollar on something else – something that might make your life better. If only you weren’t so worried about the sunk cost. If only you could …. quit.

Earlier this year the New York Times alluded to this in an article about the downside of cohabiting before marriage. Couples are together so long, begin living together for practical and financial benefits, start sharing their money and possessions, and then, even if they’re really not suited for each other, get married just because it’s just “too hard” to get out of it. They’ve invested way too much (sunk cost) that it seems to outweigh the opportunity cost (the effort to get out of it). So what happens? It’s not until after marriage that they realised they made a terrible mistake and get divorced.

Freakonomics mentions a study that showed baseball players who were drafted into the minor leagues and stuck through it did economically worse than the average ball player. The minors don’t pay much and it turns out that only 10% of minor league players make it to the majors. But everyone hopes to make it there for the big bucks. So they stick it out and find that they just don’t get anywhere, but they keep on keeping on because they’re stuck. One player mentioned in the Freakonomics podcast, who was drafted into the minor leagues, decided to quit and pursue a college degree. He said that he couldn’t continue doing it when he knew there was “untapped potential to do other things.” For many, the step they need to take is giving up the pursuit of a goal that is simply unattainable and focus on better life opportunities.

Quitting for the sake of the spiritual life
In the spiritual life we acknowledge that God gives us gifts that are meant to be used for our purpose in life. St Paul says, “So we are to use our different gifts in accordance with the grace that God has given us.” (Romans 12:6a) We can’t use gifts we don’t have. Opportunity cost refers to the freedom we need to have in order to follow God’s desire for our lives. That desire is our deepest desire.

What is God really calling me to be? And is there “sunk cost”—some time or energy I’ve invested—that is holding me back from pursuing that calling?

Learning to say “no” in our everyday lives can have great benefits, even in small non-vocational situations. As a Jesuit I quickly realised how many people turned to me for advice or counsel or to speak to a group or to lead a prayer. I had to learn to say no at times otherwise I could get burnt out. It was easy to overburden myself with the desire to serve others. The consequence though was losing personal time and prayer time.

All of us can be overburdened and sometimes saying no frees up an opportunity for something better or more important in the moment: like rest, or prayer, or study, or time to discern one’s vocation. Saying no or quitting might just be what pushes us closer toward God—through a better use of our gifts, to a deeper relationship with God, to a newer understanding of ourselves. Perhaps quitting is what will let us focus on something more important. The cost for this (opportunity cost) can be great risk or fear or uncertainty. But sometimes, it’s worth it.

Do it: Consider something today that you can say no to, that you can scratch off your schedule, that will leave room for something life-giving or some much needed contemplative time.

Related post: Activate yourself into something new.

Listen to an audio version of this post…

Music by Kevin MacLeod

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