Why you should not heed the “never give up” mantra

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This, frankly, is one of those things that sound deep and meaningful, but if you look at it, it’s pure bullshit. The whole of popular fiction (books, movies, motivational posters) is full of aspiring, disadvantaged protagonists, who, by refusing to yield in the face of unbeatable odds, somehow win the day. They become astronauts, get the hottie, or defeat the scary baddie.

But it’s all a lie, and a dangerous one at that. Sometimes you do have to give up in order to be able to move onto other things -or save your sanity. The trick is to know the difference between the time you actually need to persevere, and the time when you hit your head against a wall repeatedly. In the former case you don’t give up; in the latter the sooner you do, the better for you (and for the wall as well). Obviously it’s not easy. Most of the time you’ll know only in hindsight; yet, this is something you have to keep in mind.

My first attempt at the PhD is a perfect case study. For years I worked, tried, fought, thinking that it’s just a hurdle I need to pass, that if I work hard enough, I will succeed. I remembered this picture (the very same one), and kept on fighting. After a while, however, I realized that my supervisor’s wife will not let me succeed whatever I do (she was the lab manager, and sabotaged me at every step I took). She was spiteful, and I realized the sooner I quit the better for me. So I left. (I did try to transfer to another lab, but she took on herself to talk to my new line manager, poisoning the well for me, so I left that place, too, pretty soon after.) I suddenly felt free. As if a gigantic stone was moved off my chest. You know the classic -and also bullshit- tale about the frog being boiled alive? I felt like a frog who was put into cold water after almost being boiled. I had no future, no job, I was in a foreign country with a visa that was about to expire soon, and I felt happy. Found a job, a few years later got back to grad school, and did a PhD. Had I quit sooner, I would have saved myself a lot of pain, and avoided a brief brush-in with depression and an awful lot of suicidal thoughts. So yeah. I’ve learned a lesson from these wasted years. Sometimes you do need to give up to be able to move on.

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