Quitting. It’s a debate that has been raging over the last few weeks thanks to some high profile stories about athletes pulling out of big events. Big names like Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles have been applauded for prioritising their mental health over winning titles, however it’s drawn a fair amount of criticism too. It seems there are plenty of armchair athletes sat at home, having never achieved anything even remotely on a par with the likes of Osaka and Biles (yes, I’m talking about people like you, Piers Morgan…) suggesting that praising the act of putting yourself first in extreme circumstances is tantamount to teaching children never to try in the first place. That ‘quitting’ – regardless of the circumstances – is nothing but an act of weakness and selfishness. Far better, according to these people, to come home broken with a trophy in your hands than admit defeat and maintain your personal safety. To them, it seems, the only option is to sacrifice yourself entirely and push through no matter what, as long as you come home waving a piece of metal that says you are the best. Never mind that this could kill you. Never mind that it could cause you lifelong damage if not. Never mind that it could hurt those around you more than do them good. Quitting, to them, is simply not ok.
The more I read of these diatribes the more irritated I get. Not because it dismisses mental health problems as though they aren’t as important as physical health problems. Not because of the way it suggests accolades and medals are more important than actual human beings. Not even because it is laughable that these far from perfect people think they have the right to demand God-like behaviour from others – though I agree with all of these points completely. It’s mainly because it dramatically over simplifies and polarises the issue. It suggests that there are only two options – die on the hill or slink off like a coward, and these situations are rarely that straightforward. Do I think we should teach future generations to avoid any challenge in case it doesn’t go their way? Of course not. Do I think it’s important they learn the value of hard work and pushing through adversity? Definitely!! But why are we pretending that by doing those things you are guaranteed a good result? Because you aren’t. Sometimes all the good will and determination in the world will lead you nowhere positive. In some cases it will put you in active danger, and it’s incredibly important that we upskill young people to recognise this and learn how to judge when that effort is worth it or not. We have to understand how to weigh up the risks, not just for ourselves but those around us, and accept that charging ahead full steam with little or no consideration for the fact it may not turn out as we wish is far from the heroic act it’s made out to be.
It brought to mind my own experiences over a decade ago now. I wrote this post in 2017, which feels like another lifetime to me now. It was a period in which I was recovering from some hard knocks and learning a lot about myself, and I was inspired to find it and read it again when this new furore surfaced. It still resonates with me as much as it did then, so I thought I’d share it again. Here is how I learned the hard way that sticking it out isn’t always the brave thing to do…
I don’t really talk about my job too much over here on the blog. It surprised me when I realised that, because I talk about it non stop in real life, but it’s true. I’m not sure why – probably because when I talk about it I’m normally annoyed or frustrated and I’m conscious I don’t want to appear unprofessional or accidentally upset a colleague that I didn’t know was reading, but either way, a lot of you probably don’t know much about what I do for a living. Well, I work in pubs. No longer behind the bar thankfully – I’m not sure I have the stamina nor the patience for that anymore – but still in the industry. It’s all I’ve ever known actually, career wise, and it is definitely something that has shaped the person I am today. To be frank, it’s an industry I love with a passion, and while the roles I do within it may change from time to time, I honestly can’t imagine doing something else.
It’s not always easy though. I don’t know how many of you have worked in the service industry, but those that have I think will agree that we’re a hardy bunch. It comes with the territory that the hours will be long and the customers will be difficult and you will rarely get a break, never mind a day off, and to most of us, while it was never forced on me, that becomes the norm. When I made the transition into office hours it took me a good 6 months to settle into a ‘normal’ routine and sleeping pattern. You simply have to have a rock solid work ethic to survive in this industry, and for a long time I saw that only as a good thing. In more recent years though, I have come to realise that it actually has it’s downsides.
There is almost a WW2 blitz-style culture that exists in pubs that consists of the belief that the way to get by is to pull together, put on a brave face and battle through. I stress that this is not something I was ever told to do or encouraged to do, but we learnt to leave our problems at the door. To be calm and collected at all times, especially in a crisis. To push through the fatigue and just keep going, even when we feel like we have nothing left to give. When someone calls in sick on our day off and the team are already short, we say ‘Oh well,’ roll up our sleeves and head into work, much to the annoyance of our loved ones. When we drop a full till down the cellar stairs on the way to cash up after a long day, we just laugh, and maybe take a photo to share our misfortune with our colleagues on WhatsApp. When someone screams in our face for something beyond our control for the millionth time today, we have to grit our teeth and bear it, apologising humbly when really we want to tell them to get stuffed. All of this is not contractual, of course, it is just accepted. It is an unwritten rule that we all adhere to, and when someone new comes in that can’t hack it, we think to ourselves, ‘They won’t last….‘ It’s a very ‘sink or swim’ approach, and plainly and simply, the ones who last just don’t quit. Once you’re used to this mindset it’s very difficult to change, even when your employers (and yes, it’s a tough industry, but there are most definitely great ones out there who genuinely care about your wellbeing!) are making it clear to you they don’t expect it, and would much prefer you didn’t put that pressure on yourself!
In some ways these are admirable qualities – I think many employers would confirm that these days it feels harder than it used to be to get staff that feel genuinely passionate about doing a good job. But in others it can be a millstone around ones neck. Once you have gotten used to applying this to work, it’s only natural that it spills into your personal life, and it doesn’t always benefit you. I have very high standards that only a few of my nearest and dearest live up to in my eyes. I’m eternally skeptical of stranger’s motives and truly trust very few. I’m not always as sympathetic as I could be and I can be terribly impatient with people who I don’t think are on my wavelength. I am easily disappointed by those who don’t put in the effort I do, and that can hit me hard. Worst of all though, is that I’m not great at asking for help, and I’m my own worst critic. I try to cope with everything, all the time, and beat myself up if I can’t. I don’t like to bother people with my problems and a lot of the time I won’t talk about my problems full stop. I’ll tell people I’m fine, when really I’m not, because it feels like my own responsibility to take care of myself, but it can be a lonely existence, and it’s taken me a long time to realise that sometimes it’s ok to be a bit fragile.
It took something quite traumatic for me to realise this, and even then only years later. I’d been in an unhealthy relationship on and off for many years, and we both knew it wasn’t making us happy. I’d hit a wall career wise, and not knowing what to do next I accepted a promotion I didn’t really want. Somehow, without even really noticing how, I found myself running a pub in London, living in my brother’s spare room and miles away from any of my friends, and I tackled it the only way I knew how – I threw myself in headfirst. Things could have been different – it is almost a fluke that things turned out the way they did – but one by one tiny little events occurred which slowly chipped away at me, and things then started unravelling at speed. I didn’t really bond with the team. My Kitchen Manager was poached on my first day. The company decided to apply for a late licence a few weeks in, instantly making me Public Enemy Number One with the local residents who lived within sneezing distance. I allowed my Assistant to take 2 weeks off because I felt too guilty to say no, which meant I had to work for 2 weeks straight from open till close until she came back. All of this on top of the last 2 years feeling beaten down and disappointed with life took it’s toll, and I was mentally and physically exhausted. So when something quite emotionally scarring happened to me in my personal life, I couldn’t cope. In the end, it broke me, and I did something I have never in my life done before – I quit. I left my job, ended my relationship, and moved home to live with my parents.
At the time I really struggled with the decision. I felt like I was letting people down. I thought it must mean I was weak and not worthy of the job in the first place. I saw it as a failure that I couldn’t just get up and get on with it. I was convinced that all my ex-colleagues must have been talking about me and what a weakling I was and it really affected my confidence – it was a good 3 – 4 years before I had the courage to step back into a management role. In hindsight though, I’ve realised that I shouldn’t have been so hard on myself. Yes, you should always do your best to power through difficult situations, but sometimes you have to be able to take a step back and assess whether or not it is really worth it. I could have tried to carry on regardless of how I was feeling, but I’m pretty sure it would have ended in me having a breakdown and it certainly wouldn’t have done the business any good. My team were not getting what they needed from me as a line manager, and standards and sales were suffering. In the end, it was the right decision, for me and everyone else involved, so I really have nothing to feel bad about.
While it feels like the noble thing to do is fight, sometimes the bravest thing to do is actually to walk away. Sometimes that is the harder decision of the two. It doesn’t mean you are a failure, it means you have the courage to walk the unknown path rather than continue to stick with what you know best. The decision I made that day was made under pressure, but if I had the choice again today I wouldn’t change it. Giving up on what I had then only opened up more possibilities to me, and I’m very grateful that while the path was rocky, it brought me here today. I know that the person who stepped in after I left did a much better job, and while it hurts sometimes to admit that to ourselves, sometimes it’s just a fact that we have to learn to be ok with. When faced with a similar and heartbreaking dilemma two years ago, I was much quicker to remind myself that I had done everything in my power to change the outcome, so if it still hadn’t happened it was time to throw in the towel. And while calling off a Wedding was undoubtedly the toughest thing I’ve had to do so far in life, the outcome has made me happier than I’ve felt in a very long time. I just had to have faith in myself that it was the right thing to do, even though it felt impossible. Fingers crossed that was the last time I have to rearrange my life and move back in with my parents though!! I would like my adult life to kick in properly at some point!!
So next time you are struggling to battle through and feel like you need to be strong, stop and question whether sticking it out really is the courageous thing to do – maybe that’s actually the easy option? Either way, whatever you choose to do, remember not to be too hard on yourself. We all have to pick our battles in life, and we can’t win every one.
Be kind to yourselves, friends!