Quitting gymnastics

Kathryn Crawford Saxer Career Management, Career Transition

My daughter’s friend just quit gymnastics.

This 13-year-old girl has been a gymnast most of her life, practicing five days a week, multiple hours a day. It’s what she’s always done. Being a gymnast is her identity.

“How did you decide to quit?” I asked her, fascinated by the enormity of her decision.

She shrugged. “I realized that I didn’t want to be there anymore,” she said.

Out of the mouths of babes.

Knowing when to quit, when to walk away from a job or a career — or a consuming sport — is a tricky decision.

“There’s no right or wrong answer here,” I tell my coaching clients.

You’ll never know if you made the right or wrong call, since it’s not like we have a control test of your life to compare it to.

“I think the only mistake you can really make is to stay too long somewhere,” I say. “It’s a mistake because you’ll never get that time back. But even then, you’re always learning things that are important, so who’s to say even that was a mistake?”

So how do you know when it’s time to quit? I lead my clients through the following exercises and thought experiments.

Track over time

On a scale from 1 to 10, how was your workday today? Lump together all the ingredients that make a job good for you — interest, challenge, flexibility, autonomy, collaboration, creativity, productivity, development, etc. — and come up with a single number on that scale.

At the end of each day, write down that number. Plot it over time. That helps you see whether you’re dealing with ordinary day-to-day ups and downs — a blue mood, lack of sleep, a frustrating interaction — or a more profound dissatisfaction.

Track over several months. That window is a drop in the bucket over the course of your career, and it’s reassuring to know you are making a thoughtful, reasoned decision and not just reacting willy-nilly to a bad moment.

How likely is the worst case?

“What are you afraid will happen if you leave?” I ask my clients. “What are you afraid will happen if you stay?”

The answers to those questions tend to get very dark, very fast, and can be a reason people get stuck. Those are the middle-of-the-night worries, and it’s helpful to shine a bright, clear light on them.

“What is the percentage likelihood that that [awful thing] will happen?” I ask my clients. Putting a percentage likelihood on the worst case tends to separate the real and significant risk — that you can plan for and mitigate to some extent — and the under-the-bed monsters.

Plans A, B, C and D

“We want lots of eggs in lots of baskets,” I tell my clients. If Plan A falls through, the client has already taken steps to execute Plan B, is exploring Plan C, and has feelers out about Plan D.

I have found over the years that this is often more of a thought experiment than a real strategy: The exercise of thinking through options — and beginning to take action on them — seems to get people motivated, optimistic and unstuck. They may never actually use Plan A, B or C because the actions they take lead them to Plan D.

Picture the future

“Imagine it’s a year from now,” I tell my clients. “Imagine that it’s been a good year — you’re proud of what you’ve accomplished.” And then I ask a lot of questions about what it’s like there, a year from now.

We examine and expand on this future state where the client is thriving, and get very clear on the necessary ingredients: environment, co-workers, management, flexibility, autonomy and work content, for example.

We can uncover a lot of information when we articulate out loud what it is we want. This information is a great place to start Plan A. It’s a destination to shoot for. If you imagine that you know where you’re going, you can begin taking concrete steps to get there.

“What are you going to do next?” I asked my daughter’s friend.

She smiled, looking off into the distance. “I want to do something where I’m not getting hurt,” she said.

That’s a great start.

First published in The Seattle Times. Read my archive of Seattle Times Explore columns.