Quitting on purpose
Lose the battle to win the war
When Neil Gaiman—one of the most celebrated English authors of all time—was 25 years old, he cracked open a fresh notebook and began telling an ambitious new story.
In a fit of inspiration, he wrote all night, and in the morning he had finished the first chapter. Then after reading over his work, he unceremoniously closed the notebook and tucked it away in his desk. “About a year ago I found it,” he recalls in an interview years later, “It wasn’t very good.”
At the time, Gaiman could tell that the story he was trying to write just wasn’t working. “I remember writing that and just going okay—this is a better idea than I am a writer.” So he decided the best thing to do was stop, and come back to it when he was more experienced.
Two decades, eleven books, hundreds of graphic novels, and a few television shows later, he would finally be ready to dust off that old notebook. “I thought ya know, I don’t think I’m getting any better. So I have absolutely no excuse for putting off The Graveyard Book.” After its completion in 2008, The Graveyard Book sold more than one million copies, and became the only novel in history to win both the Newbery Medal and the Carnegie Medal for best children's literature.
What makes Neil Gaiman’s story so exceptional is that at a very young age, he was able to display both humility and faith. Humility to recognize that as a 25-year-old writer, he wasn’t great, and the faith to believe one day, in the distant future, he could be.
By retreating from The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman was able to give himself a valuable gift. A gift we’d all do well to receive—the gift of time.
The Gift of Time
Sometimes the answers to our problems reside in blank space.
Space from our work, our stresses, and our problems, gives us a fresh perspective. Drawing more broadly from our lives and learned experience, this space affords us the information needed to make better decisions, and produce better work.
“That space is really important” says the stoic author Ryan Holiday, “it’s just so hard to budget for it.” After publishing 10 best selling books in 10 years, Ryan is convinced that the problem lies almost entirely in its optics. When asking a publisher for two additional months to spend writing a manuscript, Holiday could easily get approval. But if he asked for a two month extension to simply let his work sit in a drawer, and not write, publishers would look at him like he’s crazy. “You can justify one,” he says, “it’s hard to justify the other, even if the other is actually the one moving the needle.”
When an author shelves their work for two months—or in Neil Gaiman’s case, two decades—it’s not a decision motivated by sloth or procrastination. Rather, it’s a tactical retreat.
With time, the manuscript inevitably matures because you—as the creator—mature. You continue to write, and research, and live. Conjuring new ideas, and tangential perspectives that can be incorporated into the work.
In the decades that Neil Gaiman left The Graveyard Book in his desk, he didn’t sit idly by. No, he worked on hundreds of other projects, producing works at a maniacal pace. In doing so, he refined his skills and became a great author. One who could handle the challenge he set for himself early in his career.
Taking one step back, to go two steps forward.
Quit now, play later
“When I was playing poker, we had a saying among the elite players,” recalls Annie Duke, “which was that—poker is a long game.” A career as a professional poker player, is like a Russian nesting doll. Within a career is a series of games, and within a game, is a series of hands.
As a result, folding—or quitting—a single hand matters very little. What actually matters is sticking around long enough to see another hand, another game, and another day.
“The one thing that pros do way better than amateurs is they just fold a lot,” says Duke, and the difference is stark. Amateur players will fold less than 50% of the time on the first two cards, while elite players will fold more than 85%. By quitting early and often, professionals are afforded the luxury of time. They can observe their opponents and learn more about the nature of the game. They can still have a seat at the table, but with none of the risk.
This type of tactical retreat is about releasing pressure. Pressure that too often forces us into compromises.
Maybe you don’t have a publisher. Maybe you’ve never played a single game of poker. Maybe, instead, you have a boss, or a spouse, or investor. Someone who’s squeezing your valuable time into a smaller and smaller box. Someone who is asking you to compromise a mature long-term outcome, for a short-term payday.
When that’s the case, we’re forced to act in the name of optics. To push all of our chips into the center of the table, to be bold, to take action. Doing what looks good on paper, despite the risks. We’re forced to make bigger, and more dangerous, bets on our work.
Sure, we win the hand, but it’s at the expense of the game.
One step back, two steps forward
In the Battle of Long Island, under the cloak of a thick morning fog, George Washington evacuated 9,000 of his troops, completely undetected by British forces. Had this retreat been executed poorly, or worse, had Washington stayed to fight, the entire Revolutionary War would likely have been lost. This decisive moment—that rested on Washington’s shoulders alone—is considered one of the greatest tactical retreats of all time.
Of the 17 battles George Washington lead in the Revolutionary War, he won only 6.
This track record is not what made him one of the most universally respected generals in U.S. history. No, it was his ability to thoughtfully and pragmatically save lives through well executed retreats.
Of course there were skeptics. Voices in his ear saying that there is no honor in retreat, and surrender is cowardice. But Washington knew the same thing that Neil Gaiman did when he put his manuscript away for 20 years. He knew that he was fighting a battle that was bigger than he could handle.
Instead of letting his ego run wild—putting thousands of lives in danger—he pulled the brakes. By retreating well, Washington and Gaiman were able to consolidate, and mature, and grow, and then when the time was right, push forward.
Losing the battle, but winning the war.
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