Quit While You’re Ahead

By Joel Stein Illustration by Laurel Lewis

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Quit While You’re Ahead:

When people give me advice, I listen for the subtext. “Don’t do drugs” is really just a way of saying “Drugs are amazing!” To me, “Always wear a condom” means “Sex feels infinitely better without protection.” And “Stay away from bad neighborhoods” is just another way of people letting me know I’m a total pussy everyone wants to beat up.

Even as a kid, I wondered what all those gruff dads really meant when they told me winners never quit and quitters never win. In gruff Donald Rumsfeld’s gruff new book of advice, Rumsfeld’s Rules, he says one of the first lessons he learned was from his even gruffer dad. Li’l Rummy mailed a letter to the aircraft carrier Papa Rummy was stationed on during World War II, telling him he was considering quitting the Boy Scouts to devote more time to playing sports with his friends. “Weeks later, I received his reply on the thin onionskin paper then popularly known as ‘V mail’ (‘V’ for ‘victory’). Dad wrote that the decision to quit was my call. But he went on to say, ‘Once you quit one thing, then you can quit something else, and pretty soon you’ll get good at being a quitter.’ That advice found its way into my shoe box.”

I have an equally manly story to tell. I was 11, big for my age—so big, in fact, that the music teacher, Mr. Dubowski, decided I should play the baritone horn since I was able to push it in this weird mini–shopping cart to and from school every Thursday. Not only did this suck and look more than a little uncool, but Mr. Dubowski sucked and was uncool too, getting inappropriately furious when he realized I didn’t practice anything except the chorus of “Centerfold” by the J. Geils Band. So I told my dad I was quitting right before the big concert. Unlike Papa Rummy, my dad had joined the National Guard reserve to avoid serving in Vietnam, so he just told me not to quit. I did it anyway, thereby not only quitting the orchestra but quitting my dad as advice giver.

Since then I have lived in a quitter’s paradise. When things become unpleasant or difficult, I’m out of there. Turns out that recipe has seven steps? We’re ordering pizza. Those characters have British accents? This DVD is getting mailed right back to Netflix. Let’s just say I have been to “The Grand Inquisitor” chapter of The Brothers Karamazov and I have turned right around.

You know that guy in the office who is all bitter because he’s been there for 20 years and has never gotten the recognition he deserves? He’s a stayer! The guy who sleeps downstairs with the TV on and is mean to his wife, pretending he can’t hear anything she says? Stayer! Alcoholics? Stayers, all of them! If it weren’t for stayers, we would have been out of Vietnam in 1967 and there would never have been a show called Joey.

People who won’t walk out of a bad movie, put a boring book down halfway through or search for a new porn clip when there’s a cunnilingus scene are victims of a staying industrial complex that tricks people with false notions of honor: that there’s some long-term reward for staying—an engraved watch, a parade, a great funeral, a retired number. Or simply that stayers develop deep meaning through the dreadful tasks they keep mindlessly doing. Maybe. But I’ll tell you what quitters get: time. There’s a lot of stuff to try out there, and just because you happened to get to the Boy Scouts first doesn’t mean you should upgrade as soon as your first pube comes in. I’ve met a lot of Eagle Scouts and they have all impressed me, but I’m guessing they would be just as amazing people if they had instead spent their high school years getting laid.

We may admire stayers, but we celebrate winners. Sometimes you have to quit the Cleveland Cavaliers to win with the Miami Heat. I’m sure Bob Dylan would have been one of the most admired folksingers if he hadn’t quit acoustic. These billionaires all quit college: Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Michael Dell, David Geffen, Larry Ellison, Ralph Lauren. America is about freedom and opportunity, which are fancy words for quitting. When I see a child throw a board game and all its pieces into the air when he’s losing, I think, There goes a future leader of our country.

My big regrets in life are not quitting things earlier. Every job I’ve had I should have left sooner. Every relationship was prolonged out of fear of telling her it was over. I stayed in cold, dirty, expensive New York for 11 years before moving to sunny Los Angeles. My to-do list consists mostly of things I need to quit: my cable service, my landline, my newspaper subscription, dessert, my porn habit, going to lunch with other people.

So enjoy this column while you can. I’m getting a little bored, a little restricted by this specific topic of “men” and a little angry about being only a few pages away from boobs. In fact, I’m getting tired of this whole quitting topic.


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