On Strategic Retreat

I was reared on the belief that quitting is a grievous sin. It compounds selfishness with laziness and imposes your burden, your duty, on someone else. Quitting is the easy way out and earns you nothing.

This absolutist view had a very powerful affect on my formative mind. It embedded itself in my personality and formed a part of my core ethos. In many tangible ways, I have benefited from this belief becoming a trait. Without this conviction, coupled with some courage and a goodly amount of sheer stubbornness, I would not have achieved the level of advancement and respect that I currently enjoy in my career. Nor would I have had the will to undertake this years-long campaign of self discovery and personal growth. Not quitting and consciously, intentionally, habitually opposing any urge to quit, has served me very well.

But even good habits can be injurious when taken too far.

A lesson that has taken far too long to sink into my brain is that there is a time for everything, including a time to quit. When a habit or practice or project or activity… or even a relationship…becomes unhealthy or harmful or unproductive or counter-productive, logic and reason would say it’s time to end that thing. Putting energy and resources toward such a failing endeavor is wasteful and causes more harm than good.

Yet quitting still seems wrong.

Continuing to the end, finishing the course, making sure the job is done, staying true to your word…these are the things I was taught to tell myself to avoid quitting. They’re noble sentiments that reveal a character to be admired. They also have the effect of making failure easier to accept than quitting. Because if you stick it out to the end, give it all you’ve got and still fail, you have preserved your honor and can hold your head up in spite of the outcome. But there’s no honor in quitting, no valor in retreat.

That’s what I was taught and what I’ve always believed.

Yet I was also taught to think and use good sense. And what kind of sense does it make to continue an endeavor that you know will fall or that is harmful to you in some way? What real valor is there in blind, unyielding labor, what honor in futility? Doesn’t even military theory teach the value of tactical retreat, of picking your battles, of living to fight another day?

Perhaps the change in nomenclature will help. A trusted teacher once told me that reframing a problem with language that is palatable to both mind and spirit can overcome obstacles that logic and brute strength cannot. So…retreat, not quitting.

If I retreat from whatever is in front of me and take an alternate path, I do not necessarily have to go backwards. I can go in any other direction and still advance. It might take longer and the original destination may be out of sight for a time, or the destination may change altogether, but there is still movement toward the goal.

That is palatable and I can accept the logic as not merely palliative nonsense. It is not comfortable and not as ingrained as the drive to never quit, but I can appreciate it’s worth.

This has been a long time coming. I’ve had to intentionally cultivate this skill while suppressing my natural tendency toward stubborn determination. It started small, delegating tasks at work to junior attorneys to free time for more advanced projects suited to my more mature skills.

What made that hard was that the tasks I needed to delegate were things I enjoyed and was really good at doing. Handing them off felt like quitting my job to do something I barely understood how to do. That seemed foolish and unworthy. But it was necessary. It was retreat from the familiar in order to take on the unknown and gain immeasurable ground in the process.

It has been the same every time I’ve done it since. Whether it’s taking on a new challenge at work, letting go of unproductive personal habits, finding new paths to self improvement, acknowledging failure to learn and achieve success, or simply letting go of uncertainty and embracing the risk of loss while reaching for the gain, it all requires the same thing: strategic retreat. I know in my heart that term is a euphemism for quitting. But because the layer of meaning on top of it has the virtue of truth, it’s a type of quitting that my spirit is willing to accept.

So, what have I quit recently? A few things, but I didn’t quit any of them without having a clear alternate path each time:

  • I gave bullet journaling a full 90 day shot, daily recording the significant occurrences in my day and often adding a fun anecdote or inspirational quote. But I just don’t see the value in it. It feels forced and takes time away from actually doing those significant occurrences. And I haven’t felt the need to review my entries even once. Instead, I’m doubling down on my commitment to this blog. We’re safely over the halfway mark of the year and I’ve been true to my weekly posting goal. I find value and meaning in this and knowing that I have readers who still read keeps me going. So I quit bullet journaling and will instead work harder here.
  • Keeping with the theme of giving up useless things, I quit three separate standing meetings at work and have no regrets. That’s 90 minutes per week that I have back to do things that actually matter. Since none of them were my meetings, organized by me, I feel no compulsion to replace them with anything specific. I’m just using my time more effectively and that’s good for both me and my company. How freeing it is to simply not attend!
  • Although I’ve been dressing in “masculine” clothing for many years and haven’t worn a skirt or dress in nearly two decades, I still tried to maintain some semblance of female normativity in my appearance. Whether it’s wearing pastel colors to soften the cut of my shirt and bow tie, or adding rings and bracelets or even earrings to signal “yes I’m a girl” to the anxious public confused by my style, I made an effort because I have always feared ridicule and derision. It’s incredibly exhausting always worrying about whether other people will “get” you or if they’ll laugh you out of town. So, gradually and with a lot of effort and the support of family and friends, I have begun to let go of the need for public approval of my appearance and identity. I’m learning to redirect the energy I put into worry and fear into confidence and self-worth. I’m letting myself like who I am and how I look, and learning to not feel guilty for it.

These may not seem like strategic retreats or even real accomplishments to anyone but me. That’s alright. I know the value these changes have to my spirit and the labor that has gone into achieving them. That’s all that really matters – that I know.

So my hope for you, friends, is that you give yourselves permission to strategically retreat from things that aren’t working, free from guilt and self loathing, so that your new direction can bring you to your goal.

3 comments so far

  1. Widdershins on

    Excellent. It’s all about choosing your battles, isn’t it. 😀

    • Searching4Self2013 on

      Exactly. Amazing how hard it is to learn such a simple, straightforward thing.

      • Widdershins on

        Heh 🙂 … they’re the sneakiest ones! 😀


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