When should you call it quits?

I’ve been working on a new project for months now. If you’re a regular reader of Creative Something you’ve heard me complain about it before.

I’m at the point where I don’t know whether I’m wasting my time or if I should keep pressing on towards the finish line; and I think this is a question all of us end up asking ourselves at one point or another.

“Should I scrap this and start something new, or keep going?”

For any creative this moment of questioning is a common occurrence. At some point in the process of working on a long-term project we have to step back and ask ourselves if it’s worth it to keep going along the path we have been taking.

It’s easy to see why we start questioning what we’re working on. As we go, we often encounter other, possibly more-fulfilling routes (or projects) that we could easily diverge onto. We send little previews of our incomplete work out to peers, friends, and mentors, in hopes of receiving positive feedback or helpful criticism.

Sometimes we get words of encouragement, to press on, to see where the road takes us, and that’s enough to keep us motivated at least for a little while. Other times we get unexpected responses, or no response at all, and wind up wondering, more than ever, if we should call it quits.

When should we quit a project that takes up so much of our time?

The sage wisdom is to keep going. To do the work not for what it will result in, but because the process is part of what we enjoy. A painter who doesn’t enjoy painting isn’t much of a painter anyway, is she?

Recently the famed writer Steven Pressfield had an email conversation with a budding writer who had spent the better part of the past two years getting up three hours early every single day to write a 200,000+ word novel.

The writer was considering quitting the project, as no publication houses had shown any interest in publishing the novel and all of the feedback had jumped from positive to less-than-so.

Steven came back with the following advice, which I find immensely motivating in my own situation and hope you’ll find inspirational as well (particularly for those who have been toiling away at something for a set amount of time). Here’s Steven:

  1. Make every effort to break the habit of listening to other people’s opinion of your work. Not one person in a hundred is qualified to give feedback to [you], including me. You will drive yourself crazy listening to people’s comments…Break that habit.
  2. Make every effort to learn to evaluate your work yourself. If you can, find ONE PERSON you trust for feedback. A friend, your wife, whatever. If you have to pay them to read your stuff, pay them. Frankly, I doubt you will find anyone. The skill is just too rare. You have to learn to do it yourself.
  3. Put this project aside for a while. Move on to something fresh. Meanwhile keep getting it out there to…anyone you can. Just don’t listen to their feedback.
  4. After a minimum of three months, read your novel again with fresh eyes. Evaluate it yourself. Make decisions from there.

While the advice Steven gives here is specifically for writers, I think it rings true for any creative worker; artist, dancer, musician, student, entrepreneur, and so on.

It just doesn’t get more powerful than this. Don’t listen to anyone’s feedback, do the work for yourself. This becomes increasingly harder if you began a project in hopes of making a lot of money or becoming famous, in which case you’re better off dropping the project right now.

On the other hand, if you started the project (or career path) because you actually enjoy parts of it, keep going, but distance yourself for a brief time in order to gain perspective. On that note: there are always things you won’t enjoy about what you do, the key is whether or not you can look back at the end of some work and feel good even about the rough parts.

Head on over to Steven Pressfield’s website to read the whole email exchange in context.

Photo by Jessica Cross.