Giving up: the end of the ‘never give up’ mindset
Any path is only a path. There is no affront to oneself or others in dropping it if that is what your heart tells you.—Carlos Cataneda
We are frequently told that ‘never giving up’ is the secret to getting what we want, doing what we want to do, and becoming who we want to be. There is an endless stream of ‘experts’ waiting to convince us that if we have a goal we want to achieve, the most important factor—often the only factor—is to adopt a never-give-up mindset. The assertion being that, if you refuse to give up, you will eventually, inevitably, attain all the success, happiness and peace you could ever want. You will become a unicorn.
The only problem with this theory is that, much like unicorns, any cause-and-effect relationship between never giving up and success is purely mythical. In fact, in my experience, the opposite can sometimes be true. A never-give-up mindset can actually make it harder for you to experience authentic success, because it blinds you from discovering who you really are and what is really meant for you in any given moment.
Committing to never giving up can even be an unhealthy thing to do—because you become fixed, unmoving. This has certainly proved to be true in my life. For instance, if I had listened to everyone’s advice (including my own) to ‘never give up’, I’d still be slogging away at the same dream I came up with when I was a teenager, trying to become a career musician. I’d be working menial jobs to pay for recording sessions. I’d be playing gigs in dingy pubs to tens of people for the rest of my life. In short, I’d be pursuing a goal that—as I later discovered—wasn’t actually meant for me. And I’d be miserable.
As Toby Martin from Australian rock band, Youth Group, once said, I’d be “having someone else’s dream”.
Never give up
The belief that, no matter what, you should never give up on what you want, is ingrained in the very fabric of modern life—deeply intwined with our notions of success and how to get it. Partly because everyone who has ever achieved something difficult or significant bandies it around as if it’s a panacea.
If you have a dream, never give up; if you want to be successful, never give up; if you want to lose weight and get ripped, never give up; if you want to be rich and famous, never give up; if you’re looking for the love of your life, never give up!
‘Never give up’ is ubiquitous and constantly over-represented as a solution. Like the Swiss Army knife of modern motivational tools, it has become everything from a reassuring comment to a friend, a pithy platitude we post on social media, a motivational hook for public speaking, a meditative mantra we whisper over and over to ourselves, and a strategy for achieving our biggest goals.
Welcome to the age of the never-give-up mindset.
The never-give-up mindset
I can’t tell you where or when the never-give-up mindset started, but I can tell you that over 100 years ago Thomas Edison said, “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time1.” A sentiment that has not only endured but, I would suggest, become amplified as time has passed. To take a high-profile example, Donald Trump tweeted Edison’s quote to his millions of followers in 2014. But more significantly to me is its prevalence as the central theme in many modern movies, books, advertisements, motivational speeches, and interviews with public figures. If you start looking at cultural artefacts, you’ll practically drown in the message that the key to success is never giving up.
But why is the never-give-up mindset so popular? Does it have the data to prove its effectiveness? Nope—apparently only 8% of people achieve their goals, and not because they worshipped at the altar of persistence. Does everyone who commits to never giving up experience the success, happiness and peace that all those celebrities promise? Of course not. Then why? Because it’s alluring. It offers a very simple solution to a plethora of varied and complex situations. Which is also its inherent problem: it’s an oversimplification.
I understand the mindset
I certainly understand the allure of the never-give-up mindset. Once upon a time I was ‘all-in’ on it too—I waved my pom-poms in support, and was prepared to follow it through flames to my eventual triumph. But there was one big problem: things in my life didn’t go the way that I had planned. At all.
I started out quite adamant that I was going to use my never-give-up mindset to get what I wanted from life—like becoming a career musician and even having a child. Upon hearing this, though, life decided it would use my goals to show me how quaint and utterly hilarious it thought my never-give-up-mindset was. And by the end of the whole experience I had dropped any notion of being able to force life to give me what I wanted. Because life had shown me the inherent delusion required to believe this was possible.
Eventually my never-give-up mindset was gone, and in its place was a newfound appreciation of the old Yiddish proverb, “We plan, God laughs”. But first, I had to give up on my dreams.
I gave up on music
From age 17–30, I dreamed about becoming a famous musician. I was absolutely certain that playing music was what I wanted from life. It was my one-and-only long-term goal. I’d listened to the endless stream of celebrities who told me to never give up because it was the key to their success, and I’d set about putting this mindset into action. I committed to the goal and had no intention of stopping until I got what I wanted. And for almost an entire decade, my dream sustained me.
Until one day it didn’t.
About seven years into Operation: Famous Musician, serious cracks started to form in my resolve. My optimism was waning, and the inner fulfilment I used to get from music was drying up. But I was still committed to my never-give-up mindset, so I decided that there was no point indulging my feelings further. I pushed them aside and kept ploughing on towards my goal.
After another year had passed, the feelings hadn’t gone away. In fact, as time went on, they had only intensified.
I knew that I couldn’t continue to ignore my feelings and whatever they were trying to tell me forever. At some point, I would have to face them. So I pressed pause on my never-give-up mindset for a moment, removed my blinkers, pulled back the curtain, and took an honest look at my life.
The truth I had run from
The truth behind the curtain was as I had feared. Which is probably why I had run from it for so long. It cast a huge shadow over all my hopes and dreams of becoming a famous musician, as well as the validity of my never-give-up mindset. In the end, the cause of my conflicting emotions was very simple, yet entirely disarming:
My dream of becoming a famous musician didn’t have much in common with the reality of trying to be one.
“Hold on,” I thought, confused “how is it possible that I could pursue a dream for almost a decade, and it turn out to be disconnected from the reality of what that dream would look like in practice?” The answer: because I was more interested in achieving the goal, in being successful, in becoming a famous musician, and proving how good I was at never giving up on getting these things than I was in whatever the less-glamourous and contradictory truth of the matter may have been.
In the same way that you can fall in love with the idea of a person (when the reality of who they are is altogether different), I had fallen in love with the idea of being a musician. I had fallen in love with my own dreams. But the reality of what my dreams would mean to my life, if they had come true, was an entirely different thing.
The reality of being in a band
To take one glaring example—the unavoidable reality of being in a rock band with any kind of aspiration was going on tour. And the truth was, I hated touring. All that flying, driving, getting lost, walking aimlessly, carrying gear, loading, unloading, sitting around, killing time, sound checking, eating cheap dinners, drinking endless beers, sleeping in a strange bed, and waking with a hangover—on an endless loop—so that I could play music on a stage for forty-five minutes. It was a routine that I didn’t want to keep doing and a lifestyle I didn’t want to be part of.
But if my never-give-up mind-control trick had worked and one of my bands (Iron On or Disco Nap) had become famous, I would have been expected to go on tour all the time. In other words, the closer I came to realising my dream, the less I was going to enjoy my life.
My dream and the reality of my dream were incongruous. There was no way around it. And so, I did what I knew I had to do. Almost overnight, I stopped playing music. I gave up on becoming a famous musician altogether.
Deciding to give up on music was traumatic. It was like breaking up with someone I still loved with all my heart because I knew they were no longer good for me. My life felt uncomfortably empty without it. But the one thing that got me through was a strange new sense of lightness I felt in my being. At first I didn’t understand what it was or where it had come from. I could only describe it as feeling like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders.
Later I would come to understand what the ‘weight’ was that had been lifted: the burden of carrying something that didn’t belong to me.
The never-give-up mindset needs caveats
After I gave up on music, I started to think about how my never-give-up mindset had not only not delivered on its promise, but had led me astray. It had led me further away from my true self and what I really wanted from life. There was no one to blame but myself—after all, I had knowingly and wilfully adopted the never-give-up mindset. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that this mindset, if taken at face value, was deceptively dangerous. And that what it needed—desperately—was caveats.
Throughout my 13 years of playing music I had heard the phrase ‘never give up’ hundreds if not thousands of times. But I can’t recall even one instance when someone elaborated on it; no clarifying statements were ever offered, notable exemptions flagged, or mental prerequisites discussed.
For instance, it would have been handy if someone had said to me, “Oh, and by the way, before you commit to never wavering from this life-long goal, it’s a good idea to firstly consider where your motivation is coming from and whether your intended goal is actually relevant or helpful to you”. Likewise, it would have been valuable if someone had flagged that never giving up on a goal wasn’t always a positive or healthy thing to do. Because, to me, telling someone to ‘never giving up’ and not providing any caveats, whatsoever, was a bit like telling them to jump out of a plane without first discussing the fact that they might need a parachute on the way down.
It seemed to me that the people who went around perpetuating the never-give-up mindset, without adding any caveats, were making some monumental assumptions. Like, that people know who they are, know what their true self wants, and know what is authentically good for them.
If you’re not laughing yet, you should be. Because if your experience of human beings is anything like mine, these are usually the last things people seem to have a clue about. They are much more likely to have an awareness that they want to be rich, or famous, or successful at something. But rarely do they know why.
The process of giving up on my dream of playing music professionally had left me wary of the never-give-up mindset. But I wasn’t ready to drop it altogether just yet. I thought, “Maybe the music thing was a one-off, an aberration.” It wasn’t. As it turned out, life had one more big lesson in stall for me to ram its point home….
I gave up on having children
Soon after my wife and I got married, we started trying to get pregnant.
At first we adopted a laidback approach, telling each other: “Let’s throw away the contraception and see what happens! Yay!”. But after months passed without even the vague threat of pregnancy, we figured we had better be a little more pragmatic about it. So we started to schedule sex into a calendar, based around Meg’s ovulation.
Twelve months passed and still nothing had happened.
I didn’t understand it. All those kids in high school who had sex in the bushes at parties had made it look so simple. Why was it so hard for us? I knew, deep down, that no result after more than a year didn’t bode well—that it likely meant something was wrong. But it wasn’t an easy thing to admit to myself or talk to my wife about.
Eventually we faced the inevitable topic of what we should do, and booked in with a fertility specialist. In our first consultation we were told—in no uncertain terms—that we were considered medically ‘infertile’ and would need assistance if we were to ever get pregnant.
IUI and IVF
Not being able to have children naturally was a difficult thing to process. It triggered lots of our emotions and played on our insecurities. But we weren’t about to just give up on our dream of having a child. We were determined to try everything we possibly could. Which is what we did for the next three years.
For three years we rode the emotional, traumatic tidal waves of IUI and IVF. For three years we endured cycle after cycle of hope and fear, followed by pain and anguish when, inevitably, another round failed. And for three years, Meg endured countless medical procedures, complications and surgeries.
It was intense. And it quickly became apparent to me that IVF wasn’t something we could just keep doing forever. It wasn’t something I could simply never give up on until it worked. For starters, we were dealing with finite resources: time, money and eggs. But, also, we were dealing with human beings and emotional limits.
After seven failed attempts, we had enough money left in the bank for one more round. So we sat down together and decided that our eighth medically assisted attempt to get pregnant would be our last. Not just because of the money, but because we didn’t think we could keep enduring the heartbreak.
The time had come for us to prepare ourselves for the possibility that getting pregnant may never happen for us—no matter what mindset we adopted.
A life without children
To help us come to terms with this, we started to plan a life without children. To be blunt, we gave up. It would sound much better if I told you that we ‘let it go’—that we did meditation and yoga and just breathed through the pain until we had plastered-on smiles—but that would be a lie. We were both way too emotional to let it go peacefully. It was, in the truest sense of the word, giving up: we ceased making an effort; we admitted defeat.
Our emotions were all over the place. We were sad and angry. But more than anything, we were just physically and mentally spent; we had nothing left to give. So, in that moment, giving up was the only way we could remove ourselves from the situation—at the exact moment we knew we needed to.
We bought some butcher’s paper and mapped out an alternative future—one that involved frequent trips to Bali and creative projects like writing books and painting. We put our energy elsewhere.
The never-give-up mindset seemed laughable
Trying to have a child had made me painfully aware that some things were simply beyond my control. In this case, infinitely so.
There I was, a disciple of the never-give-up mindset, in a very real, high-stakes situation that rendered this mindset utterly irrelevant. Trying to apply things like ‘persistence’ and ‘determination’ to having a child felt inappropriate, at best. And suddenly the whole mindset seemed laughable to me. It was hilarious! Although no actual laughter came out of my mouth, because realising its absurdity forced me to—simultaneously—admit the depths of my powerlessness and magnitude of the illusion of my control.
Even contemplating adopting a never-give-up mindset in this context made me feel like an ant trying to force God’s hand. We planned, and God laughed. It was as simple as that. We had tried everything we possibly could. We had exhausted all of our options. So we held each other and cried, and we gave up on ever having a child.
And on our last IVF attempt we got pregnant.
Giving up on never giving up
My experiences giving up on becoming a musician and having a child forced me to face the truth about the much-touted never-give-up mindset. As I discovered, it was, in fact, not always the solution to getting what you want, doing what you want to do and becoming who you want to be. It wasn’t a guarantee of anything at all.
I also had to admit that my never-give-up mindset was unhealthy for me. That is was damaging my life and leading me further away from myself.
I had always interpreted giving up as act of the weak-willed—evidence of a person who lacked a moral compass and intestinal fortitude. That it was ‘our greatest weakness’, as Edison had claimed. But I now saw the never-give-up mindset as the problem. Because all the mindset had done was make me stubborn and inflexible—unmoved by the changing landscape of life. And in order to maintain this mindset, I had to be in denial about what was happening in my life, in real-time, and what those things meant. In the end, you could say that I spent years of my life pursuing a goal that wasn’t suited to me because I didn’t want to give up on it—because I was stubborn.
And so, ironically, it was the never-give-up mindset that I decided I needed to give up on, for good.
You can’t lose anything real
As a young adult, I had been terrified to give up on anything. Firstly, because I didn’t want to feel like a failure. But also because I assumed that, in doing so, I would lose something precious to me. So instead of giving up, I’d hold on tighter. I’d try even more desperately to get what I wanted. I’d adopt a never-give-up mindset to try to achieve my goals by sheer force of will.
But what I hadn’t realised was, by giving up, my life could become dynamic again. Giving up allowed the movement of energy to flow in and out of my life. And instead of this being something to be afraid of (because I might lose something I wanted when the energy ‘flowed out’), it became about surrendering enough to allow the universe to do its work.
From the moment I gave up on the never-give-up mindset, the flow of my life changed for the better: anything that was no longer meant to be in my life disappeared; anything that was meant to come into my life entered it; and anything that was meant to be in my life stayed. Nothing real or important ever left my life—only illusions, fantasies, dreams and people or things that had outstayed their welcome.
Getting to know myself
Giving up on the most important things in my life didn’t make me a failure, or weak-willed, or spineless, or any of those other names we sometimes call people who have given up. In fact, giving up taught me a very important lesson: to spend less time striving for arbitrary goals (chosen by my ego) and more time getting to know myself better.
For many years I had practiced and perpetuated the never-give-up mindset, seeing it as some kind of endurance test of my willpower to manifest my desires. It wasn’t until I paused for a moment and asked myself some difficult questions that I could free myself from my ego-driven goals. Questions like, “Is what I’m striving for actually meant for me?”, “Is this what I really want out of life?”, and “Are my external goals aligned with my inner self; my true self?”
By asking these questions, I could move past what I had decided was meant for me and begin to attract what was actually meant for me into my life.
Give up on what you think you want to find who you actually are
By giving up on what you think you want, you can find out who you actually are. In my mind, this should be the real starting point in life for all of us: knowing ourselves. But we do everything in reverse order. From a very young age we are taught how to set goals and told that we should never give up on what we want. But these goals are only relevant if they have anything to do with who we are. Otherwise they are arbitrary. And because we are taught how to set goals before we are taught how to know ourselves, often our goals don’t align with who we truly are.
So don’t be afraid to give up on your goals. Don’t be afraid to give up on your dreams. There is no shame in it. After all, there is no point—and no value to you—in living someone else’s dream. Giving up does not mean that you are a failure. You are a human being who has changed your mind, changed your heart, or grown into a new understanding of who you are and realised what you really want. It can be a sign that you are flexible, aware and evolving.
Always be open to learning more about yourself. Always be open to changing your mind. And always be open to dropping something, changing paths and giving up—if that’s what your heart tells you to do.
1. Thomas Edison. As quoted in Edison & Ford Quote Book, (2003), edited by Edison & Ford Winter Estates.