Thursday, May 5, 2011

Quitters sometimes win (or why your little league coach was wrong)

A mother of two recently admitted that her obligation to a certain civic group makes her miserable and frustrated. The group does a lot of fundraising, for causes ranging from the worthy to the sublimely goofy.

Much of her fund raising commitment involves the planning of black tie events, or as a family friend once brilliantly dubbed them, Let Them Eat Cake Parties.

Don't send me hate mail. I understand that high profile events highlight important causes and can educate the public about certain needs in the community. I get that people like to dress up and toss back drinks. Some even secretly enjoy the rubber chicken that all charity balls seem required by statute to serve.

But let's be real: you can do more good by sending cash to XYZ charity than by buying a table for the same dollar amount and then deducting the costs of a snazzy affair before forwarding the remainder to the nonprofit in question.

Anyway, my friend spends hours every month obsessing over chair covers, cocktail napkins and gluten free hors d'oeuvre options. She does this work mainly in the company of women who annoy her, to put it mildly. Everyone knows one: the women (and yes, they are mostly female, at least in my experience) who approach volunteering like a profession, yet fail to see the hypocrisy when their outfit for the event costs more than their net contribution to the cause.

"I'd like to just quit," she told me last week. "Honestly, I feel like I'd be doing more by writing a check to XYZ charity. I could post a solicitation for small donations for them on my Facebook page and probably raise more than I would busting my ass to sell these [bleepety bleeping] tables."

"So quit," I advised. "I don't see the big deal. You don't like the people in the group and you don't think you're making enough of a difference for the sweat and tears you put in. This seems like a no-brainer."

She cut right to the crux of her dilemma. She doesn't want to quit because she's concerned about the example she would set for her kids, who are pre-school and early elementary age.

I don't see the quitting question in black and white. Reasonable people try things and find, sometimes with great surprise, that they dislike them. To me, it seems foolish to make a child, or an adult for that matter, stick with something that makes them unhappy. Life is too short.

The key distinction I see is that kids (or adults, for that matter) shouldn't feel free to quit something before they give it a fair try. This goes for everything from broccoli to Little League. My friend with the volunteer commitment has done everything short of professional counseling to make herself feel good about the organization she joined several years ago. It's time for her to pull the plug.

If she were to quit in favor of an activity (volunteer or otherwise) that she found more fulfilling, I would bet her family would benefit from a happier mom. And her kids would see a great example: something wasn't working and she fixed it.

There's a dad who forces his elementary age son to play baseball every night in a park by or place. This has been going on every night since we switched the clocks in March. The kid has never, to my knowledge, made contact with the ball. Or even come close. He's not a coordinated child, and he's clearly fighting back tears night after night while the dad chatters an inane stream of unrealistic encouragement. "It's okay! You'll get the next one."

It's clear to a casual observer that this particular kid has zero aptitude for, or interest in, the game of baseball. Last week, when I was walking by with Lila the Dog, the kid finally threw his bat down and screamed, "I hate you!"

The dad said, "You hate baseball?"

"No. I hate you, daddy."

The father, who must have done too many drugs in college (I mean, can anyone be this dense otherwise?), launched into the tired speech about how winners never quit and quitters never win.

Nonsense. "Winners" become winners because people gravitate to things they're good at. Clearly this man's child does not have a bright future as the next David Ortiz.

I quit ballet as a kid, a decision that no doubt delighted my instructor. At the bar, I had the grace of a drunken dairy cow. Staying on board a horse came more naturally to me. I gravitated towards riding lessons, stuck with riding through injury, puberty and higher ed, and became a lifelong horse woman.

My brother quit a long parade of musical instruments. Three or four years in, even our mother, who dreamed that someone, anyone, would learn to play the piano in her upstairs living room, conceded that my kid brother, for all his other wonderful qualities, was tone deaf. He hated practicing the guitar/saxophone/clarinet/piano. Why torture the poor kid? He was obviously happier in physical pursuits. My mom schlepped him to all kinds of distant towns to play soccer.

My sister, by contrast, quit soccer at the start of the first practice. This flew because my father drove her that day. She took one look at the kids chasing the ball around a huge field and announced she wanted to go home.

My mom would have made her stay, probably for several practices. But if she couldn't find any joy in the game, she would have been allowed to quit.

Some people like to go on about kids' commitments to their team mates. I'm going to venture a guess that no team wants a member who hates being there and drags everyone else down. Little kids don't do so well at feigning enthusiasm.

I didn't always feel this way. I regret quitting the violin (practice took time away from my beloved horses). Ditto for French. I quit at the point where I can pretty much understand what people are saying, but by the time I formulate a response, the conversation has moved on. But I regret quitting these things because I actually liked them. I thought I didn't have the time or bandwidth for everything.

Now that I have the Grape, I know I don't have enough hours in my day. Ever. It's made me focus on what things really make me happy, and yes, it's made me a bit more of a quitter. I hardly ever abandoned a book halfway through before becoming a mom. Last week I started a novel by a famous author whose other works I've enjoyed. This one, a hundred pages in, bored me to sleep. I put it aside and picked up something else. I also no longer spend hours on experimental cooking projects. If I'm going to whip up dinner, it's going to be a proven winner.

But I still make time every week to write, and move my novel, The Hazards of Hunting While Heartbroken, towards publication. I make time to exercise because it helps my head as much as my body. And I'm trying to figure out a way to sit on a horse again, maybe just once in a while, before this year is out. Selfish pursuits for the mom of a nearly two-year-old? Perhaps. But they make me happy, and I believe parental happiness trickles down to little kids.

I hope my friend finds the chutzpah to disengage from the Let Them Eat Cake ladies. She gave it better than the old college try, and there's no shame in saying her energy is better allocated elsewhere.


  1. I needed this article. My 8 year old quit playing baseball tonight after 3 years of loving the game. He flat out started fearing the ball. This article gave me some comfort about my decision to pull the plug.

  2. @anonymous... Thanks for reading and commenting. I should have also noted above that sometimes people leave something for a while and come back to it later on their own. But if baseball is more terrifying than fun for your son, you're doing the right thing by letting him give it a rest.