This is DATA , a monthly column by Angela Chen on numbers, nerdery, and what it means to live an evidence-based life .
The highest peak in the Balkan peninsula is a mountain called Musala, so named after the Arabic word for a place to pray. It stands about ten thousand feet tall, a little outside the capital city of Bulgaria. The path to the top is rocky and passes several lakes that turn deep blue if you’re lucky and the weather is good.
We were lucky, so the other climbers rushed to take photos from the summit of the seventh-tallest mountain in Europe while I slumped on a ledge, guzzling water and doing emotional calculations: What was worth more, my dignity or my ability to look forward to the next day? What was stronger, my desire to not be defeated by this guided hiking trip, or my desire to have an enjoyable vacation?
It had become clear by the six-thousand-foot mark that the travel agency’s definition of “moderately good shape” was not the same as mine. Perhaps my mistake should have been apparent earlier, when another climber said he had recently scaled the highest mountains in both Europe and Africa, along with Everest base camp. Five more days were to follow, most of them more difficult than this trek that had already left me shaking and nauseated. It was time for a pep talk. I could still do this, I told myself. I could avoid the humiliation of dropping out after the first day. I could hike my way through Bulgaria, as I’d intended, as I’d spent the last month telling everyone I was going to do. I had spent a lifetime building an identity on the fact that I wasn’t a quitter, and here was another chance to prove it.
Parents tell their kids that if they keep trying, they will succeed. Researchers say the same, only they turn perseverance into a trait that can be measured by tests and call it “ grit .” For years now, the message that “grit,” more so than talent, holds the key to achievement has been one of the most popular concepts in education. Both intuitive and inspiring, the idea is rehashed in article after article on the importance of not giving up and how to raise a child who can’t be discouraged.
The scientific gloss on “grit” is new, but the idea is familiar to generations of parents who took it upon themselves to instill grit in their children by any means necessary. In her notorious essay, “ Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior ” (an excerpt from her equally notorious book ), Amy Chua writes that “children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences.” She tells the story of fighting with her seven-year-old daughter—yelling, threatening, mocking—over a piano piece, and their shared triumph when the piece is conquered. Western parents, Chua writes, worry constantly about self-esteem, even though “one of the worst things you can do for your child's self-esteem is to let them give up.” She insists that when you push and push and don’t let them quit, they not only achieve more, they also expand their belief in the breadth of their capabilities.
Long before I knew the concept of grit, I lived out its advice. At age six, like many other kids, I started taking piano lessons. At age seven, unlike many other kids, I told my parents I would not quit even if they wanted me to. I would not be flighty. I would “finish,” whatever that meant. (I didn’t even like piano.) For a decade, I not only took piano lessons, but sat for statewide music examinations each year. One hour of practice a day, ninety minutes of classes every week, the complete repertoire from Scarlatti to Shostakovich. I learned music theory and the distinguishing features of each period of music history, and how to tell a diminished seventh chord from an augmented third by ear—but never did I learn to like the instrument. Still, at seven, I had decided it would be a waste not to continue when I had already invested a year in lessons. Ten years later, my final certificate of completion in hand, it occurred to me that I had wasted not one year, but ten, on a skill I would likely never use again.
When you have to finish everything you start, you don’t end up starting that many projects. When you have to complete all your projects, your goals become ends in themselves, instead of a means of enriching your life. Being unable to quit made my world smaller.
Chua says that it is when you don’t quit that you learn to believe in yourself. Not so for me. I did not believe in myself, and so I did not quit. Like her, I considered everyone to be fundamentally lazy, with no true interests. It followed that if I allowed myself to “follow my passions,” I would end up slacking and quit not only piano lessons, but studying, and reading, and then eventually discover that I could do nothing at all. If I held on fast to the rule that I would not give up, on the other hand, I could make something of myself even in the absence of any genuine motivation.
Letting yourself give up on something that doesn’t make you happy is a vote of confidence in your own instincts, and that I sorely lacked. So I fell prey to what economists call the “ sunk cost fallacy .” A sunk cost is anything invested that can never be regained: $150 for nonrefundable concert tickets, two years spent getting your startup off the ground. The fallacy is being unable to cut your losses because you are so preoccupied with the work you’ve already put in.
Sunk costs can be motivating; remembering that you already paid for the gym membership may be the push that makes you go. But they also keep us in casinos when we should walk away, and in unhappy relationships that have run their course . The sunk cost fallacy, combined with grit, can lead to people becoming rigid in their choices, stubbornly soldiering on and ending up at dead ends.
Psychologist Angela Duckworth , who leads the research on grit, agrees with this criticism and says that the concept is usually framed incorrectly. “I think the misunderstanding—or, at least, one of them—is that it’s only the perseverance part that matters,” Duckworth told New York Magazine . “But I think that the passion piece is at least as important.” When I read these words, I thought, again, of my decade of piano lessons, pursued without any passion whatsoever. Had I stopped earlier, I could have switched to something else—dance, perhaps, which I loved and still love now—and spent ten years building something of far greater value to me.
At times, quitting is not the easy way out, but the harder choice. Quitting acknowledges an error in judgment. It forces you to sit with the knowledge that the time spent and effort expended were, in some way, a waste. Sometimes hard work doesn’t lead to the reward you deserve. Sometimes it comes with a reward you do not value. In the end, standing atop Musala, I felt no awe, only relief. The others were tired, too, but for them, the panoramic views of the grassy ridges stretching into the distance were more than enough reward.
My trip was supposed to be an enjoyable vacation, not an opportunity to perform stoicism. I was traveling without anyone I knew, with no real obligations. Nobody really cared if I could climb a mountain or several. I had nothing to prove.
The next morning, sick with embarrassment, I told the guide I was leaving. He did not look happy, and I did not feel good about it. But ten minutes of shame seemed a reasonable price to pay for a vacation wherein I did not dread eight hours out of every twenty-four.
I arranged for a ride back to Sofia, the capital city. From there I took a bus across the Bulgarian border to the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, and then to the Airbnb I had rented on the fly. For the next five days, I did the opposite of scale mountains. I stayed inside to read during the one-hundred-degree days, and ventured out to the waterfront when it was cooler. I visited museums and ate ice cream. It wasn’t the trip I had intended to take. But it was the trip that I made happen—the trip that I, and not my fear, chose.