The problem with most fairytale stories that teach us never to give up is that they are told with the benefit of hindsight. They are nearly always the stories with happy endings.
Perseverance and resilience are admirable and important characteristics. Many of the greatest human achievements, most unlikely inventions and against-the-odds heroes would not have emerged without them. But are we too quick to judge when someone gives in? Is quitting always a sign of weakness and cowardice, or can it require strength and bravery too?
Imagine you’re a mountain climber 100m from the summit of Everest, running out of oxygen and watching dangerous storm clouds moving in. So close – yet in mountaineering terms, so very far. Do you give up on your dream of reaching the summit, or do you persevere with your attempt, knowing that you might not make the top but you may also not make it back down the mountain at all?
“Winners never quit, and quitters never win.” Vince Lombardi
On a sports field, we revere athletes and teams who refuse to give up even when the odds are stacked against them.
Man United’s late goals to win the Champions League in 1999 (okay, okay – and Liverpool’s comeback in 2005) will always be etched in my memory, while the German Men’s 2016 Olympic quarter final victory (from 2-0 down with six minutes to go – see the last minute here) is probably the most ridiculous thing I’ve watched play out on a hockey pitch.
Of course, these examples all relate to a simple goal: win the game. Sometimes sport – and life – aren’t just about winning a medal or being the best, they’re simply about giving all you have or sticking your middle finger up at expectations or adversity.
“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.” Confucius
Let me take you back to Barcelona 1992 and one of the most iconic moments in Olympic history. Having been unable to even take to the start line four years earlier at the 1988 Games, British medal hope Derek Redmond was flying around the final bend of his 400m semi final when he tore his hamstring and fell to the ground. He limped slowly to the finish line (half carried by his father, who had fought his way down to the track) and became a symbol of grit and perseverance.
This story always tugs at the heartstrings for me. The thing I can’t figure out is whether it’s because I identify with that moment where he realises his dream has ended, or because I’m inspired that he refuses to accept it.
Fast forward to the 5000m heats at Rio 2016. Nikki Hamblin and Abbey D’Agostino both tripped and injured themselves in the middle of the race, but pulled one another up (twice) and made it to the finish. Just as Redmond needed his Dad to get him over the line, sometimes a kind word or a hand from a stranger is enough to keep us going when it feels like our dreams have been crushed.
“How long should you try? Until.” Jim Rohn
We’ve recently been watching the TV show ‘SAS: Who Dares Wins’ (where ex-Special Forces soldiers put recruits through a recreation of the SAS selection process) and there have been a few genuinely inspiring stories. Every recruit’s breaking point is different and there have been some clear examples that you can achieve something personally meaningful and far beyond what you thought was possible – even if you don’t actually reach the finish line.
Think of the phrase, “throwing the towel in”. It originates from boxing, where a combatant’s trainer would literally throw a towel into the ring to indicate his charge was withdrawing in the face of almost certain defeat. Nowadays, we often use this phrase when we think someone is giving up too easily, but the original context was about self-preservation and physical survival.
Of course, often we have more choice than the nearly-defeated boxer. So what is it that stops us from stopping? Is it pride, ambition, will power, concerns about what other people will think, or simply that niggly little question, “What if?”
I think we sometimes need to apply that question in the opposite direction, too: “What if I carry on?”
I’m not for a moment suggesting that we should give up as soon as the going gets tough. Dreams, goals and greatness require resilience and tolerance for a fair amount of pain, criticism and self-doubt, among other things. What I do believe is that if your commitment to perseverance is seriously damaging your sense of self or your chances of long-term happiness, it might be time to ask the question. Walking away or changing your goals can take as much courage as carrying on.
“Never, never, never give in!” But here’s the thing about Churchill’s famous words. What he really said was this:
“Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.”
The easy thing, the right thing and the brave thing aren’t always the same. So be courageous, be resilient, be inspired, believe in yourself… but don’t forget to have a little good sense.