Me? I’m a quitter. I’ve quit lots of things. I quit roller blading in the 90s, and I quit the trumpet after junior high. I started taking acoustic guitar lessons a few years ago and quit those after about three months. Somewhere along the way I quit thinking classic rock was the end-all-be-all of music. I also quit religion.
Our society, on the other hand, is obsessed with the idea of never quitting. We love winners. We can make our peace with losers, if they gave it their all. But quitters? That is a low kind of person. Quitting is never OK. Just ask Ted Turner, the media mogul. His advice to anyone aspiring to not be a total waste of space is, “You can never quit. Winners never quit, and quitters never win.”
Or Jack Nicklaus, the greatest golfer to ever play the game, who said “Resolve never to quit, never to give up, no matter the situation.”
And if you need any further evidence, just consider the enduring legacy of Henry Lawrence Garfield, who once told a reporter “My motto is, ‘never quit.”” You might know Mr. Garfield better as Henry Rollins—the lead singer of the Rollins Band.
What? Did you think Henry Rollins simply stumbled out of bed one day and became the frontman for arguably the most forgettable alternative metal band of our lifetime? No, he got there because of his hard core work ethic. Henry Rollins never quit. I haven’t heard from him in decades, but I’m sure he’s out there doing his thing. Never quitting.
Now I’m sure if you pulled Ted and Jack and Henry aside they’d tell you that, yes, of course, we all quit some things. When they say never quit, what they mean is never quit the important things. The big things. The hard things. The things dreams are made of.
A few years ago I started a Ph.D. program in physics. At 32, this had been something I’d wanted to do for almost 10 years, and I finally got my chance. I was on my way to becoming an elementary particle physicist – a la Sheldon from Big Bang Theory.
And then, almost as quickly as my chance came, I walked away. I quit. On a lifelong dream. Bazinga, no more.
I could spill a lot of words trying to explain why I quit. There were many reasons. Lack of future job prospects for theoretical physicists being towards the top of the list.
But if winners never quit and quitters never win, are there any excuses I could offer that would curtail the head-shaking from the Ted Turners of the world? Probably not.
What keeps me up at night isn’t shame at having failed those who hoisted their expectations upon me without my consent. No, what keeps me up at night is wondering how these folks with their Never. Ever. Quit. coffee mugs and bumper stickers can be so confident about that advice.
When I hear the Teds and Jacks and Henrys rattle off their little aphorisms, I often wonder, but what about all the exceptions? The people who quit, plenty of times, before they eventually succeeded.
Who is Edward Witten, you might ask? He is, as far as I’m concerned, one of the most interesting people in the world. And not just because of where he ended up, but because of the somewhat unusual path he took to get there.
In the fall of 1971, Edward Witten graduated from Brandeis University with a major in history and a minor in linguistics, with an eye towards becoming a political journalist. During college he wrote articles for The Nation and The New Republic.
Upon graduating, Witten dropped the idea of becoming a journalist and decided maybe economics was his thing. So he enrolled in a graduate program in economics at the University of Wisconsin. After just one semester, he dropped out. C’ya Wisconsin.
At that point Witten decided to get involved in politics, where he was hired as a low-level aide to Senator George McGovern’s presidential campaign. But in his own words, Witten believed he lacked the kind of “common sense” required to be successful in politics. Some might have stayed the course, learned the skills required to succeed, but not Ed Witten. Witten just quit.
After his foray into politics Witten decided to study applied mathematics at Princeton. Shortly after enrolling in the program he decided that he no longer wanted to study applied mathematics at Princeton. He quit. Again.
At this point you have to start asking yourself what Ted and Jack and Henry might think. Sure, Edward Witten was only 22 years-old, but he’d already pushed eject on a career in journalism, bailed on a degree in economics, quit after a brief stint in politics, and wavered on his decision to study applied mathematics, all in less than two years.
Now, to be clear, Witten hadn’t quit for lack of intelligence or ability. You don’t get accepted to the applied math program at Princeton in the first place without a certain minimum of intellectual ability. And by all accounts, Witten had intellectual ability in spades. He wasn’t just very smart, he was brilliant. According to a former high school classmate, Witten was “two years younger than anyone else and at least 2,000 years smarter.”
Witten had all the potential in the world, and still he kept quitting. It’s as though he’d never even heard of Henry Rollins’s motto.
So what did Witten do after deciding to leave the applied math program? He stayed at Princeton and changed his focus, yet again, to physics.
In 1976, he finished his doctorate in physics at Princeton after just three years (the average time to complete a Ph.D. is 8.2 years). He started doing ground-breaking work in something called Topological Quantum Field Theory, and in 1990 he was awarded the Fields Medal, which is the closest thing to a Nobel Prize for mathematics. It’s also worth noting that Witten is the only physicist to ever win the Fields Medal.
Witten didn’t stop there though. In the late 1980s, Witten got interested in String Theory, which posits that the smallest bits of matter are not little tiny balls but strings. Strings that vibrate and shake as though they’d been “plucked” and whose “melody” is the world around us.
String Theory had been around for a couple decades but had fallen on difficult times. At the time Witten came on the stage it appeared that there wasn’t a single String Theory, but five different competing theories, and no obvious way to find common ground in the research community. In 1995, Witten stepped in and used that 2,000 year-old intellect to show those five different versions of String Theory were actually different facets of a single theory (which he dubbed M-Theory). For the next decade or so, Witten became the greatest and most brilliant champion of Strings.
The world of mathematicians who have won a Fields Medal is a world not unlike professional sports. People start young and most never stop, even for a moment, to do anything else. Because if they do they are likely to be passed by all the other prodigies.
Imagine if LeBron James had gone to college and never played basketball during that time, save perhaps a few pickup games here and there. Then imagine he graduates, tries real estate for six months, and then quits. Next he tries being a banker for a year, but decides he isn’t cut out for that either. Then six years after graduating high school he goes to play in the NBA and ends up being the best basketball player in the world.
So what would Ted and Jack and Henry make of Witten’s story? Would they admit that Witten quit, several times, before he eventually succeeded? Would they admit that maybe “never quit” is a stupid motto?
I doubt it. I’m sure they’d look at Witten and see a winner. Here’s someone who won a fucking Fields Medal. Someone who revolutionized an entire branch of physics. Whatever Ed Witten did before, it wasn’t quitting. Ed Witten is a winner. And winners never quit.