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Be the Expert: How would you encourage a quitter?

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Sometimes I like to take a break from my normal writing on strategies of psychology, persuasion, careers, entrepreneurship, and money to see how well you can actually APPLY my material. After all, it’s easy to read and read along, nodding your head, saying, “Yeah Ramit, I got this.”

But what happens when I put you to the test?

It’s like a good Asian father surprising you before dinner with an unannounced math test. “But daddy,” you might say, “I already took math today at school!” Asian dad laughs, then pulls out an apple and a banana and demands you demonstrate how to rotate conic sections.

So, in the spirit of my upbringing, I created a series called “Be The Expert,” where I invite you to apply your new insights on money, psychology, and behavioral change. For example…

How would you persuade a young guy to start investing? How would you help someone start working out at the gym? Hmm, this dude has poor social skills and actively wants to improve them…what persuasion techniques should you employ to help him?

Most of your answers have been atrocious. After reading several years of sophisticated material on behavioral change, social influence, and persuasion, IWT readers still tend to answer in generic layperson comments like, “If he really cared, he would do it!” or “You should just tell him to seriously get it together.”

Lesson 1: Whenever you use the word “seriously” or “should,” you’ve already lost.

Lesson 2: You can be persuasive or you can be right. Often (not always), those two are mutually exclusive.

Your spectacular failures have nearly convinced me shut down my email list, turn my blog into a private community of 1, and solely write for my own amusement. At least I could write the really dirty jokes I’ve been holding back on.

So today, I’m giving you another chance.

Like any 30-year old single guy in Manhattan, I read UrbanBaby, a site for NYC mothers, to learn insights on the human condition. Wait, that isn’t normal?

Anyway, here’s a question I found while spending yet another afternoon calmly browsing thousands of posts while sipping a cup of tea:

Question from UrbanBaby:

“How do you encourage someone who is a friend or family member who is, for lack of a better word, a “quitter”? This person is smart enough, capable enough, and has good ideas. She has started exercise programs–done really well, and then quit right as she was making progress. The same goes for jobs, writing a blog, and new friendships. She starts out strong and then abandons ship. No one knows why.”

We ALL know someone like this. We all know how frustrating it can be — you just want to shake them and say, “WAKE UP!! Your life isn’t that bad! In fact, if you actually did something instead of complaining about it…it might actually be better!”

What would you do? Assume she has complained and wants help.

Warning: I have contemplated killing myself multiple times after reading your previous responses. If you want me to keep writing this site, think carefully before you answer. Answers that will not be accepted include the words “seriously,” “should,” and “get off your fat ass.”

Do me proud. Or I swear to god, we’re going back to school.

Share your advice in the comments below.


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  1. My first instinct is to ask “why would you try to change that person? Don’t you have enough stuff to do in pursuit of your own goals? Don’t let other people’s drama distract you”

    But, assuming she complained and asked for help, I would ask what goal she was working towards. Then I would tell her to bet on herself- to bet say $500 that by a specific date she would’ve achieved the goal. If she achieves the goal, she gets the money back, if not it goes to a charity for a cause she hates or something else painful to her with me holding the money in between. As long as we choose something she truly finds painful and the goal is something she really wants to do, this should help.

    But mainly I would say don’t get involved, trying to influence her is most likely a distraction from your own goals and happiness unless you’re her coach or therapist. She’ll probably just be annoyed with your ‘help’ unless she’s ready for it, at which point she’s unlikely to need your ‘help’ anyways.

    • I agree with Patrick. Best answer is probably to don’t get involved if you don’t need to. If this person is a very close friend or immediate family, it might not be that easy though. I like the idea of having an incentive for change. That’s only a short-term solution though. If this person has been repeating a pattern their entire life (i.e. quitting), then they need to break the pattern. First step is to determine what they’re doing that leads to their quitting. Are they maybe pursuing the wrong projects? Are they not growing beyond the immediate results? For instance, they get a job and do the bare minimum. Have they considered joining professional organizations related to it? Have they considered going to networking events? Are they reading about the industry? It seems like quitting is a lack of motivation. Motivation can be instilled (I learned that in the military), but lasting motivation has to come from within. Self motivation is a habit that is developed and ultimately affects the patterns in our lives.

  2. I’d probably immediately minimize contact because whatever she has is likely to be contagious and catching.

  3. First, I would acknowledge her feelings of frustration and empathize as someone who has also been in similar situations at different points in my life. I think it’s important to establish that comfort and trust at the forefront and assure her that I’m not there to judge her actions but to help her as friend. Once that is established, she will be much more receptive to your feedback and willing to truly listen.

    Next, I would ask her some questions to dig deeper. A lot of this is probably a mental block and fear-driven, so I would start by asking her what it is that she is afraid of. What is stopping her from following through? Explore some specific goals/situations more deeply. Ask her what’s the worst that can happen, peel through the layers of all the anxious ‘what ifs’ and then start to talk through the possible ways she can deal with each situation should any of those scenarios happen. (In business terms: identify the risks, develop contingency plans) Hopefully that would start to put her at ease. Break things down into small steps that are more manageable. If there are elements to the problem that are skills-based, I would recommend any resources I knew of that could help her develop some of those skills. Basically, I’d want to draw out (with her) meaningful ways to feel motivated and productive again.

    Lastly, I would provide reassurance of the progress she’s made and the faith I have in her abilities. Sometimes (and I find it especially common for women, including myself), people just need that extra ‘yes, you can’ moral support to give that extra boost to the finish line. Check in with her occasionally, keep her accountable, and offer your help where you think can provide it.

    (Ramit, this is my first time coming across your blog– I really like what I see so please don’t privatize your blog! Hope this post makes you a little proud!)

    • Completely agree here!!

      Funny that my husband and I just attended a marriage class last night that talked about this same thing (well not the EXACT, same thing, but pretty darn close.)

      A lot of times we’ve got a story about a person, but it’s not the whole story. It’s super important to dig deeper to see where this behavior is coming from. To look through the “little eyes” of the person you’re talking with. Ya, they might be an adult, but chances are they’re still viewing the world through lenses and scripts they did in their childhood. It’s not about being a quitter, it’s about some underlying fear or tape of lies she’s playing over and over.

      It’s important to BOTH figure out what that is.

      And lastly, like C1589 said, I would be a reassuring friend. Maybe not telling them that they’re doing everything well (chances are they won’t believe it anyway), but reassure them that you’ll be a safe and welcoming place for them to share. (Aka you’re not going to flip out on them, share their deep hurts with others, or just up and abandon them after they’ve got out their fears.)

      In summary: Have Empathy, Dig Deeper, Be a Safe Sounding Board.

  4. Ramit- I’ve read your blog for two years and loved every minute of it. Hopefully I can be of help on this question.
    This is what’s called a polarity response — it’s discussed very often in the therapy world. It’s because someone wants to draw attention to the opposite side of anything– for instance, when you encourage someone, they talk about what could go wrong; when you talk about success they worry about failure. It’s just patterned behavior that at some point serves a purpose but too often does not.
    In order to get new behavior, you need to change the pattern.
    The way to deal with a quitter is simple– you encourage them to *quit*! Then their polarity response kicks in and they will start to focus on what could wrong with quitting ie they will start to think about persevering. Encourage them to *fail* and it will prompt them to focus on success.
    I know it sounds ridiculous, but it works.
    This is how actually they deal with suicide cases. Think about the normal pattern: A person says “Ohh, my life is not worth it, I’m going to end it”, then they get some sympathy, but eventually they stop threatening to kill themselves, so the attention/sympathy stops. The suicide case feels ignored and makes a new bid for attention– by voicing more suicidal thoughts. To interrupt the pattern, the therapist is actually trained to say “Ok, if that’s the case, end it right now, we don’t care”. It breaks the whole pattern and allows you to lay down a new, more resourceful one.

    • Bruce,

      I agree with your advise and it’s grounded in sound principles. Only thing I’d add is that certain level of trust must exist to facilitate change. The person to initiate the change is to be non-judgmental and must always respect in all circumstances that people have a fundamental need to feel important and safe.
      People have an inherent tendency to comply with authority figures (as a proof, I’m here writing this post because my mentor said so).
      Individuals tend to rise to the level of other people’s expectation of them.
      So long as she knows that you expect the world of her, then a stern approach that elicits polarity response is appropriate.

    • This is really an excellent answer. Thanks for the insight!

    • I believe there is a lot of sense in your suggestion. I think at times it can produce the desired effect.

  5. I would ask her why she wants change. Where she wants to progress.
    And let her write it down.
    Then I would ask her to set a big goal. And write that goal down. I would ask her to image what real benefits she would gain from reaching this goal. She would have to write this down. Then she would have to break this big goal up into smaller (about 4) steps. And write those down. She would have to think why she thinks she is able to achieve each step. And write this down, too. I would ask her to write down which obstacles might hinder her to achieve this goal, or each of the steps. And finally she would have to tell friends, family, whomever what’s she gonna do.

  6. I have a friend who did not lose her pregnancy weight even after 5 years post preganancy. She looked 7 months pregnant and would worry about losing weight. She had been to plastic surgeons and was ready for a tummy tuck. Then I told her two things and she changed her mind and started losing weight by going to a good dietician. One- “No one will tell you that long after the operation you will be dealing with unending pain. You will look good but chances are you will be in a lot of pain”. Second-” You have a lot of weight not just on your stomach but also everywhere else. So you could lose 20 pounds and your stomach will simply flatten out.” She joined a job and that gave her added impetus to do something about her weight problem. Now she is working and looking great and on her way to health and happiness.

  7. I would recommend the lazy one to put on paper what he/she would like to do or be in a year from now, his/her ideal life or lifestyle.
    Then hopefully a couple of these ideas will bring a spark in their half closed eyes… then Ramit you’re the best to tell the story, break down the goals, work on them bits after bits in a way to be able to see easily the progress.
    Earn1K then should do the work once the spark is there 😉

  8. The first word which came to my mind when I read the Urbanbaby post was “ADHD”.

    Then remembering your advice of over-preparing, I clicked on the Urban Baby link to read more directly at the source. I found additional info:
    1. She was praised a lot as a child, and still receives support from peers/family
    2. She is 30 years old.
    3. The second last comments is by a person who actually suffered from ADHD and seems to most closely identify with the person in question. That person suggests medication and therapy.

    Now, to answer your question of what would I do if she complained to me.

    I would
    1. Go with her to the doctor, get her tested for ADHD
    2. If it is indeed ADHD, then support her as she adjusts to the medication and other requirements, until she is able to manage herself again.
    3. If it is not ADHD, then honestly try to speak to her and understand her problem. Is it work anxiety, is there a problem at home, is there too much pressure? Once the problem is identified, then I would help her choose the most effective ways to deal with it, depending on the nature.
    4. And finally, sometimes it is best just to wait until the person figures out the answer for themselves. This is especially true if you stay far from the person and cannot meet with them on a regular basis.

    Above all, no matter the problem, being there for her as a friend and offering encouragement at every little victory is important. Also equally important, if the matter is frivolous, to honestly tell her. Good friends appreciate a reality check once in a while.

    I look forward to the feedback for my answer. Would like to know if I’m going back to school!

  9. I think we often misunderstand people, trying to find shortcuts and figuring them out. I’m no doctor but I know of cases for instance where they prescribe something but it only treats the symptom, not the cause so the problem remains. Or there’s cases we think someone is lazy but it might just be that their diet (literal or mental) is so poor that they run on little fuel each day. Or there’s instances where people have “scripts”, limited beliefs that have run their life for them without them realizing these scripts are false and not serving them. They might think they are a failure, or that having financial success requires being unethical etc…
    I don’t think there is one solution that fits all cases.
    But the principle I can see is that a quitter is a quitter for a reason, however bad it is. The fact the quitter asks for help about it is a sign s/he realizes something has to be done but doesn’t know quite what.
    It would be good for the quitter to:
    1) Reflect rationally on what scripts or limited beliefs s/he operates and why. Maybe family/friends/people with authority made them feel that way early in their development. May be they interpreted things the wrong way.
    2) Reconnect with the person they aspire to be and feed their mind with the positive energy that will help them break out of the negative pattern become the better version of themselves
    3) Make it a priority for at least a month to see the changes in themselves and get hooked to the new

    4) Have a like minded associate/mentor who will pick them up or make them accountable if they slip back to their old patterns too long.

    The way I see it, it’s a process. Brain plasticity means patterns are reversable but it takes time and effort. No magic pill here.

  10. Melanie Gulliver Link to this comment

    wow what a lot of varying advice..

    I’d start by asking her if SHE thinks she is a quitter.. and is that bad? Perhaps she thinks her life is OK as it is? Why should we judge others by what we think is the right way to act..

    If she said yes she is a quitter and yes it is bad, then you have to again ask why does she quit? She will probably recognise the trigger in her that starts her off on quitting.. and if she doesn’t then you need to find out what it is.. I love ‘The Power of Habit’ book by Charles Duhigg, which says that every habit is based on trigger- action- reward.. and any person’s behaviours gets changed by finding out the trigger, CHANGING the action, but then ensuring you still get whatever the reward was (perhaps some relief from routine or something new to get excited about in this case). The only way to break a ‘bad’ habit is to introduce a ‘good’ habit but you can never succeed without the trigger and the reward being identified as well..