3 Ideas in 2 Minutes on Knowing When to Quit
Mission Creep, St. George in Retirement Syndrome & Becoming Captain Ahab
I. Mission Creep
Imagine you start a project with a noble and perfectly defined purpose in mind. As you make good progress towards your ambitious goal, you’re tempted into going on various small sidequests. Slowly but gradually, your goal shifts or expands beyond your original vision. Mission Creep has set in. Chances are, the mission won’t end until a catastrophic failure occurs.
Mission Creep is a term coined in a military context in the early 1990s. It was first used in reference to the United Nations intervention in Somalia.The UN mission slowly expanded from a humanitarian operation to more combative objectives and long-term commitments. Essentially, the UN’s Mission Creep ended after the infamous Battle of Mogadishu, the events portrayed in Black Hawk Down (2001). Today, the term is applied to both military and civilian contexts.
II. St. George in Retirement Syndrome
It seems like quitting is either way too easy or way too hard. Sometimes we don’t even realise we should let something go. Here’s Australian academic Kenny Minogue on the dangers of lacking a limiting principle when facing the dragon of chaos:
The story of liberalism, as liberals tell it, is rather like the legend of St George and the dragon. After many centuries of hopelessness and superstition, St George, in the guise of Rationality, appeared in the world somewhere about the sixteenth century.
The first dragons upon whom he turned his lance were those of despotic kingship and religious intolerance. These battles won, he rested for a time, until such questions as slavery, or prison conditions, or the state of the poor, began to command his attention. During the nineteenth century, his lance was never still, prodding this way and that against the inert scaliness of privilege, vested interest, or patrician insolence.
But, unlike St George, he did not know when to retire. The more he succeeded, the more he became bewitched with the thought of a world free of dragons, and the less capable he became of ever returning to private life. He needed his dragons. He could only live by fighting for causes — the people, the poor, the exploited, the colonially oppressed, the underprivileged and the underdeveloped.
As an ageing warrior, he grew breathless in his pursuit of smaller and smaller dragons — for the big dragons were now harder to come by.
—Kenny Minogue, The Liberal Mind
If you’re interested, check out my essay on St George in Retirement Syndrome.
III. Becoming Captain Ahab
Occasionally we perfectly know we should give it a rest. But driven by emotion, we simply don’t want to. Like Captain Ahab. Having been crippled by Moby Dick, the white whale, whale hunter Captain Ahab is on a quest for revenge:
All evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.
—Herman Melville, Moby Dick
On a related note, I’ve written about three ways to say ‘No’ without feeling guilty. 🐘
Have a great week,