Quitting isn't just for quitters. Leaving on your own terms shows impressive style and a willingness to see a life beyond the here and now. Greg Dixon explores the power of positive quitting.

It took Ali Ikram just an hour to make the decision to change his life.

The idea of quitting, of leaving TV3, a place he loved working, had certainly drifted through his mind during the weeks he and the rest of the Campbell Live team had been forced into a strange sort of purgatory, their show still alive and kicking against the pricks, but no one knowing for how much longer.

TV3 management had put the programme under review and the public and other media had (mostly) responded with massed support, noisy demonstrations, fiery Facebook rants, stern letters to the editor, wailing op-ed pieces and an online petition which was eventually signed by 76,000. Thousands more viewers tuned in each night to watch, but also to will the show to victory. It really did seem possible that Campbell Live could be saved and the barely formed idea that had drifted through Ikram's head might just be able to stay there.

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But, on a Thursday in May, all that changed. Campbell Live staffers were gathered in a room at TV3's Flower St studios and told the show would not go on. It would end the following Friday night. Just like that, it was over. And just like that, Ikram decided he was out of there.

"I always thought the beginning of Charles Dickens' A Tale Of Two Cities was just, like, a shit opening," Ikram says, then laughs. "It was like he was just having a bad day - 'it was the best of times, it was the worst of times'. But now I know what he meant."

Sitting in the winter sun on the porch of his family's Mt Eden home six weeks after the final episode of Campbell Live, Ikram appears a man at peace with a decision that, on the surface at least, appears utterly risky in this modern age of ours: deciding to leave a salaried job with no salaried job to replace it.

People are sacked every hour, and plenty are forced out of work through redundancy too, of course. But Ikram didn't have to leave. Campbell Live had 22 staff, and they were told 16 would be needed for the new, unnamed show that would replace it. But Ikram, in an hour, decided he'd be better to volunteer for redundancy straight away.

"They wanted to go down in numbers on the replacement programme and I didn't feel like I knew enough about what was going to be the replacement show to commit to it. If the question were, 'why did you quit?' My answer would be that my show ended."

Soon after speaking to his wife, journalist Dita De Boni - the couple have three young children - the 39-year-old told TV3 management, with no rancour, that he would leave. It felt great immediately.

"My favourite film is Jerry Maguire. Don't laugh, don't laugh. And my favourite scene in that film is when Jerry has had his epiphany about how the business has to be less about money and more about people and not profit. He's printed out his manifesto and sent it out to people and gets a rousing round of applause as he walks into the office. Then he instantly gets sacked by his boss and, as he walks out, he picks up his goldfish and waves it and says 'who is coming with me?' - and nobody except Dorothy Boyd, his secretary, wants to come with him.

Ali Ikram worked on Nightline before moving to Campbell Live.
Ali Ikram worked on Nightline before moving to Campbell Live.

"That's a goldfish moment. And you've got to have those, because if you don't have those times where you take stock and think about what the future is going to hold and make some conscious decisions, then life will do it for you.

"The decision [to leave TV3] was made very quickly, but being decisive is good because even if you fall flat on your face you still achieve forward momentum. And it is amazing how things fall into place once you have plotted what your path is going to be."

It hardly needs saying that for many people quitting isn't a goldfish moment. It's more like a dirty word. The world is awash in pithy quotes about its supposed evils, my favourite being "Pain is temporary. Quitting lasts forever". Lance Armstrong said that, the drug cheat who will hopefully prove lifetime bans for doping last forever too. (Not that he thinks it should: he told The Guardian, "There's no rule, no law, no regulation that says you can't come back. So I have every right to come back." Armstrong is surely a fine example of a man who really, really needs to learn how to quit).

In Give Up To Get On, a book on mastering the art of quitting published last year, authors Peg Streep and Alan Bernstein write that the word quitter connotes a character flaw, an inability to commit to a course, a weakness in the face of challenge. The word quitter is a moral judgment.

Persistence, on the other hand, is something that we are culturally expected to embrace. Persistence is what built the country. Persistence was what saw the All Blacks finally win a second World Cup on the 453rd attempt. Persistence is what helped Jerry Maguire beat the bad guy and win the girl at the end of the movie. Persistence will get you through your exams, through bad days at work, through the rest of your life. Persistence, too, is a moral judgment.

What we appear to have then is a binary system: persistence is good, quitting is bad. And quitting your job or career for some sort of unknown future, well, are you mad?

Fiona Howard, who teaches psychology at the University of Auckland, believes as a society we don't react well when people, particularly men over 40, say they're going to quit their job or career. "Why? It challenges our unspoken values which are largely materialist or acquisitive."

However, Streep and Bernstein argue something quite different about quitting. In their view there is no binary order to it at all. In fact they say persistence can be bad because it can hold us back from other opportunities, while quitting can be good because it means we can move on and chase other dreams.

"Accepting the value of quitting sounds weird, counter-intuitive, boneheaded, and maybe subversive," they write. "We've all been taught that quitting is a sign of weakness and that quitters are losers. But here it is in a nutshell: Successful and satisfied people know both how to persist and how to quit. Winners quit but not in ways you think, and when they do, it's with authority and intelligence."

So should you stay, or should you go?

It's surely a question that John Key must be asking himself, so too, Richie McCaw. And it's a question that the media can't help (tediously and repetitively) asking both a prime minister who, love him or loathe him, is at the peak of his powers, and an ageing All Black captain with not much left to prove.

Neither have given much away about their plans. But arguably both have plenty to lose by not quitting. McCaw's decision to stay on for a last World Cup means he might captain the side to defeat, potentially tainting his legacy in the process. Key, meanwhile, can hardly be ignorant of the old saw that all political careers end in failure. And after winning three elections, what better statement of your political potency than choosing the time, place and circumstances of your exit? Tony Blair did it. Yet as recently as May, Key told party faithful in Northland that he's as determined to lead National into the election in 2017 as he was in 2008, risking ending his prime ministership in the sort electoral defeat Helen Clark bore with such thin-lipped grace.

McCaw's decision to stay on for a last World Cup means he might captain the side to defeat, potentially tainting his legacy in the process. Photo / Getty Images
McCaw's decision to stay on for a last World Cup means he might captain the side to defeat, potentially tainting his legacy in the process. Photo / Getty Images

So why do they stay? It's fair enough to speculate that such type-A personalities are too addicted to winning to quit, are too hooked on the prestige and power that comes with being on top of their particular pile. Might they have daydreamed about what it might be like to win four elections instead of three, or two World Cups rather than one? Maybe. But assuredly and crucially they do love their jobs.

Indeed one of the biggest predictors of staff turnover is job satisfaction, according Dr Helena Cooper-Thomas, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Auckland whose research interests focus on employee attitudes and behaviours. Job satisfaction, she says, is highest when you first start working - "Woohoo, I'm getting paid to do this!" - then dips in the mid-20s to early-30s (perhaps because of parenting) and from there slowly rises again.

That's the average. However an ongoing key to that job satisfaction is motivation. There are many different theories of work motivation, Cooper-Thomas says, but the one most favoured right now revolves around engagement.

"It has lots of different definitions," she says. "But the idea is that you're fully present at work, cognitively, emotionally, physically, that you are able and wanting to give totally of yourself. So it's that motivation to be there doing the tasks that you're supposed to be doing."

Motivation is also likely to flow from your values, according to Allison Fisher, an Auckland career coach. And if you're beginning to question why you are in the job or career you're in, it is likely those values are changing.

"Has something happened that you're starting to question your job or career?," Fisher says. "Often that is about values. Is it that you want more money? Is it that 'I've always had a dream of doing X ... '? The most important thing [in deciding to quit your job] is your values, what is important to you now.

"And as we grow and age and develop we gain different aspects of ourselves, learn about our different traits, behaviours. So where you are at now in terms of who you are as a person, compared to when you were say, 30 may be completely different."

Changed values beget changed motivations, then. But family may well be the biggest influence of all. Just a month ago, for example, the chef Simon Gault announced he had resigned as the frontman and executive chef of the Nourish Group, a business that runs nine restaurants around the country. Anybody with a passing interesting in the celebrity TV chef would know that there had been all sorts of changes in his personal life: he'd turned 50, shed a great deal of weight, married, had a new baby girl. So the news he had left Nourish wasn't like a bolt from the Wild Blue. Requests to talk to Gault for this story came to nothing because of his busy schedule, however he explained his motivations elsewhere recently.

Gault quit Nourish because "I want to be a dad. And I want to have another restaurant ... That's what I love to do. But I want to do it for me and my family and if I'm going to be living and breathing it, then it's for my family to have."

Simon Gault's announcement last month that he was quitting his role with the Nourish Group, which owns nine Auckland restaurants, was met with surprise by many. Photo / Supplied
Simon Gault's announcement last month that he was quitting his role with the Nourish Group, which owns nine Auckland restaurants, was met with surprise by many. Photo / Supplied

Now that his partner is working more than he is, Ikram, too, is revelling in his suddenly expanded time with his kids. "Something great happens everyday. On the morning after my last day at work my daughter rode her bike for the first time. Three days after my last day at work my littlest son put his head under at swimming practice for the first time. So something wonderful happens everyday, it's just having the time to see it that I think is really the gift."

For broadcaster Petra Bagust, family, too, was a big factor in the complex reasons she left TVNZ at the end of 2012. The one-time darling of TV3 moved to TVNZ in 2011 to take the role of Breakfast co-host alongside Corin Dann. The mother of three was optimistic about getting up 4am despite being a night person. "It would be fine and I would get to be this fabulous parent in the afternoon. I would work hard in the morning and then I would parent hard in the afternoon and the balance would come out as a happy equation. But it was not an easy equation at all."

Bagust, who's been a broadcaster for 18 years, also faced some viewer hostility for the first time in her career - "people would start Twitter accounts to hate me" - but more importantly she felt the job was draining the life out of her.

"I realise that people work really hard and really long hours all over the world, but I realised for me it wasn't a life-giving job.

"A friend of ours saw a photo of me before I started Breakfast and she was like 'when was this taken?' thinking it was like 10 years earlier. For me it was like TVNZ was this ageing process, it was draining the life out of me. For me the ledger came down on the side of 'this job is taking more than it's giving me' even though it was a great salary and I was working with lovely people and it was good role."

Did it feel like quitting, I ask? "No, it felt like I was resigning. I felt like I was making a choice for myself rather than a choice for my reputation, or my identity or my earning power."

Oh YES, earning power. It's all very well quitting - Bagust and I actually decided Gwyneth Paltrow's mad phrase "conscious uncoupling" is actually a better term - but one must still pay one's bills no matter how positive the decision to move on. Ikram says drily, pointedly, that he doesn't want to be a "poster boy" for indolence. "I don't advocate instant unemployment for as long as you like. These are controlled circumstances."

Petra Bagust left her TVNZ job, feeling it was draining the life out of her. Photo / Carolyn Haslett
Petra Bagust left her TVNZ job, feeling it was draining the life out of her. Photo / Carolyn Haslett

Both he and Bagust made the decision to consciously uncouple from their respective jobs knowing that their partners could and would pick up the financial slack, at least temporarily. Certainly neither quit to take up immediate residence in some sort of retirement home for bewildered broadcasters. Ikram already writes two columns, is researching a television documentary and is making other plans. Bagust continues to do presenting work and MC-ing. Gault, it should be noted, too, has other businesses including his deli store, Sous Chef.

Alternatively, if you don't have a supportive partner or other businesses, positive quitting necessarily requires what is sometimes colourfully called "F*** You Money". Career coach Fisher says the amount of FUM will differ depending on one's commitments, but the figure is probably beside the point. "The question is how much you're willing to change your life to find this new path? That's the key, I think."

But money, or at least your commitments, shouldn't be an excuse for not quitting. "When people are faced with decisions about their career," Ikram says, "many times they say 'oh I've got kids and a mortgage. I can't take this risk. I'm going to stay in this job because I've got kids and mortgage'. Which is true. That's definitely something to consider. But on the other side of it, you're essentially composing all the really beautiful things in your life, which is your kids and home, as a trap. It's a negative way of putting these really amazing wonderful things in your life as a reason why you cannot go out and see what else is out there for you. I think you should always guard yourself against fear response."

However, the greatest hurdle of positive quitting might well be getting your head around your new identity, how other people now see you but also how you now see yourself. While Ikram is surely right when he says "Five seconds of bravery is much better than 10 years of regret", Bagust, who is 43, says it has taken time for her to be completely at peace with the broadcasting world moving on without her and the fact "you're not in that seat right now". Even so, she was amused and bemused to see herself described recently in a women's magazine as an "ex-broadcaster", though she admits she has no idea whether she will be on television again. However, her life and identity have now become more grounded in who she is rather than what she does.

"I think it is very hard for us to leave and go to an unknown space. Resigning was something I knew was right for where I was at. I knew I was walking towards my life, towards my family. What I didn't know was what that life would look like. We live in an age that encourages binary thinking. This is good, this is bad, this right, this is wrong. I could have stayed at TVNZ but would have paid with my health and my happiness - and my family would have paid. That was a decision I could have made, to stay. But I'm really happy with the decision I made [to leave]. Even if that happens to be the end of my broadcasting career, that's also okay. It's okay not to know, it's okay to journey with yourself and your life each day."

- Canvas