When we’re faced with disappointments on a project to which we’ve committed time, effort, money, and emotion, it can be hard to know when to persist and when to quit.

On the one hand, grit can get us over the finish line, argues Angela Duckworth, even when our lungs are labored, our legs are heavy, and the race is too long. 

On the other, quitting the race can save us from overvaluing persistence for its own sake, claims Annie Duke. Why should we keep running, Duke asks, when we know we can’t win, and when a loss means more than just a hit to our pride?

To dig deep and show grit, or to pull up short and quit? It’s a timeless question many of us must ask about the commitments we care about, whether it’s a project, a job, a race, or a relationship.

It’s a hard question to answer because we often assess the costs and benefits of persistence versus abandonment only when things go wrong. Yet, when things go wrong, we’re not especially good at neutral assessment. The sunk-cost fallacy and other cognitive biases typically limit our thinking and confine our actions. We end up overvaluing our investments when they aren’t paying off, or blowing long-term equity in a short-term fit of pique.

Because life is uncertain and so many variables shape our experiences, there’s no easy way to decide when to show grit or when to quit. But we can get closer to the least-wrong answer by identifying the root of resistance. Ask yourself:

  1. Do I say no (or, I don’t want to, can’t, don’t feel like it, prefer not to, uggghhhhhh), more than yes?
  2. What are my reasons for saying no?
  3. Are those reasons bounded by time and space, or are they existential and timeless?

The preceding exercise won’t tell you what to do, but it may give you enough clarity to make a plan. For example, if your resistance is rooted in overwhelm, take a break, or take steps to reduce contextual chaos.

If, on the other hand, your resistance is related to the possibility that we are mere drops in the swelling ocean of humanity, that there’s nothing new in its depths, and that nothing you say or do can really change the rhythm of the waves, well, quitting isn’t going to change that, so you might just need to make a plan to comfort yourself before keeping on keeping on.

Although he may be better known for his “2nd 4th grade” illustration skills, Tim Urban’s essays can be energizing. Exhibit X: His recent NYT editorial, in which he offers advice on how to approach time in a (near) post-Covid future.

The editorial is based on his “depressing math” posts from 2014 and 2015. There, Urban reminds us that although we tend to think we have all the time in the world, we don’t. Even if we’re very lucky and live a very long time, the experiences that define our lives—visiting friends and family, eating pizza, reading books—are not limitless. In fact, they’re depressingly countable. 

It’s gloomy. But it’s also galvanizing. When we realize that the life we (perhaps) passively live can be easily broken down into countable experiences, we can activate our agency to make different choices. Different choices can change the math, making the sum a little less depressing. 

Elsewhere, in Exhibit XX, Urban makes a similarly gloomy-but-galvanizing point about procrastinators. Based on his own rich experience, Urban argues that procrastinators frequently forget that, “No one ‘builds a house.’ They lay one brick again and again and again and the end result is a house.”

Urban here echoes Epictetus; indeed, the stoics have enjoyed a popular renaissance in Oliver Burkeman‘s and James Clear’s arguments on habit formation. Part of their message is that transformation is not the result of epiphany but the product of mundane persistence. (And persistence is most efficiently executed through habits.)

Taken together, depressing math and the procrastinator’s faulty memory can help us think about the mediating role we can play in our own lives. By intervening in the parts—whether in terms of the experiences that add up to a life, or in terms of the small steps that result in a transformative project—we can change the whole. From the perspective of the present, this kind of intervention requires a persistence that tethers it to the mundane. It’s often only from the vantage point of the future that we can see its bigger meaning.

After the Locking, instructs Vonnegut, comes winter.

Here in Minnesota, winter has—emphatically—returned. As I marked the occasion with a frigid run, my mind wandered from the slippery but well-worn route, to the inscrutably repetitious new year, to the ominously redundant omicron variant.

It was surprisingly pleasant going, though, because I listened to Slate’s Political Gabfest. There, David Plotz, Emily Bazelon, and John Dickerson discussed a provocative conundrum: When is it okay to critique a friend’s creative efforts?

The initial, unanimous response? Never! 

But as they talked over variations on the theme, their answers began to shift:

Well, probably never…if you want to retain your relationship.

Perhaps sometimes…if they’re  particularly successful or are particularly solicitous.

Probably yes…if you’re a partner responsible for heading off potential embarrassment.

Definitely yes…in fact, you’re obligated.

The move from “you can’t” to “you must” depended both on the creative effort and on the relationship between creator and critic: Ultimately, critique was deemed necessary when the effort was writing and the critic an editor.

Writing requires a critical reader, argued Plotz, because writing is iterative

Iteration, a kind of repetition, makes iterative a felicitous adjective because writing requires repetition on both abstract and practical levels. When we write, we not only reproduce what we know; we also engage in mechanical reproduction—writing, reading, rewriting, rereading, asking others to read, rewriting, rereading, asking others to reread, then rewriting again.

It’s challenging, sometimes agonizing work, but modern iteration differs from rote repetition by its invocation of forward momentum. Iteration isn’t only repetition; it’s repetition toward refinement, toward a “desired result.”

Iteration is consequently an apt word for the work of writing. It’s also, possibly, an appropriate word for the work ahead.

In 2022, we face the same virus, the same intractable government and community responses, the same political rigidity, the same individual and collective challenges to childcare, school, and work, not to mention healthcare and other basic needs. The repetition itself feels like an inescapable, isolating trap. 

The language of iteration might help us conceive of a way out.

The gentle onomatopoeia in iterative means the word requires repetition for its completion. Like winter, like running, like writing, iterative work is repetitious work. However—and also like winter, like running, like writing—the repetition can reach beyond equivalence. Though 2022 is already a repetitive year, it doesn’t have to be the same as what preceded it.

What does it mean to work as though we live in the days of a better civilization? Although frequently attributed to Alasdair Gray (despite his disavowal), the line belongs to Gray’s contemporary, Canadian Dennis Lee.

In Civil Elegies, Lee writes:

And best of all is finding a place to be
in the early days of a better civilization
For we are a conquered nation: sea to sea we bartered
everything that counts, till we have
nothing to lose but our forebears’ will to lose.
But what good is that in a nation of
losers and quislings

Although Lee’s early work denounced Canada’s colonial complicity and earned him the Governor General’s award in 1972, he is better known for his children’s poetry. In fact, his poetry was a favorite of engineering professor Deb Chachra, who recently namechecked Lee in Metafoundry, her newsletter on the nexus of infrastructure, engineering, art, and individuals.

In Issue 73: Our Cyborg Collective Body, Ourselves, Chachra invokes the slow-burning apocalypse in William Gibson’s scifi novels (specifically, The Peripheral and Agency) to describe the current COVID crisis. She then cites Lee’s poetic injunction, calling on us to imagine a systemic, collective response.

What would it look like, after all, to build an infrastructure fit to serve a better civilization?

According to Paul Graham Raven, infrastructure is a “tool,” “an extension of baseline human abilities.” It’s a systematized technical augmentation–but with a biological input (us!).

In the context of COVID, we know our bodies have needs that manifest individually but must be met collectively: We become infectiously ill individuals, sometimes so ill we must be isolated from the collective to be cared for by the collective before returning to the collective. Needs like these are met (or not) through infrastructural responses, such as public health, also public education.

Yet, to build tools to meet the needs of a better civilization, we must not only identify needs that have not yet been met, but also determine those needs that have not yet been recognized as the collective’s responsibility.

In Sexuality for All Abilities, Katie Thune and I argue that there is an individual and a collective need for comprehensive sex education for young people in the special education classroom. While writing this book will not determine a better civilization, arguing for recognition of a collectively solvable problem may help hasten its arrival.

Way back in January of 2018, on my negligible commute, I tuned in to Minneapolis Public Radio for the local angle on NPR’s special series, “Abused and Betrayed.

The conversation was guided by Marianne Combs and focused on the silent epidemic of sexual abuse among people with intellectual disabilities. Combs was joined by NPR correspondent and special-series investigator Joseph Shapiro, sexuality educator Katie Thune, and attorney Patrick Noaker to discuss the Minnesotan context of this national problem and respond to listeners’ phone calls.

The guests’ words were incredibly powerful, but my driveway moment was attributable to the anguish expressed by the parents and caregivers who called in to discuss the abuse sustained by their loved ones with disabilities.

Particularly memorable–and devastating–was the voice of an elderly woman who talked about the exploitation of her adult son. She recounted a situation that occurred years ago, when a powerful man in the community approached her young adult son with a sexual proposition. Her son has a traumatic brain injury: He lives independently, but he has limited cognition and social awareness and can be easy to confuse. The powerful man preyed on this vulnerability, framing his proposition as an arrangement that would help powerful man “relieve stress” and “do his job better.” Her son ultimately agreed, believing his actions were necessary and that he would be paid for them.

A few years later, the man died. When her son learned of the man’s death, he explained to his mom that he would be inheriting money, and why. She was of course shocked and furious, but what followed was even worse: When her son didn’t receive his money, he couldn’t understand why and accused his mother and siblings of stealing it.

The mom’s voice, broken in suffering, compelled me to reach out to Katie Thune to ask about turning her educational curriculum, Sexuality for All Abilities, into a book. The result of our efforts, I am proud to say, is Sexuality for All Abilities: Teaching and Discussing Sexual Health in Special Education, released this week by Routledge, as part of its Eye on Education series.

We created this book to give educators and others the tools and confidence required to teach topics in comprehensive sex education in the context of special education. In it, we draw on the expertise of educators, the experience of teachers, the stories of parents and caregivers, and the words of people with disabilities to inform lessons on healthy relationships, public and private spaces and behaviors, consent, hygiene, and other important topics necessary to living an informed life.

The book is a useful resource in and out of the classroom, but it’s also a contribution to the better civilization we strive to build—a civilization in which we acknowledge a wide range of individuals with varying abilities, and in which we seek to supply the education necessary to live as fully, safely, and with as much autonomy and pleasure as possible.

It’s Earth Day, which means Transform Yourself with Climate Truth, my book with Margaret Klein Salamon, is now available from New Society! But because we’re quarantined in a pandemic while radical pro-gun extremists bully nurses, doctors, and state governments to sacrifice the weak—as if that’s a meaningful solution to the precarious futures of important industries (like publishing)—it’s a muted celebration.

Earth Day was established in 1970 on the presumption that Americans deeply cared about the environmental damage wreaked by industrial development. Bipartisan, cross-generational, and cross-class supporters verified this belief, publicly recognizing our fundamental human reliance on a healthy environment for sustenance.

Although the recognition is often collapsed into a niche interest in  “environmentalism,” it’s an extension of fact: We can’t bear children, raise children, be children, grow into adults, or function as adults without the benefit of clean air, good food, and drinkable water. This is the requirement of every member of our species, whether or not we care about sustaining the planet beyond our mere survival.

Today, care—such a crucial requirement for change—feels like a scarce resource. Callous examples of leadership reinforce the sense of finitude: Trump’s pride in his antipathy seems to inspire those who enjoy participating in a rigid Darwinian contest where every resource is limited. In this game, sacrificing the weak is the only available strategy for defining the strong.

Then, of course, there are those who must attend to so many pressures from so many sides that care can only be parceled out on an as-needed basis. COVID-19 has simply made manifest this pressure: Who can care about anything else when a minimum of 45,000 Americans are dead and 22 million Americans are unemployed?

When care is considered finite—whether because it serves “the strong” or preserves “the weak”—it can only be utilized in extremity.

Yet care is not a limited resource. In Transform Yourself with Climate Truth, Margaret argues that our environment is essential to our practical and spiritual lives, and we must care enough about it to prioritize its preservation. It’s not just a logical decision; it’s also an emotional one. The book guides readers to welcome the pain contingent on caring, because, by welcoming the pain, we expand our capacity to care.

Margaret is a psychologist, and she knows from personal and professional experience that caring can hurt. In fact, to care is rooted in Germanic Old English to sorrow or to grieve. While our desire to avoid pain is natural, it is not possible. And because it limits our ability to feel and thus to empathize, it should not be desirable. Pain is a part of life, sometimes a very big part of life: When we learn not just to withstand that pain but to welcome it, we become truly strong because we become capable of infinite care.