In the deserts of Africa, there lies a military training camp where recruits of the French Foreign Legion undergo their basic training. The FFL is amongst the best special forces in the world, and as expected, the training takes men close to their breaking points. However, if anyone wants to quit, the procedure is very simple. There is a bell in the camp - you just go and ring it. You can do it anytime, and that’s all that’s required. Just ring the bell and you don’t have to wake up before the Sun every morning, you don’t have to run up and down sand dunes in the scorching heat with heavy loads, you can go homeee! I believe that, ironically, having an option to quit actually helps people push through their struggles, and here’s why.
I see people working very hard today. Gone are the days when people were happy with laidback lives and lived slowly, one lazy afternoon at a time. Now every youngster has big dreams and wants to change the world. It is good that people are trying to work hard to make themselves and the world better. But in most cases, along with dedicated hardwork and the best of intentions, we get bound to desires that are not originally ours but come from social constructs and get us running behind artificial objectives. From working on an intriguing problem that you really want to solve, you might start running behind a promotion, or getting a paper accepted. And that’s fine because that’s part of a system to make things work harmoniously in society. But we make too much of it, so much that we forget the real thing we are trying to do. You can see it in the way people talk. For example, consider when a student says “I have got to finish this assignment or else I’ll fail”. Nobody said he “has to finish” the assignment. He can choose not to - and yeah that means that he can get expelled too. But that’s just a consequence. He can actually choose not to do it - hell he can choose to leave everything and settle down as a fisherman in the Andamans if he wants. If you place yourself in his situation, of course you will say that’s a ridiculous proposition. But the idea that this option is there, that this bell exists, will get you thinking what is it that you’ll miss if you make the shift. Will you miss not being able to design machines that can solve real world problems?(assuming the guy is an engineering student :p) And isn’t that the reason why you enrolled? You might see that despite the occasional problems, this is the path that you would choose anyway because it is the best way to do what you love to do. This thought can help relieve the sense of artificial helplessness that people experience when they feel they have to “put up with and follow the established system” and make them realise that they are actually acting on their very own long-standing will.
Commitment often strikes fear in people. Taking up a new job, a PhD, a new serious relationship - all take courage. Because it might not be as you thought it would be. But knowing that you can always walk away from it will give you a nudge towards acting on your very own deepest desires and values, and temporarily ignoring the fear that arises out of overthinking. Of course it can end up badly and do some damage to you, sometimes others too. But a little damage is unavoidable in life, and you can do nothing about it. You can only ensure that your intentions are right. Besides, a healthy dose of damage will only help in you growing as a person and getting to know yourself better so that you can make a happier life for yourself. I despise how people look down upon failures and try to make a perfect script for their lives where they get everything they want in a breeze without a single misstep. I feel that this is a major differentiator between the current generation and the people 50 years ago. For us, life looks made like a straight runway - school then college then get placed to a job then marry then get better jobs and more money and so on. It is worthwhile to stop and look at how much of our attention and time is focussed on doing our best to run as fast as we can on this runway, and how little time we spend trying to design unconventional paths for our lives which we would like to explore.
I acknowledge that quitting is not always the right thing to do, and the intention of this post is not to glorify it. The intention is to broach that just thinking about it can help put us into an attitude where we are more aware of our control over life and take responsibility of it. You are no longer on an excuse-driven autopilot - “I want to be x but I can’t do it because I have to do y because that’s how the world works.” It also encourages you to revisit what things are important to you as they change over time, so that you can adjust your efforts accordingly to make the life you want.
Written by Kundan Krishna on 1st April 2018
Note: The information about the French Foreign Legion was from a documentary that I once saw and can not find now despite my best efforts. But I would trust my memory ;)