Can putting a project aside spark joy?
By Christine Grillo
Last fall, I got a yen to crochet an afghan. It would be simple, just a nice grid of basic granny squares, but the colors would be fantastic. The plan was that after finishing the afghan, I’d walk into the room where it was flung and be instantly invigorated by the goldenrod centers and the borders in a playful mix of blues. Or was that a border of playful purples? It turned out to be both. And some olive greens and a bit of brown, too, at which point it wasn’t exactly playful, more like earthy and perhaps a bit dour? And alas, the goldenrod turned out to have a significant touch of orange in it, which left me feeling more affronted than invigorated.
Despite my growing dissatisfaction with the colors, the granny squares piled up. What was I supposed to do? Stop? The more squares I made, the more I realized that I was unlikely to joyfully fling this afghan on any bed or sofa I owned—and yet I kept on. The afghan became a slow-moving train on its way to nowhere, but I couldn’t jump off. I did manage to take a hiatus from the granny squares, but only to begin slip-stitching them together with a lovely chartreuse yarn. The result is about as unsoothing as I imagined it would be.
And again, I ask myself, am I supposed to just stop?
One of the most popular episodes in the Freakonomics radio series is titled “The Upside of Quitting,” which first aired in 2011 but is often re-broadcast. It explores the idea of “sunk cost,” positing that we humans are reluctant to give up on something once we’ve invested time and money into it. The episode blithely encourages quitting and reminds us of “opportunity cost,” or what we could be doing with our time and money if we quit the not-yet-satisfying thing we’re doing.
Should I quit, or should I try harder? For me, in middle age, this seems to be the question of the day, every day. I’m in the middle of a frankly ridiculous meditation program. I have a friendship that’s going through a rough patch. I’m facing the same writing goals I had in my 20s, still unrealized. Which of these pursuits should I quit?
Stuck in the middle of all these projects and plans and relationships, I feel like I’m constantly gambling. And the thing is, I hate gambling because I always lose. Put me in the Reno airport, I won’t even look twice at the slots. But somehow, when it comes to relationships or houses or yarn, it feels like my odds might be better.
To be fair, there are a few things I’ve become good at quitting. I no longer read past page 20 if the book is boring. Out it goes. I no longer fool myself into thinking I can eat or exercise my way into more energy, more health or more beauty. And why is it easy to quit these things? Because I know the book is not going to get better, and I know I’m not going to self-improve if it requires discipline. But there’s another key point, too•I know that if I quit the book, there are other good books to read, and I know that if I quit the self-improvement scheme, I can find joy through other means.
But when it comes to the big stuff, for example, relationships and career, I’m not nearly as convinced about the alternatives. I mean, there might be other fish in the sea, but how good are they?
I read an article recently about the dilemma of quit-or-try-harder, and one nugget of advice seemed especially useful. The author suggested asking yourself what you were hoping to get out of this job/relationship/afghan when you started it, and what you’re hoping to get out of it now. If I’m honest with myself, what I wanted from the afghan has been the same all along: a blanket that makes the room cheerful.
The perfectly sensible decision is to think about the opportunity cost. If I quit crocheting this ill-fated thing, I could crochet other, better things. My son is going to college in the fall. I could make him a blanket. If I started now, I might finish it in time. I know I should quit the afghan and invest my time and money into something that will pay dividends, such as my 18-year-old son’s undying gratitude for a handmade blanket. But I feel guilty about abandoning it.
Ultimately, I decided to hide the afghan. No need to be reminded of the money and time I’ve squandered on it. I found a good cardboard box with a lid and put all the granny squares in it, as well as all the half-used skeins of yarn. But I haven’t been able to put the lid on it yet. I’m thinking about asking a friend to come over and do an intervention. She could put the lid on the box, hide it somewhere in my house, and I could be free to stalk the yarn aisles and feel inspired.
But before we do that, we should probably eat something delicious—you know, the kind of thing that will not bring me energy, health or beauty, but will brighten the room.
Christine Grillo writes about health, parenting, people and human rights for a range of publications. Her fiction has appeared in The Southern Review, StoryQuarterly and other journals. A graduate of the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars she is a fellow of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.