When Do You Walk Away?

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* * * * *

You know the path will end. Do you cut out or drag out the end?

You know the path will end. Do you cut your losses, drag out the end or change direction?

Kate’s manuscript has been sitting with her editor for over a year. Between submitting it then and waiting for its acceptance now, she’s worked odd jobs to bring in money, writing in between gigs. As she waits, so does the book her gut thinks will allow her to quit the odd jobs and move toward writing full time.

She wants to pull the book, to stop the stall, but there’s that question: What if no one else wants the book? What if it isn’t as good as she thinks it is? Or, if she does believe in the book, can she publish it herself? And promote it? And sell it? Stick around for the stall or try to pull the book from the editor and move in a different direction? The first feels safe — and frustrating. The second is scary — but would create movement.

Jake works with young musicians. He has an eye for talent and a knack for spreading “the word,” but a recent project grew so fast that he brought on someone who had more contacts within the upper echelons of the top records companies. Everything looked good for a while, until he found out the business partner was making deals behind his back. The deals were good for the young musicians, but could result in him being cut out.

Should he continue moving forward, hoping that the musicians will see his value and choose him if one day it comes down to a choice — Jake or the business partner? The latter has more high-level connections and could advance the musicians’ careers at a faster pace, but Jake is the one with the passion. He’s the one who found the band — the one who believed in them and got them to that “next level” of being in a position to garner the interest of those industry decision makers that the business partner is pulling in.

If he was in the band, he knows he’d want to stick with the person who found him, but… They are young and hungry… Looking at how young musicians have acted in the past, there’s a good chance that he’ll be on the losing end. Should he cut his losses now? Or keep investing time and stick in as long as possible? Cling to hope? Maybe it will work out, though the mouth guards he’s mangled, grinding in his sleep, make him think otherwise.

Ashley has a client she adores. Every day she thinks about how lucky she is — how amazing it is that she has the opportunity she has. And, it is an opportunity because she learns and grows with the client, in addition to helping the client do the same. The client is the co-owner of a company. Ashley gets along with everyone in the company, with the exception of the relative, who is also a co-owner. The relative doesn’t want to change and spends each day knocking down Ashley’s ideas — the Hell to Ashley’s Heaven.

Ashley begins to realize that her work is all for naught. She’s doing her portion, but the results for the client are minimal. Why? Ashley is advocating change and unless the work she’s doing is implemented and advice acted upon, the client won’t advance. Around the same time the client’s relative starts complaining about Ashley, stating that Ashley hasn’t offered value. The writing is on the wall. Should Ashley stick with the client and company she adores or say goodbye because, end of day, the relative’s decisions rule the day and the relative is not going to change?

Two times in my career, I’ve had to walk away from projects in which I’d invested my heart in addition to my time. Painful. And, saying I walked away isn’t actually right. The clients ended the projects both times.

For the first one, as in the example of Jake, in the above, I vowed to take over the project and do it on my own. I saw the potential. I knew I could make it work. And then… There was the money issue. I accepted more work, which meant less free time, which meant the project I loved and wanted to continue when the client lost interest stalled.

In both instances, there was a decision-maker who resisted change. Though my clients, the ones who signed the contracts, were the key contacts, they weren’t the end-all-be-all decisionmakers within their companies. The clients wanted to move forward, but the decisionmakers had different plans. Looking back, I knew “it” was coming both times, but I didn’t want to stop because I loved the work. I put more heart in, hoping for the best, while my gut twisted, keeping me up at night, knowing what the future held. Easier to ignore it than make the break early. Instead, the break was made by the clients and hurt a hell of a lot more.

I read an article about George Lucas recently, which hit on his sale of LucasFilms to Disney and and the fact that he didn’t play a role in the development of the about-to-be released new film in the Star Wars series (other than, ahem, being the father of the franchise).

“I call it like a divorce,” Lucas says candidly. He always knew that at some point he’d have to part with “Star Wars” in order for the franchise to go on living.

“There is no such thing as working over someone’s shoulder,” he says. “You’re either the dictator or you’re not. And to do that would never work, so I said ‘I’m going to get divorced.’ . . . I knew that I couldn’t be involved. All I’d do is make them miserable. I’d make myself miserable. It would probably ruin a vision — J.J. has a vision, and it’s his vision.”

Lucas’ experience wasn’t quite the same as mine or Kate’s, Jake’s or Ashley’s experiences, but it reminded me of them.

At some point, most of us are faced with walking away.

Do we continue on the same path, even though we know it dead-ends in a cemetery?

Do we cut away at the entrance gate? Or stick around to help dig our own grave?

My vote is cut out before hitting the dead end. Easier said than done…

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  1. Sean Crawford on December 11, 2015 at 6:05 am

    My life has been different. It was years before I had the management skills to do projects, and now that I have… I realize I’m a timid country mouse: I don’t want the required stress of projects.

    Easier for me to be writer. What we writers can do is learn to see paths: A path that leads an ambitious young man to jail, for example, at Enron. Recently John Scalzi on his blog theorized that the path of ambitious people in the G.O.P. had led to a candidate like Trump.

    Writer Michael Lewis, who used to work on Wall Street, has written that the path that led to the surprise Wall Street 2008 recession was not a surprise to some people.

    In our normal lives we don’t like to see paths. (Most of us have no five year plan) This gives writers a valued role.

  2. Mitch Bossart on December 11, 2015 at 6:40 am

    yeah, it’s a timing thing … my tendency is to cut out too soon … to leave angry even if no one knows it … thanks for your article this morning … got me thinking

  3. Erik Dolson on December 11, 2015 at 6:53 am

    Better to be an actor than a reactor, in my experience. Most often, the fear of loss that leads to doing nothing was based on hope rather than fact. Being honest with myself, and developing a plan for after the split, has brought better outcomes. I sleep better not feeling powerless.

  4. Mary Doyle on December 11, 2015 at 7:03 am

    My own experience is that when I’ve made the decision to walk away I don’t second guess myself and I always make sure that I’m walking toward something else. Thanks for a very thoughtful post Callie!

  5. Joel D Canfield on December 11, 2015 at 7:57 am

    Making our passion dependent on other people is fraught with peril.

    Good thing I only spent 45 years doing it, because the past 5 or 6 have been marvelous, pushing my projects ahead on my schedule, my terms, knowing that what goes or doesn’t is in my hands. And head. And heart.

    I have wanted, so very often, to help this person or that person, friend, family, or client, to achieve greatness, because I saw it in them.

    But if they don’t see it or don’t want it (I’m thinking of a guitar player I know who, no kidding, rivals Clapton, and who lives in his parent’s garage in San Francisco because he is the single least ambitious human being on earth) ain’t nothin’ I can do to change their heart — because changing someone’s mind isn’t worth doing, if the heart doesn’t go there first.

  6. audrey couloumbis on December 11, 2015 at 7:58 am

    it’s hard to do the walkaway, harder the more we’ve invested in the outcome. it usually gives me a cramp in the gut. mainly it’s the question you posit, when is the right time, and am i doing it for the right reason? how will it look, and do i care? i’m getting better at it; more to the point, i’m better for it. i find the best way is to work it out so i’m not walking away mad–make the decision about how this deal has to look to me, and if the pictures don’t match, that’s the time.

  7. Chip Polk on December 11, 2015 at 8:03 am

    Excellent post, Callie. It is a universal principal that applies to projects, relationships, employees…and the list goes on. And yes, as soon as we see the abyss, and know that it requires us changing someone else’s behavior, it is time to cut our losses and move on. Most of us can’t even change our own behavior.

    Sticking with it is akin to enabling, or worse. I try to follow my “if he or she would just…” rule. You hear yourself saying that in every conversation you have about the situation, it’s time to make a decision.

    Callie, you’re still the star of the team.

  8. Ken Lewis on December 11, 2015 at 8:23 am

    It is normal to have an emotional attachment to any project in which you believe in the results the project is intended to achieve. However, in evaluating a decision to proceed or abandon the project, you should try to ignore sunk costs. Sunk costs represent all the effort and resources used to bring any project to its present state. As such, these costs are not recoverable and should not form part of the evaluation. Only the future costs, probability of success, the benefits of that succes and how well the achievement of the projects goals align with your personal goals “today” should be evaluated. Don’t fall into the trap thinking “I’ve already invested so much into this project that I have to proceed. Expending further effort, emotion or resources is what’s colloquially know as “throwing good money after bad”. Instead examine those things previously mentioned; probability of success, future cost of success, benefits and alignment with goals. One final and perhaps more important consideration is looking at the project(s) you could be doing if you weren’t doing this one and evaluate them on the same basis. If you find one that has some combination of being more achievable, more beneficial, less costly (future costs only), and/or more aligned with your goals, you may want to wind down the current project and start a new one. A final caveat; your emotions and cognitive dissonance will tend to have you overestimate probability of success, alignment and benefits while underestimating costs of your current project while doing the opposite with alternate projects.

  9. David Kaufmann on December 11, 2015 at 9:35 am

    Not much to add to the other comments, other than excellent post. It’s hard to walk away and hard to stay. Like the old Wille Nelson song. Decisions are hard.

  10. John Boring on December 11, 2015 at 11:29 am

    At age 55 I decided to walk away before the inevitable collision, and I did it more on principle than I did out of pride or passion. By evening of that day, I sat on my couch and considered the bridge I had set on fire by my decision. No job; no prospects. Luckily, the phone rang right then; a friend with a job offer. There’s no moral here. I was extremely lucky, but I did make the right decision.

  11. Maggie Butler on December 11, 2015 at 1:38 pm

    My story is still being told. It is like In Cold Blood, narrative fiction.
    How I appreciate a place to crow about it where others, timid and proud like to while away the time thus.

  12. Bonnie M. Benson on December 11, 2015 at 2:43 pm

    Great post, Callie. And even greater timing.

    Many thanks!

  13. cj Lamont on December 12, 2015 at 3:27 am

    Thanks, Callie, for an important post. I’ve unfortunately had to face this decision several times in my latest career as a film producer.
    In reading previous comments, I’d have to say that the comments that I agree most with are Ken Lewis’.
    If you’re up for a long post (I have trouble writing short), I’ll tell you about some similar decisions I’ve had to make, or were made for me…
    I was asked by Australian colleagues to help an Australian writer/director in Italy to develop her project. Her husband was then acting as producer. I did get involved, help was welcomed, but they continued to sabotage every attempt to move the project forward. I invested a lot of time, money and effort in bringing together people to move the project forward and every time they would override my negotations. At Cannes festival, I put her up, provided all the food, brought other people in, hosted a party for introductions, introduced her to my media lawyer. I finally had to walk away in order not to destroy the friendship we had built up. Years later, the film is being made — with the producers she met through me at Cannes, using the lawyer I introduced her to, and using the lead actor I suggested and whom she argued against. She wrote me twice once in pre-production to thank me and acknowledge my contributions. When I asked whether she would then grant me an associate producer credit to help further my own career, she refused. I recited the Hollywood joke that “an asssociate producer credit is what you give your secretary a raise”, and repeated that I wasn’t asking for any financial compensation, just a credit for my contributions to the film. She refused. I had walked away, which was the only solution, as nothing was fixing our working relationship — the project was too personal and emotional for her and her husband kept foiling my attempts to move it ahead — and obviously, my contributions were in the end appreciated, but not honoured.
    Another two projects could have/should have been made years ago. I had the resources and the ideas to accomplish what we needed to do. As first time feature filmmakers, both were too timid to budget it for its potential, hindered by their fear that they wouldn’t be given any more than 1.5 million or 3 million, whereas they could have become internationally successful (commercially and artistically) if they had budgeted properly and gotten the actors I knew would take it to worldwide distribution. Once I began to prove to them that I was right, ego kicked in and both decided that it was a viable project and that it was theirs to make. In both cases I was shut out. Neither has been made, as they don’t know how to go about it. I did.
    A more recent experience was with a bright young female writer/director who seemed to have it all together. But for months she promised me things and didn’t deliver. After three discussion on this and a final failure to deliver, I politely explained and withdrew from the project. I now refuse to work with partners who are not committed to the same goal as I am, on the goals which we agreed on.
    There are all sorts of other unhappy endings that I’ve experienced — this business seems to be rife with disappointing partnerships. I’m getting better at identifying the uselessness of proceeding and walking away, and now I’ve finally found great partners who are willing to take our projects all the way, and we’re almost at the goal line.
    I know I’m doing the right things — one of Woody Allen’s producers told me I didn’t need him, when I invited him to exec produce a project. He said I was already doing everything fine without him — a great compliment and affirmation, but a disappointing answer for me, and a scary prospect to face leading these projects without a “higher power”, but his confidence in me assures me that I am, certainly, on the right path.
    Contracts won’t guarantee your security — only great partnerships and perseverance of all collaborators.
    I’ve invested a lot of money, time, emotion in many projects. I’ve tried to quit this business many times, afraid that these awful experiences were destroying my faith in human nature, but finally decided that I’m on this train and not getting off until we reach the destination.
    Hope this helps some of the rest of you figure things out, too. My advice? — develop a positive attitude, a thick skin, and keep following your dream — or find a new one.
    Good luck!

    • cj Lamont on December 12, 2015 at 3:34 am

      Apologies to those who have read this post — should have proofread before sending. Several mistakes — writing and sending too fast. — cj

  14. Katie Farmer on December 31, 2015 at 12:35 am

    I have come to realize that sometimes it isn’t the work itself that is getting to you but realizing the company itself doesn’t care about your needs, wants, desires, health, or future. In which case it isn’t so much knowing when to walk away as much as realizing all the commitment in the world to stay won’t make them treat you baby differently. It would be one thing if you could explain your position, ask questions, and be met with a honest response. But if your company already doesn’t care about you then the chances of honesty are slim to none. The company is always going to explain little, lie big, and cover their own and. In which case it doesn’t sound like you are exiting as much as adultery and lying almost always end in divorce. Too bad companies don’t have a conscience. Maybe they would feel bad for being so dirty.

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