Sometimes the best thing you can do is quit

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

People often improve their lives a lot when they realize they need to quit something. I’ve certainly seen friends stay in bad relationships for way too long.

DUBNER: That’s Robert Reich. He was the U.S. Secretary of Labor during President Clinton’s first term. He helped put in place the Family and Medical Leave Act; he raised the minimum wage. On his watch, unemployment fell below 5 percent — the lowest it had been in 20 years! Now it’s hard to say how effective any one person in Washington really is, but Time magazine named Reich one of the 10 best Cabinet members of the twentieth century. And then Reich quit.
REICH: The question for me was well, how do I alert my employees and the segment of the public that felt that they were relying on me in some way? How did I handle it publicly? It’s a delicate matter. I decided that I would write an op-ed for the New York Times, “My Personal Family Leave Act.” I had been responsible for implementing the Family and Medical Leave Act that actually was passed years before. And it seems to me important to say to men as well as women that it is OK to leave your job.
DUBNER: Here, as Reich wrote it, was his dilemma: “You love your job and you love your family, and you desperately want more of both.” His wife and two teenage sons were back in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And he was — well, he could have been anywhere.
REICH: You know the other cabinet officers go to wonderful locations around the world, Paris, London, Shanghai, and elsewhere. The Secretary of Labor goes to Toledo, Ohio, or maybe St. Louis if it’s really a great day.
DUBNER: The funny thing is no one believed Reich quit because he actually wanted to spend more time with his family. That’s what CEO’s say when they’re booted. But people — especially male people — don’t quit White House jobs to do that. But Reich really meant it! As he saw it, there was a big upside to quitting.
REICH: It was exactly the right move. I think if I had not done it I would have regretted it all my life. I wouldn’t have spent any time–the boys then would have gone off to college, off to their careers, you know I just wouldn’t have those years. At the same time, I think I was fooling myself a little bit in thinking that young teenage boys would drop everything when their father came home and say, “Oh dad it’s great to have you, let’s play!” No, they were very happy to have me there but then they said, “But dad, we’re going off with our friends.” So, I kind of would trail around after them a little bit with my with my metaphoric tail between my legs and try to, you know, well say, “Wouldn’t you like to play? How about going to a baseball game?”
DUBNER: Robert Reich quit what was, for him, a dream job: running the Department of Labor of the United States. But tell me the truth — when you were a kid, did you dream of running the Department of Labor? Or maybe you had a dream that sounded more like this.
Justin HUMPHRIES: You get a phone call that says, ‘How’s it feel to be the next member of the Houston Astros?’ It’s a dream come true.So I ended up signing. I got some money to pay for school, and went straight to Martinsville at 18.
DUBNER.: That’s Justin Humphries. Not long ago, he was considered one of the best young baseball players in the country — a big power-hitter from a suburb of Houston. Getting drafted by the hometown Astros was especially sweet — and they threw in some money for education, for later. But Humphries wasn’t thinking about that. He had one goal: to make the majors. So he went off to the Astros’ minor-league team in Martinsville, Virginia. And then more teams in Kentucky, Louisiana, Florida, New Jersey. But not, you may have noticed, Houston. He hit pretty well — but he hurt his wrist, and then his knee, and in 2009, at the ripe age of 27, Humphries quit baseball. Now, only 11 percent of the kids who get drafted each year make the majors; but probably close to 100 percent of them think they will. Humphries, even before he quit for good, started back in school, at a junior college in Texas. He wound up transferring to Columbia University, where he took a sociology course with a professor named Sudhir Venkatesh. You may recognize that name. We wrote about his exploits in Freakonomics; as a grad student in Chicago, Venkatesh embedded himself with a crack gang, and got access to their financial records. We wrote about him in SuperFreakonomics too: he did an extensive survey of street prostitutes.Guess what Venkatesh is studying these days?
Sudhir VENKATESH: I’m interested in quitting for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it’s hard for me to do it. But I also think it’s just really, really hard the older you get, especially when you start identifying yourself with a job.

DUBNER: All right, so you actually looked in a fairly systematic, empirical way at baseball players.

VENKATESH: So, I actually never thought I would be interested in looking at baseball from the standpoint of a job, and one of my students, Justin Humphries, used to play baseball for the Houston Astros organization. And he was in my class.

HUMPHRIES: So, I was sitting in his classroom, I started thinking about all the issues that I had seen in independent baseball and affiliated baseball: guys living check-to-check, struggling with whether they should go back to school, family life, issues at home. And I thought if I could use some of the things that we were learning in class, talk to some of these guys, and find out whether the stories and things that I was seeing and hearing would be reflected in the numbers.

VENKATESH: We followed a sample of the draft class of 2001, and so that’s about 10 years, and so we thought that would help us understand what happens to these folks. Now, this doesn’t include the immigrants because when they came into the country and they didn’t go through the draft to play ball. These are just the people who were out of high school or who were in college, and they were drafted by a major league team. I think one of the most curious things that we find is how much ten years matter. If you take two people who grew up in the same circumstances, let’s say one played baseball and one didn’t, the person who plays baseball is making about forty percent less on average ten years after they enter the game than the person who decides not to play baseball and who just wanted a regular career.

DUBNER: All right, so what kind of background was typical for the American-born players that you’re tracking?

VENKATESH: The average player probably looks like an upper-middle-class kid who comes out of college or comes out of high school. And when you follow an upper-middle-class kid for about seven to ten years, they’re probably going to make higher than the median average income. They’re probably going to live in a neighborhood that’s relatively safe. They’re going to have a career. Now, when you take the counterpart among the pool that was drafted, that median kid, that kid looks likes he’s making about twenty to twenty-four thousand dollars a year, which is not a lot of money. He’s working probably five to seven months playing baseball, and then struggling to find part-time work in the off-season. ight be coaching, might be doing some training, might be working on a construction site. ight be working in fast food.

DUBNER: So, Sudhir, you went down to Camden not long ago, right? To talk to some of these ballplayers? Camden is in the Atlantic League. That’s an independent league, meaning there’s no direct path to a big-league team. A lot of the guys on a team like this have already been through the minor leagues and either topped out in talent or aged out, right?

VENKATESH: Most of the guys on the Camden Riversharks are probably in their late twenties. And so they’ve actually had careers in the Minor League system. And it didn’t happen for them. And so they come into the Atlantic League thinking that they’re still going to be able to make it. You sort of want to be able to tell them, “Hey do you know that it’s really unlikely that you’re going to make it?” And the fact is that we learned that very few people, if any, around them are telling them this. So they’re not really prepared to talk about it, except some. Particularly this guy Noah Hall was a really, really interesting person because he actually was thinking that this may be the end.

Noah HALL: It’s probably not happening, you know. It’s probably not happening, but I’m still going to, you know, prepare and everything the same way I would, regardless, you know? Because you never know. You still never know. I mean, in the back, the way back of my mind it’s still there, you know. I know, I feel like, trust me, I feel like sometimes hey, if I have a good start to this year, whatever happens you never know. I could get picked up, and if I went off wherever I went, it could happen.

VENKATESH: Noah is 34. Noah has been playing 16 seasons including this one. When you look at him, you probably don’t think that he is a baseball player. He looks like a running back. This is a guy who really looks like he’s never ever going to stop playing.

HALL: Some guys just see the writing on the wall. And I just try to ignore the writing on the wall. I don’t know; I don’t want to look back and say I didn’t give it everything I could. I think I still, I could still play another 5, 10 years, I think.

VENKATESH: So Noah’s from Northern California, and he was raised by his mom, a nurse. And Noah has a wife, Kelly — and they have a lovely son, Isaiah. And Kelly and Isaiah follow Noah around to whatever team he ends up playing for that season — and let me tell you he’s played on a lot of teams over the years. After Noah’s practice, I had a chance to go out to dinner with the Hall family and get to know them a little bit.

Kelly HALL: I’m the one who’s there like when he gets out and has a good game or when he has a bad game. I’m the one…I go through that kind of emotional roller coaster with him.

VENKATESH: So one of the strange things we found out when we spoke to baseball players is that they have their own language for quitting. They actually quit. They just don’t call it that. They don’t call it quitting. They don’t call it giving up. But, they say, “You know what? I’m just going to shut it down for a while.”

VENKATESH: So, what does it mean to be a quitter as opposed to a “shutter downer”?

HALL: Probably the same thing, is just sounds better when you say ‘I’m just shutting down.’ You know, it’s like you’re not really doing it, but, you know, you are.

VENKATESH: Have you ever wanted to tell them, but you had to hold yourself back?

K.HALL: To shut it down? All the time.

VENKATESH: Oh yeah?

K. HALL: Oh yeah, all the time. Especially in the last couple of years. Yeah, especially in the last couple of years we’ve really…we’ve actually fought over it. Because it is, it’s so hard. Like I understand, being his wife and trying to be supportive. I understand that it’s got to be really hard, because I do know how much he loves the game.

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