“You must always know how long to stay; and when to go.”


Patty Griffin


This isn’t a famous quote. And Patty isn’t all that famous (but a darn good singer). But the thought is so simple and straightforward I thought I would use it.

The art of staying versus going is one of the most difficult lessons to learn in life.

It matters in business.

It matters in choicemaking.

It matters in dating.

It matters in sports.

It matters in situational life events.

It just … well … matters.

And, maybe because we all know in or heart of hearts that it matters, a shitload of the ‘stay or go’ questions and decisions linger in our heads and creates a lot of ongoing angst. This angst 90% of the time is typically in reflection, but that is only because in the moment “holy shit, this matters” is a compressed angst.

My grand theory is that because we all know this decision matters a shitload, the majority of us suck at it.

It gets a little tougher for us too.

How? Staying versus going is truly an art. There is no formula.

That said. The whole stay-go idea fits in a 1976 theory by evolutionary ecologist Eric Charnov. It is called the Marginal Value Theorem. It says that all foragers make calculations of reward and cost that tell them to leave a patch when their intake diminishes to the average intake rate for the overall environment. That is, one doesn’t pick a blueberry bush until it’s bare, only until it looks about as abundant as the bushes on either side of it. Shorter travel time to the next patch means it costs less to move, and foragers should move more easily. This theorem has been found to hold in organisms as diverse as worms, bees, wasps, spiders, fish, birds, seals and even plants.

Well. Ponder that as a scientific aspect to how you decide to say or go. In addition you can take some solace that worms, seals and plants have a lot in common with humans (ok … even I don’t buy that last point).

Anyway. Back to the decision as art rather than science. The non-formulaic aspect is difficult because stay-or-go varies from situation to situation. In addition there is a lot of ‘gut feeling’ in this decision.

I say that because I don’t believe there is anyone out there (or at least anyone who is truly honest with themselves) who would say they are good at anything if it solely depends on ‘gut.’

So, if it isn’t gut, what can help you decide whether to stay or go? Interestingly if you really think about this issue it comes down to identifying a goal.  Or maybe better said … truly understanding what you want (and constantly moving toward it). Why do I say that?  (particularly for a guy who has written repeatedly about how goal setting sucks)

Someone moving toward a goal will more likely take action than the one who is constantly running away from or trying to avoid pain (note: that is not a ‘go’ dcision, that’s a ‘flee’ decision). If you buy that thought, then the foundation of that ‘flee’ (movement or no movement) is fear. And it’s the worst, most debilitating, fear.  Not heights.   Or spiders. Or even clowns. Its fear by seeing a world through eyes of the problems and negative repercussions that might arise from the ‘going’ aspect. Therefore those living with this kind of fear are often trapped by their fears (therefore staying). Yes.  Trapped.  Not frozen (and, yes, there is a distinction). And by staying trapped these people are more likely stay unhappy and unfulfilled. Despite the fact they have concluded it is safer to stay.

So.  Back to the goal. With an objective, some vague point on the horizon you can sometimes focus on, you at least have the opportunity to move toward who you want to be and where you want to go (it doesn’t have to be something very specific just a horizon based feeling). I guess I am suggesting it becomes easier to visualize what opportunities and benefits that might come from going rather than staying.

And I am suggesting it becomes easier to accept the risks of leaving ‘the trap’ and go for what they want.

And, importantly, it becomes easier to not settle for less than what they believe they deserve.

Ok. The good news? Any ‘what do i do?’ trap is not necessarily set in stone. If you are frozen staying because of fear (of the unknown or ‘what could possibly be’), but would rather go – many people find a way to push through and get moving toward the objective.

And this one is gonna sound harsh. Sometimes people suggest that if you are stuck in the stay mode and need a push you look beyond your own needs and focus on the effect on others around you. Use energy from others to motivate yourself.  Well. Yeah. Sure. We should all consider the possible affect your actions may have on others.

But. I don’t suggest that. Cause where I think people go wrong is when they focus primarily on meeting the needs of their significant others or children or others to make a decision.  And in doing so they lose sense of self – self worth, self esteem, self identity … whatever it is that makes their “self” worth a shit.

And then they lose what is at the core of staying or going: themselves.

Ok.  Ok.  I am not suggesting no balance at all.  Nor just being selfish. But I am suggesting staying or going is truly about gut and self direction. And that the decision is about self. And THAT is probably why most people, most of us, suck at the stay or go decision.

Regardless. Knowing when to stay and when to go is tough. And no one gets it right all the time. You just live with the decision when you make it. That said. Choose. Stay or go. Doing neither is not an option.

Written by Bruce