Devon Stork

When to Give Up

March 14, 2024

I learned to quit by giving up on my first amazing idea. It was a valuable lesson in not wasting time.

In the second year of my PhD research, I was working on making targeted antimicrobial peptides to kill specific pathogens. Five Harvard professors had given their stamp of approval during my qualifying exams, and I was ready to do science that would change the world. Or at least create some new drugs that would probably fail in phase two of clinical trials, but that’s the life of a biotech scientist. Eventually I realized there’s a huge gap between “technically possible” and “I can do this.” The only way to do the critical experiments was to invent some new microbiology techniques and teach myself how to do protein design. At that point I made one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. 

I gave up. 

I apprenticed myself to a senior postdoc and learned how to do genetic code expansion instead. That project gave me a plethora of skills and good ideas, one of which quickly developed into my PhD. By killing my first idea, I had a five-year PhD instead of the eight years-or-never it might have been if I’d tried to hold onto my first project. 

Killing projects frequently is really important, because it lets you try new things that might work better.

We all aspire to persevere in the face of adversity. We might have promised somebody results, or be convinced that this project is vital to our career. But in my experience, you can always get around those barriers. The real reason people don’t quit is that they focus too hard on the challenge in front of them, even when their perseverance would be better off pointed somewhere else. Nobody wants to admit they made a mistake, and giving up feels like admitting that you’ve wasted time and effort, even when it’s a reasonable response to new information. 

People who build things put their self-worth into what they build, and giving up on your project is like giving up a part of yourself. Being proud of your work is incredible, and a core part of my identity is my science and what I build with it. But it’s a trap to get attached to any specific thing you’re working on. When your self-worth is tied up in a specific project that’s going badly, you’ll twist the facts to preserve your own ego and persevere long beyond the point of reason. You will get increasingly upset when it’s not working, and that’s a quick path to depression or burnout. 

The solution is to learn the right time to give up. That will usually feel like it’s too early, but it’s also not at the first sign of trouble. The thought that got me to quit my first idea was simple: “I never would have started if I’d known where it would go.” Now whenever I hit a block, I ask myself if troubleshooting will take as much effort as starting something new. If so, it’s usually time to kill it and try to find something better. Very few things work on the first try, but the good ones will typically get moving with only simple troubleshooting.

My advisor, Professor George Church, framed his research as looking for problems that seemed impossible but weren’t really that challenging. Some significant projects are incredibly difficult, but others are straightforward. The best way to find the places where rapid progress is possible is to try several ideas and move on quickly when they don’t work out. 

My PhD project was about expanding the genetic code of Bacillus subtilis, and it didn’t work immediately. But it did only take about two weeks of straightforward troubleshooting to figure out that the key was seeding exponential phase cells into minimal media and then growing them overnight. That discovery was what gave me traction on the project.

Traction is the place where you have things you want to do and nothing is stopping you. It’s awesome. Everything you do spawns new directions. The experiment that gave me traction is ⅙ of figure 1D, but it allowed me to build the rest of the publication in about a year and a half of joyful experimentation. Don’t quit a project when you still have traction.  

But eventually you’ll lose traction, often by reaching the limit of your tools or running out of questions to ask. Quitting after you’ve found traction can be harder than quitting before you ever get there. Towards the end of my project, I didn’t want to accept that I’d gone as far as the project could take me. Then COVID lockdowns happened. Getting booted out of the lab for six months at that time was pretty lucky, since it forced me to write everything up and think strongly about what would come next. That accelerated the rest of my life by about a year. 

After graduation, I joined a friend’s biotech startup, where I had a somewhat rude awakening. A lot of the time, you can’t abandon projects. In industry you will always have people like CEOs and investors and commercial partners who expect results on specific projects. This can also happen in academia with grants and collaborators, but I had to go to industry to learn how to deal with projects you simply can’t quit. 

The solution is that there’s always more than one way to get something done. You might be married to the goal, but you’re not married to any specific attempt to get there. Figure out a new approach and try that instead. Trying new things lets you see the bigger picture and sometimes the solution will end up being a combination of your first and third attempts. 

Ultimately, changing what you’re doing is emotionally hard. Seriously considering a new idea is scary, because it means abandoning something comfortable for something new. But to me, one of the most valuable lessons of graduate school was learning to embrace the potential of something new and accept the risks that came with it. 

That lesson is valuable across life, and for reasons beyond something not working. I’m leaving my current (excellent) job engineering gut probiotics to move across the country and start a nonprofit focused on building biotechnology for space. I have an opportunity to engineer organisms that can sustain life in the stars, and that’s too exciting an opportunity to pass up. 

In the end, while not all change is improvement, all improvement is change.


Thanks to Dan Voicu, Maggie Chen, Niko McCarty, Xander Balwit, Gabriel Filsinger, Sarah Scheffler and Anjali Kayal for providing feedback on this article, as well as the Ideas Matter Fellowship, without which it wouldn’t have been written. 

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