Pruning to Make Space for More
Create opportunity by giving yourself the capacity to thrive
For much of my life, I was extremely stubborn. When I had something on my mind, I would find it hard to put it down—even when it was a problem I couldn’t solve. I would struggle and flail and struggle some more, even though I knew it wasn’t serving me. I was a glutton for punishment.
I saw this as a superpower. After all, my tenacity had gotten me so far in life, from graduating high school with honors to getting a scholarship to college. It was what helped me land my dream job at a big-name consulting firm and get accepted to the graduate school I wanted most. In my eyes, this level of grit was something special, something to be honored. I got the prize when I just focused and delivered, no matter what.
But then, eventually, I hit a wall. And I hit that wall hard. What had made me so successful for so long was no longer working. Eventually, I realized that if I wanted to continue to grow, I had to cut out that part of my life. It was painful. I struggled. I felt like I had lost my way—but as hard as it was, I knew I was quitting what was holding me back.
And in the process, I found my way again.
Why we fear quitting
We've always been discouraged from quitting, in work and in life. After all, when you quit, you're dropping out. You're giving up. You're taking a loss.
Think about those words. Think about how negative they sound. Who wants to be seen as a quitter? Who wants to fail? Who wants to feel like a loser?
That fear of quitting can run our lives if we let it. It can keep us in the wrong jobs, in unhappy relationships, and in states of stagnation. I’ve written about this before, but I think it bears repeating: sometimes, quitting isn’t just okay; it’s the right thing to do.
I remember talking to somebody who was really struggling in her job. She was incredible, but the role was a bad fit. Everyone around her could see that… except for her. I urged her, in many different ways, to explore other opportunities. I shared with her that maybe her current role wasn't the right one for her. But she persisted. I could see her desperation to land a win, and yet I could tell it wasn’t going to work out.
Later, she reached out to me again about a new job she had taken. She was joyful, almost luminescent. She shared how changing fields had been the best thing she had ever done, and how she wished she had done it sooner. I was so happy for her, and yet part of me was mourning the fact that she had not made this change earlier when her struggle was so clearly draining her of her vitality and spark.
I’m not going to say making these changes is easy. It can be incredibly hard. Often, we fear it, even when we know it’s what we need to do. Quitting brings feelings of guilt, failure, and uncertainty. We tell ourselves it’s easier—and safer—to stay where we are.
But what if quitting isn’t failing? What if, by quitting, you’re freeing yourself to do something better with your life?
After I left Meta and joined Ancestry, I wrote a series of articles about departing and starting a new role. To my surprise—and chagrin—dozens of people reached out to tell me that I had inspired them to quit and start something new. At first, I wasn't sure how I felt about it, because my intention had never been to make people feel like they needed to leave their jobs. But many of those people had found a new path, one that was better and faster and more true to who they were than the old one. As I reflected on this, I ended up feeling so happy for them.
Now, two and a half years on, I still go back and reread those messages, and they never fail to make me smile. No one would change their entire life because of a single blog post from a stranger unless it had sparked them to realize they needed that change.
Quit more and do more
In order to be healthy, trees need to be pruned. It’s counterintuitive, but it’s true. By periodically cutting the unhealthy, excess, or old branches, we are giving the rest of the tree the opportunity to thrive and bear fruit.
Why don’t we do this with our own lives?
We have a tendency to wear down cow paths, getting so entrenched in our ways that we can’t see a more efficient way to go from A to B. We don’t audit what we do or consider what is no longer serving us. This goes beyond just work; sometimes, activities, groups, or even friendships have simply run their natural course. It can be best to honor them by not allowing them to deteriorate until they fall apart, but rather to step back while they are still healthy and move forward with freedom.
If you’re not sure which branches to trim in your own life, try asking yourself:
What do I continue to do that is no longer benefiting me?
What can I remove from my job, behavior, or environment that will give me more freedom and time for the things I truly care about?
What activities have run their course and are no longer productive?
What connections, relationships, or people don’t provide reciprocal value?
This can seem intimidating, but you don’t need to do it all at once. Sometimes, a single change can make a big difference.
My sister stopped doing laundry for her family many years ago, moving to a DYOL (“Do Your Own Load”) system when her kids were relatively young. When she got rid of the old routine, she lost the safety of that structure, but do you know what else she got rid of? Stress, frustration, and wasted time. No more lost socks or playing the blame game of misplaced clothes. Each person, herself and her husband included, was in charge of their own laundry.
While this might be rather impractical in my household of seven, I think it’s genius. My sister stopped and pruned something from her life that was no longer benefiting her. In its place, she added something that made her household run better, taught her kids an important life skill, and made time for other things during the week. When she first explained this to me, I was a bit taken aback, but now I see her wisdom.
Looking forward, not back
The act of pruning is about intentionality. It is about taking stock of what you have and deciding that you want something different from this point forward. It also means being willing to let go of things that bind you to the past.
Sometimes pruning means a major life change, but often, it is the little things that are holding us back.
We’ve been in the process of building a house so that my in-laws can move into our household, which includes my mother. (Whenever anyone asks us “When is the house going to be done?” we jokingly reply, “Six months away, but it is always six months away no matter when you ask.”) In preparation for the move, I have had to start pruning things from our home. The thing about living somewhere for a long time is that many spaces get filled with things you ignore: the backs of closets, high shelves in the garage, the bottoms of drawers, etc. There are hundreds of nooks and crannies where clutter gets stuffed, never to see the light of day again.
Part of the exercise for us has been paring back on the things we don’t want to bring along with us. I have gotten rid of tons of things on Facebook Marketplace and Buy Nothing groups. This act of pruning is cathartic, and it truly has been a journey to give up what we no longer need, give it a new life, and make space for the things that fit better (new set of pans for an induction cooktop, I’m looking at you).
The things that you once treasured can be enjoyed by others without regret. In passing something along, it becomes a gift, not a burden.
Pruning can take many forms, some big and some small. What they all have in common is the act of removing something from your life that no longer serves you. This can be scary, and the fear of failure can paralyze us where we are.
But pruning can be a good thing. Trimming our branches helps us make room for what matters most. It can take strength, but it can also open the door to progress, growth, and, ultimately, a more satisfying life. Don’t shy away from it; embrace it.
After all, there’s a reason they call them “growing pains.”