The seven people gathered around a high-top table on a drizzly Saturday afternoon were united by a single cause: to chuck it all.
They’d come to Busboys and Poets for the inaugural meeting of Washington’s newest Meetup group, The Quitters’ Club. Tagline: “Let’s Give Up on Our Dreams . . . Together!”
One was ready to cast aside her long-held ambition to become an actress. Same deal for a would-be writer. Another attendee was ready to quit Washington.
The hodgepodge group of strangers were drawn together by a call that landed in each of their inboxes. “Most of us have something special we’d like to do with our lives,” it said. “Often this Holy Grail does us more harm than good; costing valuable time, resources and relationships. Eff all that noise. At the Quitters’ Club — our club — we can help each other stomp out the brush fires set in our hearts, and get on with our lives.”
Something in them nodded in agreement, and they set aside a portion of their weekend to show up and quit.
At the center of the table — and the event — was a stylish, young-looking man in a tilted fedora and a vintage leather jacket. Justin Cannon has quit all sorts of things — filmmaking, music, graphic design, undergraduate school. He is tortured by the dueling forces of grand ambition and intense self-doubt. Most often, the battle leaves him frozen. And despondent.
“The thing that we’re all having the most issue with is taking action,” he told the group. “Quitting is an action. You have to make an emotional, committed action one way or another.”
As he spoke, a group of lithe women in black windbreakers walked down the crowded aisle of the 14th Street NW restaurant. Emblazoned on the backs of their jackets were the words “Marathon Finisher.”
Washington is not a town for quitters. Frankly, America is not a country for quitters.
This is a society that values grit and stick-to-itiveness. The colonists didn’t stop fighting the British because war got tough. The Wright brothers didn’t give up on flight after a few crash landings. Lindsay Lohan can flame out as often as she likes — we’ll always be watching for her comeback.
I f winners never quit, then quitters, the logic would follow, must be losers. That’s how it has always felt to Cannon.
The 36-year-old grew up in Bristol, Conn., the son of two longtime bureaucrats. He’d visit their offices as a child and see digital clocks on co-workers’ desks. The clocks didn’t tell the current time — but the time that remained until the owner was eligible for retirement.
“It would say, ‘16 years, eight months, four days, five hours and six minutes and 38 seconds,’” he recalls. “And I would say, ‘What is that? That is the scariest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.’ ”
Cannon wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do when he grew up, but he knew it wasn’t that — spend his days in a job he couldn’t wait to leave.
Though he’s always been artistic, Cannon majored in finance when he started at New York University. He dropped out after a couple of years and moved to Los Angeles to break into filmmaking. It didn’t work out, and he ended up doing substitute teaching instead. There was a period at home in Connecticut during which he completed his degree at a state school, worked at a furniture store and tried to start a career in fashion. That didn’t work out, either.
Three years ago, he moved to Bowie, where his sister lives, to start again. He works as an attendance counselor at a public elementary school in the District, but that’s never been the real focus. In his after-hours, there have been attempts at music, graphic design and, most recently, television commercials. For inspiration, he began working the circuit of Washington filmmaker Meetup groups.
“And that was really comforting, but then at the end of the day I’d come home and I’d be like, ‘But you can’t do that,’ ” he explains over a beer at a U Street tavern. “I would start something, kind of gain a foothold on what I’m trying to do — and then I’d be like, ‘Well, what if you’re doing this and nobody likes it?’ And then I’d have a lot of existential dilemmas — ‘What is the point of this? People are starving.’ ”
Again and again, the loop left him stalled — and singed with shame. “Once you do that for a period of a couple years, it really just wears at you and at a cellular level, really messes with you. And I was like, ‘This is ridiculous. I’m making myself physically ill over some, like, fantasy. I would like to just stop all of this.’ ”
At a filmmakers’ gathering in February, Cannon expressed his growing exasperation. “I was like, ‘We should have a group where people want to give up on their dreams.’ I was making a joke,” he recalls. “But somebody said, ‘You know, that’s a really good idea.’ ”
The notion bore into him, and a few days later, he took action. He signed up for a Meetup organizer account and posted the notice for his new group. He thought he might be forming a club of one, but within 48 hours, 35 people signed up.
“Oh Justin, the timeliness of this group,” wrote one new member on the club’s virtual bulletin board. “Thanks for organizing!”
“What a relief!” chimed in another.
His hope, Cannon said before the first meeting, was that the forum would provide a safe space for people like him to air the frustrations weighing them down and to share strategies for either clearing their self-imposed hurdles or giving up and getting on with their lives.
“I’m on the fence about quitting,” admitted Michele Kelly, the first to speak as the seven attendees waited for their omelets and bowls of soup. A 60-year-old District resident, Kelly has been pursuing various writing projects for years but can’t seem to get anything down on paper.
“I do research, I go to writers’ groups. I continue to make half-hearted attempts, and I don’t do it,” she says. “But I’m on the fence, because then what would I do?”
And who would she be, if she weren’t a writer, at least working on a project? She’d be an attempted-writer, who threw her efforts out the window. The round-table chimes in with suggestions. Put your box of research in the trash, just to see how it feels. Force yourself to bring something — anything — to share with a writers’ group. Stop putting so much pressure on yourself.
Finally, from a younger woman who sat opposite her: “I think it’s pretty obvious that you don’t want to quit.”
“Yeah,” Kelly says, nodding. “So is it okay that I’m here?”
And for the next two hours, this is how it will go. The actress, they decide, should give it a hard push for a year before tossing out her ambitions of making it on the stage. The unhappy Washingtonian should look for a new job before giving up on the city. The woman considering quitting her friendships should refocus on what she loves about her pals. The writer whose day job is getting in the way of her artistic pursuits should carve out time each day for her passion.
The one person who the group thinks should actually quit is the technology professional who’s spent the past decade moving from city to city for high-paying, short-term gigs. But the only reason he should quit is to pursue his real dream of living a stable, small-town life.
“Here we are at the Quitters Club and we’re all encouraging each other to keep going,” Kelly mused.
“I knew that was gonna happen,” Cannon says.
The truth is, Cannon doesn’t want anyone to quit anything — unless it’s not the right thing for them, or they’re not doing it for the right reasons (i.e., they’re doing it to live up to someone else’s expectations or to simply check a box).
“I’d rather everyone be like, ‘This [meeting] is crap. Why am I even here? I’m going to go write that thing,’ ” he said before the Meetup at Busboys. “If I can help one human being, just a little bit, to get out of their own way, that’s fine.”
B efore they adjourn, attendees make a resolution to go to 10 auditions, to look for a new job, to finish a draft of a section. And they resolve to meet again next month, to catch up with each other and the 70 other registered members of the DC Quitters Club who couldn’t make it that day.
A few years ago, Cannon taught himself to ride a unicycle. He compares his drive to master the vehicle to the focus of someone who badly needs to go to the bathroom — nothing was going to get in his way. And it didn’t.
He is hoping to ignite his artistic ambitions with the same fire. But that has proved difficult. So far, there’s been only one other thing that’s driven him with the same intensity — the quest to help people quit.
Or, as it turns out, to keep on trying.