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Capitalist Chris

Thoughts on quitting

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I was recently listening to a Freakonomics podcast called The Upside of Quitting. It's about an hour long, but if you're interested in listening you can garner the point in the first 10-20 minutes.

Summing up the point, they look at quitting from the economic concept of "sunk cost". Essentially people invest money, time or whatever into something (a goal, a job, a project, etc), that can't be recovered and find themselves unable to quit something because of this - even when they probably should.

I totally get it and it makes sense to me. I can think of several examples off the top of my head. For example, investing in a stock that goes down. Even when there is very little upside on that stock it can be hard to sell it because selling it solidifies the loss and you think you'll stick it out and eventually get your money back. Or another example would be going to university, putting a few years into a degree and then realizing this isn't what you wanted or it's not fulfilling you. It can be tough to just quit.

While listening to this and agreeing with what is being said, I found this nagging voice in my head with regards to my own experience. Everything great I've achieved in my life came at the cost of a struggle and perseverance. I had to work hard and it wasn't easy. I never felt purely committed to these goals all the time. I've had times where I wasn't happy and I thought of quitting. For example, I'm an electrical engineer, but there was a time when I was in school that I thought of ditching it. I didn't like it, but I did stick with it and eventually I did like it. Speaking today, I'm glad I didn't quit.

I'm just curious what people think of what this podcast is advocating. They didn't have much information to say on how to know when to quit or when to keep going.  Quit unachievable goals makes sense, but determining unachievable is tough.

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I think this is just a call for objectivity and rationality, especially when it comes to recognizing and fixing past mistakes.

Presumably, when you choose a goal, you choose it because you determined, by objectively weighing all the information you had at the time, that it was achievable and worthwhile. But you could have been acting on limited information.

If a month, or a year, or two, later you have more information on the same subject, you should go through that same process again...without allowing fallacious thinking (like the sunk costs fallacy) to prevent you from being objective about the value and attainability of the end-goal.

If the goal really did turn out to be unattainable (or not important enough), then you should realize that you made a mistake the first time, and quit. Otherwise, you shouldn't.

Same goes for fallacious thinking or psychological trappings that might cause you to quit when you shouldn't (for instance, in your example, you wanted to quit because you hated the journey, not because the end-goal turned out to be unattainable or unimportant...but you fought your reaction, and made the right decision by sticking with it).

P.S. In a business environment, people can consciously (or semi-consciously) exploit this fallacy. You should pay special attention to it when a project runs over-budget (or vice versa, when a client's demands grow beyond the original scope of the project)...it could be that people are trying to exploit the tendency to commit the sunk costs fallacy...or they're committing the fallacy themselves, and it is masking their incompetence (from everyone, including themselves).

Either way, when that happens, you must re-evaluate everything, and make a decision on whether to try and rescue the project or start anew, that is independent of how much time or money you spent on it so far (because that's irrelevant).

Edited by Nicky

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