Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Sunk Cost Fallacy and Your Career

I immediately rebuked myself after I pressed the button for the elevator to take me to my sixth floor office. "You dummy!" I said to myself, "you said you wanted to take the stairs this week!" But it was too late: the elevator had been called. So I had a choice in front of me: to do what I had originally intended (stairs) or to not "waste" what I had produced (elevator)?

This conundrum-well-documented in behavioral economics-is known as the sunk cost fallacy. We think that we make rational decisions with our time and money, but we actually experience a high amount of emotional investment in our efforts to the point where we make poor decisions in order to get the most out of something that we can never get back.

The primary motivation in the sunk cost fallacy is an aversion to waste. Let's pretend that you have set a goal to start eating healthier but you don't want to throw out or give away all of the junk food in your house. You can view this decision from two perspectives: in one, it makes sense not to waste what you have already purchased with your hard-earned money. But the other perspective is that the food can't be taken back so why consume something that will ultimately be detrimental to you? The former perspective buys into the sunk cost fallacy; the latter counters it.

The time and energy we have put into our careers-be it in schooling or training-is a sunk cost. There is no way to get it back. But we tend to cling to miserable careers because of the sunk cost fallacy, becoming emotionally attached to our past educational investment. We become the person who wants to eat healthier but ends up on the couch consuming junk food because it was too painful to throw it out. It's natural to not want to be wasteful, but when the waste is a sunk cost and it interferes with your broader, more resonant career vision, you need to make decisions that will direct you toward it.

If you don't want to be a physician anymore, you can stop. This one did. Or let's say that you are a Harvard-educated attorney but you really want to be a comedy writer. You can stop. This one did. There are countless examples of famous and not-famous individuals who chose to abandon their attachment to their past careers and embrace their new vision. They didn't succumb to the sunk cost fallacy. Ask yourself these questions to gauge if you are doing so:

How am I letting my past career keep me from a more resonant future career?

What am I not willing to let go of in the career I dislike, and how is that holding me back?

What about my past career am I afraid of abandoning?

What can you celebrate about your past career that will make you successful in your resonant one?

When the doors of the elevator opened I stepped in...only to step out again. I enjoyed hearing them close behind me as I headed into the stairwell. I felt bad calling the elevator in the first place but felt good about overcoming something that couldn't be undone because I made a choice that was better for me. The wisdom was most definitely worth it.

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