Moving Right Along- Quitting, Sunk-Cost Fallacy, and Learning to Let Go

Learning to let go is one of those skills that no really thinks of “mastering” until it occurs to them that they need to.

Depending on the circumstances, people can let go of things very easily. When whatever we are dwelling on feels inconsequential or already impermanent, we probably don’t care that much when we lose it or let it slip.

Other stuff, though- the important stuff, the intangible things- can keep us hung up for years as we learn that they were just as impermanent as everything else. Maybe we know that “this too shall pass,” but were hoping to get lucky in a macabre way- thinking we’d never get to see their end and thus it can feel eternal.

All things end, though. It’s the price we pay for getting to experience them at all, and it gives them their worth and rarity. Learning to let go with compassion and grace is vital to emotional wellbeing– and that can include letting go of goals and dreams as well. Giving up on an old dream can set you free to find a new one.

Sunk Cost Fallacy and When A Dream Goes Bad

Back when I was in high school, I took a course in Probabilities and Statistics. It was fascinating being able to assign rough numbers to fate- but we also played a LOT of Texas Hold’em Poker and Blackjack, as you might imagine for a school in Atlantic City.

Part of that class wound up being about what psychological factors can get someone to ignore the hard numbers stacked against them and keep throwing money at a losing game. The first one we discussed, of course, was the gambler’s fallacy– the idea that because there is a chance of a given outcome, that outcome must occur within a given set. In layman’s terms, it’s the idea that a slot machine, a pair of dice, or a flipped coin can be “due” to pay out.

Modern slot machines are programmed to eventually let you recover some of your money (hence casinos advertising “loose slots,”) but dice or coins are never “due.” Just because there is a 50% chance a coin will land on heads doesn’t mean that if you flip a coin 100 times, 50 flips must be heads. The chance simply exists.

More compelling, however, is what is called the “sunk cost fallacy.” This is more psychological than mathematical, as it’s the belief that a desired outcome must come up simply because of the amount of time and effort spent searching for it. It’s the gambler that says “I’ve already lost so much, I can’t stop now- I need to make it WORTH something!”

You can see how insidious this line of thinking is, on or off the craps table. No one wants to admit it’s over or that they lost. No one wants to admit they or something else failed them. Yet that’s what so many of us do when it comes to our ideas and goals- we hold on to them even after they’ve proved failures or even harmful.

As of this writing, I have left the pie shop. I was and am so proud of all the good things I did, all the people I go to work with, and all that we accomplished. Given that one of my goals is to eventually own my own pie shop, this should have been a golden opportunity for me and I certainly learned from the experience.

Unfortunately, reality steps in as it often does. I had to be making more money. I couldn’t keep working the hours I was at the level I was, and I couldn’t put my body and mind under the stress that was becoming all too common. I had high hopes for my tenure there, but ultimately we simply ran out of time.

As a kid of the 90s, I remember being told by every Saturday morning cartoon something to the effect of “Winners never quit, and quitters never win!”

Winners quit all the time. They fold on losing hands, walk away while they’re ahead, and know just when to cut their losses. They know how and when to take an “L” with grace and dignity. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt- I sweated my decision to leave the pie shop for a good long while. That pain is not an indicator of the worth of the decision though. Just like the dice or the cards, a failing plan doesn’t care how much effort you put into the failing.

They don’t give in to the Sunk Cost Fallacy.

Letting Go of the Lost to Find the New

Instead, they take stock and make a new plan.

That job may not have worked out how I wanted, but I still didn’t leave exactly empty-handed. I walk away from the pie shop with new ideas, experiences, and lessons that I can bring with me wherever I go.

While that pie shop may not have worked out, I paid attention to where things went right and wrong. When it’s time for me to start my own, I have two years worth of experiments and mistakes to refer back to. I know what helped and what didn’t.

Making the pie shop a success may have been a goal, but it need not have been the goal- and by walking away, I’m free to pursue other opportunities. Ones that will expand my skill set and contacts to help me out later and earn me enough money that I can put some way toward making my dream a reality.

Your goals don’t always have to be to “win”- they can just be to Try and to Learn.

One of the most powerful things I learned from studying Buddhism was a simple analogy about learning philosophy. “The Teachings are a raft that are meant to get you across the river- but will you carry the raft with you in case you reach another? How foolish! You leave the raft behind for others and you keep going. If you reach another river, you already know how to build a raft.

I’m leaving one old raft behind, confident that when the time comes I’ll know how to build a better one.

Stay Classy,

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