I wrote several motivational posts that are beloved by my readers. “Know your value!” I say. “Take control of your career!” I proclaim.
This post is the polar opposite of those posts. This post is about knowing when to quit and why you should embrace it and not let it shame you.
There is a concept in economics called “the sunk cost fallacy.” The basic premise of this theory states that the more you invest into something, the harder it will be to abandon it. You let your investments justify your continued investment—despite the fact that the route you’re taking has been unsuccessful.
People are programmed to avoid waste. we call this “loss aversion.”
Whether it’s concerning a monetary investment or a time investment, we can’t stand the thought of wasting anything. For example, let’s say that you have purchased a ticket to a play. The ticket cannot be refunded or transferred, but you have since decided (for whatever reason) that you no longer want to attend. Many people would feel obligated to see the play because doing otherwise would be a “waste” of the ticket price.
People also don’t like to quit or break commitments—probably because we’ve been trained to believe that quitting is shameful or an admission of failure.
By purchasing the ticket, the person in this scenario has made a monetary commitment to see the play and may choose to see it—even though they really don’t want to—based on that monetary commitment. They are “throwing good money after bad.” In this case, the “good money” is the time they could spend doing something more enjoyable.
You have fooled yourself into believing you are doing the logical thing when you are doing the exact opposite.
To compound matters, consider the psychological theory of “cognitive dissonance,” which states that humans strive for internal consistency. If you have acted a certain way, over time you will overly justify your behavior. If we struggle or suffer for something—whether it’s a career or a relationship—we will convince ourselves that we love it to justify our actions. In doing so, we halt our personal evolution and hold ourselves back.
Over time, we gain new information. This information shapes our opinions and may change our course of action. You should not feel obligated to continue investing your time or effort into anything if you have gained new information that has lead you to the conclusion of, “Hey, maybe this wasn’t the right decision for me after all…”
Let’s assume you’ve been working in this industry for ten years. When your license renewal comes up biannually, you sit down and evaluate your career. You teeter on the fence. “Well, this doesn’t me happy and I’d rather be a skydiving instructor—but I’m not completely miserable. I’ve already invested ten years into this business. I know how to do my job well and I make alright money. I’m not passionate about it, but I’m getting by. It would be stupid to quit now that I’ve invested $20,000 into my education and thousands into my equipment and untold amounts into continuing education certifications. I’d hate to just walk away after spending all that money. My parents always said this was a bad career move and that I should have been a lawyer. If I quit now, they’ll think I’m a fool. My clients will never forgive me if I quit. I think I’ll go ahead and renew it and maybe things will improve.”
…and thus your cycle of mediocrity continues for another ten years.
When you’re evaluating your career, forget what you’ve invested.
That money and that time you’ve invested are long gone. You will never get them back. Do not let your aversion to loss factor into your Happiness Equation. Ignore your past investments when making decisions about your future. Make a decision that promises a better future outcome, not one that attempts to justify the feeling of loss in your past, to satisfy your pride, or avoid criticism from others. In the scenario above, the decision should have been made and that renewal form should have been shredded immediately before the first “but.”
When you allow yourself to fall prey to the sunk cost fallacy, you are not taking into account the opportunity cost.
Opportunity cost is defined as, “the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen.” For example—the opportunity cost of going to college is the amount of money you would have made if you had chosen to enter the workforce immediately after high school instead. It is the loss of “what might have been.” It is the cost of the opportunity you are not taking advantage of by continuing to pursue your sunk cost endeavor.
You should be living a life that satisfies you. If this career is no longer serving you–do yourself a favor and walk away.
“But what will they think?!”
Who cares what they think? Who deemed quitting a shameful thing and why are you allowing that fear to dictate your happiness?
As I said before, we learn over time. Maybe when you entered beauty school you entered with false assumptions about the business. Now you’ve realized that you were wrong—or maybe your assumptions about the business were right, but your lifestyle or personal aspirations have shifted with your experiences. You have evolved and so have your needs. This doesn’t make you a failure but a learning, thinking human being.
Continuing as you have despite this new knowledge is illogical and irrational.
Tell me—what is admirable about that? Nothing.
Who are you serving by continuing to walk a path that makes you miserable? Not yourself—and you are the only person who matters when you’re working on your Happiness Equation since the equation has been designed to maximize your benefit.
I have been that person, sitting at my desk, staring at my license renewal papers and wondering if I should continue. I have always enjoyed my career, but for a long time I struggled with what I should be doing. I’ve been criticized by family, friends, and college professors for not “taking full advantage of my intellectual and academic potential.”
I am smart. Really smart. (My Stanford-Binet score places me just above the 98th percentile.) Let me make this clear—being smart is not an accomplishment. It is not something I worked hard to achieve. My intellect was bestowed upon me through a series of random genetic pairings. I had absolutely nothing to do with it. However, according to others, my spontaneously-appointed intellectual ability makes me somehow obligated to contribute those genetic gifts to the greater good.
“You should be curing cancer.”
“You should be working in genetic research.”
“You should be doing something more substantial than painting fingernails and managing salons.”
For six years, I believed these statements. My career goal when I was in high school was to work in viral genetic research, using viruses to “infect” people with cures to genetic diseases. I only obtained my cosmetology license so that I could pay my way through college, which is exactly what I did. What I didn’t anticipate is that I would develop an intense love of my profession that would supersede my love of science.
That was information I gained over time–information that I was choosing to ignore because guilt fueled my college career.
Although science excited me and kept me stimulated intellectually, I never felt sufficiently motivated to make it my sole purpose in life. I’m a motivated person. I live by the motto, “I want. I take. I have.” If I really wanted to be a viral geneticist, achieving that goal would be simple. Instead, I pursued it lazily. Two classes one semester, one class the next, skip two semesters, another two classes…
I wasn’t committing. And the longer time went on, the less I wanted to continue with college. Finally, I had finished all of the courses required for my major. All I had to complete were a few frivolous electives. That’s when I quit. I decided that I just didn’t want it bad enough to skate through another two semesters of filler classes. I couldn’t justify burning more money on a degree I knew I was unlikely to ever use. I let the new data change my path and finally refused to keep throwing good money after bad.
Do I consider the time and money I spent on college to be wasted? Absolutely not. I took the classes I enjoyed. I learned a lot. It didn’t result in a career but that doesn’t mean the experience was without merit or value. I don’t regret quitting either.
During this time, my career in the beauty industry also evolved. In addition to feeling this guilt inflicted on me by my family and friends, I often reconsidered my career based on some unquantifiable factor causing dissatisfaction. I could not put my finger on it. About twice a year, I would have what my husband and friends started referring to as “career crises.” During these periods, I would agonize over whether or not I made a big mistake sticking with my career instead of finishing college.
I mistakenly assumed that I had grown to hate working in salon management. It took me up until three years ago to realize that I just don’t like managing successful salons.
I need to be challenged regularly. I need to figure out why things are broken and determine how to fix them. I need to experiment with different strategies and see growth, change, and improvement.
Now that I work as a salon management consultant, I no longer have career crises because I love what I do. I solve problems every day and sometimes design solutions to problems nobody knew existed in the first place. Should my career no longer make me happy, maybe I’ll decide that I actually do want to finish college and pursue a career in something awesome that caters to my strengths and my interests, like game development. Who knows? I’ll figure it out when I get there, but I can tell you that I’ll go into it without fearing the stigma of failure and without concern of public perception.
Persistence isn’t always a virtue.
Know when it’s time to call it quits and don’t be afraid to do so. A lot of blogs and educators promise that success is guaranteed if you apply yourself and never give up. To perpetuate this message (“If you’re not successful then you’re not truly dedicated.”) is cruel. Sometimes, no amount of dedication, patience, sacrifice, or struggle will ever equate to success—and no amount of professional success is worth a damn if you’re unhappy in the end.
At some point, you have to quit asking yourself, “What am I doing wrong?” and ask yourself, “Is this really what I want to do anymore?”
Don’t be upset if you come to the realization that it isn’t. Failure doesn’t define you. Refusal to accept failure when it is clearly in your best interest to do so is the biggest failure there is.