Quitting gets a bad rep in our society. The word “quitter” is often equated with being a “loser” and we are constantly being told to “stick with it” or “tough it out”, etc. etc. The worst are those inspirational posters that say things like “Winners never quit and quitters never win”. But I am here to suggest that quitting is sometimes the very best thing you can do and I think many of us don’t do it often enough. I’m not just talking about quitting a job – this can apply to anything in your life. Ending a relationship that isn’t working, leaving a city you don’t enjoy living in, canceling your gym membership that you feel super guilty about having but never using. Sure, there are lots of times when we need to ignore that little voice in our head that tells us to quit and keep pushing because we know we can do it! But other times, we need that little voice to give us the strength to end something and it is important to know when to listen.
The sunk-cost fallacy
I listen to a lot of Freakonomics (an awesome podcast) and they LOVE to talk about the “sunk-cost fallacy” or the “sunk-cost bias” . It is a tendency we humans have to think that we should continue putting time/energy/money into something simply because we have already put time/energy/money into it that we will never get back, regardless of future actions. Litemind.com describes it as “persisting with bad decisions due to our irrational attachment to costs that we cannot recover”. It’s the reason it is so hard to get people to switch banks, or cancel phone plans, or change pretty much anything in our lives that we have already committed to.
For example, say you have a gym membership that you pay each month, but you really never go to the gym anymore even though you feel like you should. You’ve already spent $30 per month for the last 6 months on your membership, including a $100 start-up fee, so you feel like you’ve invested in the gym and should keep paying to go there rather than cancel the membership, even though you know that you probably won’t go more than once or twice in the next year. So you continue paying each month for something that does you no good, rather than cutting your losses and canceling the membership.
We all do this ALL THE TIME! And it doesn’t have to be money that we’ve spent – it could be months of labor you’ve put into a project, only to realize it’s going nowhere but you can’t stand the idea of scrapping the whole thing when you’ve already put so much work into it. Or it could be a relationship that you know you need to end, but you’ve been together for five years and the idea of starting over with someone new is exhausting. We have this idea that if we give up on something we’ve already put so much effort into, we will have wasted that time and it will all have been for nothing. Yet the truth is that if we continue putting effort into something we know full well isn’t working, we will simply be continuing to spend valuable time we could be putting into something much more productive or useful in our lives. And continuing to put effort into it doesn’t get us back the time we’ve already spent. Besides, nothing we do is ever a waste if we learn from it – it is up to each of us to decide what we get out of each experience, positive or negative.
Make space for something new
The problem with holding onto things that are no longer working is that we allow those things to take up perfectly good real estate in our lives that could be used for something better. I see so many people holding themselves back from what they really want by continuing to allow things they don’t really want to occupy space in their lives. I find there is often a huge difference between the life people say they want and the life they actually create for themselves.
When I talk to people about my travels, I so often get this: “I wish I could do what you’re doing”, followed by a list of reasons why they couldn’t possibly live their life the way I do. I have talked about this in my blog before because I find it so incredibly frustrating! People will say they want to go live abroad for a year or travel all over South America, but they can’t because they have an apartment, and a full-time job, and a dog to take care of. But if that is the life you really want, you have to make space to allow it to happen! If you are holding on to all these other things that take up your time and money, then a year abroad isn’t going to just magically fall into your lap because there is no room for it in your life.
I think a lot of people spend time waiting around for the things they want to show up, or for conditions to somehow become just perfect, without realizing that they are completely in control of what is taking up space in their life. By continuing to hold a job that only gives you two weeks vacation each year, signing a one-year lease on an apartment, and choosing to have a pet that keeps you from traveling, you are telling the universe in no uncertain terms that you have no interest in leaving where you are right now. Now, of course, that is completely fine, if that is what you want! But if you truly dream of exploring the globe and living a more flexible, unpredictable life, it is up to you to create the conditions that will allow that to happen.
The time I quit my awesome job
A few years ago, I had just returned from traveling and managed to get (what I thought was) a really awesome job as an outdoor school instructor for the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. I moved out to Fossil, Oregon, located in the middle of nowhere, to live with 6 other instructors, surrounded by beautiful scenery and amazing geological formations. Our job was to lead school groups on hikes, teach them about rocks and stars and animals, and make sure they had a fun week in the great outdoors. Our big excitement each week was to pile into a truck together and head to the local dump to see if anyone had left anything good in the free pile – talk about living the American dream! It started off seeming pretty great and I was super excited, but it turned out to be one of the most miserable jobs I’ve ever had.
There were a lot of reasons I did not enjoy my time in Fossil, but let’s just say it was not the ideal experience I was hoping for. All seven of us instructors quickly became very jaded about our work and it was difficult to escape the negativity we all felt as a group. I tried so hard to stay positive about my job – I wrote a gratitude journal, gave myself pep talks in the morning, made lists of things about my job that were awesome – but nothing seemed to help. I was miserable and had signed on to be out there for a total of nine months. The job had started in February and it would be the first time I had not lived in Portland for the summer since I moved there when I was eight years old. In addition, I had just started a relationship with someone living in Portland and only got to see him every few weeks, as I did not have a car and had to rely on rides from people who were driving the 3.5 hours into town.
I remember having a conversation with my best friend and telling her that I felt like I had to stick it out and complete the nine months, or else I would feel like I had failed somehow. I had already been out there for four months and she asked me what I would gain from staying the extra five. I had already learned a lot of skills for the job, but wouldn’t necessarily be learning anything new in the remaining time. I had sunk a lot of money into certifications I had to get, but I definitely wasn’t earning a bunch of money that would make up for that. And it’s not as if I got some sort of special reward for completing my contract. In short, the benefits of staying in a job I hated for five more months were relatively low. On the flip side, if I quit that meant I could come home and enjoy the summer in Portland (which is really the main reason those of us who live here continue to do so), be closer to my friends, family and boyfriend, and find a job I actually enjoyed doing that would almost certainly pay more and require less of my blood, sweat, and tears.
Once I made the decision to quit, a huge weight was lifted and other awesome things flooded in to take the space I had been giving to outdoor school. My friend Seth heard I was looking for work and suggested I apply at the Tualatin Hills Nature Park, where I have now worked quite happily with people I greatly enjoy for four consecutive summers. A few months later, I got an AmeriCorps position which I held for two years and from which I gained all sorts of skills that have greatly helped me since. I moved into an apartment in a great area of town and broke up with my boyfriend shortly after, as I realized we were really better off when we weren’t seeing each other all the time. And I had a freaking awesome summer in my favourite city in the world, surrounded by friends and family who I love dearly.
Quitting that job was one of the best career decisions I have ever made, but I also don’t regret the time I spent there. I did gain a lot of skills in those first few months and I made some good friends out of the other instructors I worked with. I got to spend a lot of time in a really beautiful part of the state and I learned some important things about myself. Not to mention I got paid to dress up as a giant lizard named “DJ Dragon” and be in charge of the playlist during trivia night, since I was the only one on the team who had the same taste in music as our 12-year-old campers. We did occasionally have fun, but mostly we complained about how much our lives sucked and that just wasn’t an environment I wanted to surround myself with anymore. Working there made me appreciate the jobs I’ve had where I feel valued and supported and gave me an idea of what I am not willing to put up with. All in all, it was a very valuable experience and I am grateful for the role it played in my life.
Knowing the difference
There is a difference between sticking with something that is challenging but personally rewarding, and continuing to do something simply because you feel like you should. I think for me, the key is to look at the end result of what you are doing, what you will get out of finishing it, and what it will take you to get there. For example, I started running half marathons a few years ago and it was such a confidence boost for me to realize that I could run 13.1 miles without dying – something I had never thought I would be able to do. Yes it was difficult and I definitely felt like quitting halfway through, but I knew deep down that I could do it and that the personal rewards of finishing the race would greatly outweigh the minor discomfort of running 13.1 miles. In addition, training for the half marathon helped keep me in shape and I generally enjoy running as an exercise, so it wasn’t so much of a stretch to just run a lot farther than I usually would.
But with the outdoor school job, I realized that I would get nothing rewarding out of completing my nine-month contract and not only that, it would require me to be miserable for five more months, which was a price I was absolutely not willing to pay. And if running a half marathon had somehow required me to be miserable for five months, I probably wouldn’t have done that either. In fact, there is almost nothing these days that would be worth that for me – life is too short!
The tricky part is knowing the difference between these two cases, but I think most of usually know in our gut which situation we are dealing with. And sometimes it just takes a little bit of time or trying to look at the situation differently before we can really determine what is going on. Before I quit my outdoor school job, I did everything I could to try to change my outlook and enjoy my time there. But after struggling so hard to stay positive and finding it almost impossible to do so, I realized that it was not my attitude that had to change, but my environment.
It’s ok not to know right away what the next step it, but eventually you will reach a point where you know whether or not something is really working in your life. It can be very hard to let go, especially when you take the sunk-cost fallacy into account, but remember it is just that: a fallacy. Just because you have already sunk time/money/energy into something does not mean you should continue to do so. That time/money/energy is already gone and nothing you do will bring it back, so cut your losses and move forward. Make space for something good in your life and stop making space for things that will continue to hold you back from what you really want.
To sum it all up…
It can be scary to cut things out of our lives, especially when we don’t have something else lined up. When I quit my job, I didn’t have another one to take its place, but I just knew that I couldn’t continue the work I was doing and be happy at the same time. I trusted that something else great would come along to take its place and it did. I’ve held onto bad relationships for the same reason, because I was afraid that there wouldn’t be another person who would love me or want to be with me. But I have found that when I actually stop allowing bad relationships or bad jobs to have space in my life, when I have actually been clear with myself and the universe about what I do and do not want, things have a way of showing up in my life that I actually want to be there.
Don’t let fear keep you from giving up on something that is no longer serving you. Something else will always come along to take its place, but you have to make room for the things you actually want in your life. You are in complete control of what you allow into your life and what you do not. Your time and energy is limited, so don’t spend it on things that don’t bring you joy or contribute to your overall wellbeing! Of course, we all make trade offs and sometimes we just need to spend a few months at a job we don’t love so we can make money and travel, or we have to put in time getting to know our best friend’s girlfriend (who we aren’t crazy about) so he will feel supported in his relationship.
But these trade offs should always have some sort of benefit that is worth the effort we are putting in. If you are spending your time doing something you don’t absolutely love, make sure you have a good reason and are getting something great in return. Life is too short to accept anything less!
What could you cut out of your life right now that would make room for something awesome? Where do you allow the sunk-cost fallacy to keep you doing something you don’t love?