The Case for Quitting

Last Updated Oct 3, 2011 9:36 AM EDT

Ever since you were little, you were probably discouraged from quitting. We have lots of aphorisms and sayings that encapsulate our dislike of quitters and the general belief that it's a weak and unproductive thing to do. Just think of phrases like, 'keep your nose to the grindstone' and 'winners never quit and quitters never win.' It seems like it's true, nobody likes a quitter. Except, apparently, economists.

On the Freakonomics radio show on National Public Radio recently, host Stephen Dubner took on Americans' loathing of quitters and made the case that giving up on something is the right thing to do far more often than many of us believe. To prove his point Dubner spoke to a motley crew of quitters ranging from a well paid IT pro who quit to become a high-end call girl to a former U.S. Secretary of Labor and an ex-minor league baseball player.

Through speaking to this line-up of guests, Dubner uncovers exactly why so many of us are so reluctant to quit jobs, projects or dreams, even if they're making up miserable:
"Sunk cost" is about the past -- it's the time, or money, or sweat equity that you've put into something, which makes it hard to abandon. "Opportunity cost" is about the future. It means that for every hour or dollar you spend on one thing, you're giving up the opportunity to spend that hour or dollar on something else -- something that might make your life better. If only you weren't so worried about the sunk cost. If only you could quit.
When we put time and energy (or money) into something it can become difficult to give up on the dream of a reward for that effort, but the solution according to Freakonomics radio isn't to keep going blindly but to "fail fast" before those sunk costs start to weigh too heavily on you. Dubner even starts the broadcast with a plea to consider quitting:
Stop. Whatever. You're. Doing. As in, doing with your life. Maybe it's your job. Maybe it's a relationship that's curdled. Maybe there's some dream project you've been working on so long that you can't even remember what got you all heated up about it in the first place. I want to encourage you to just quit. Or at least think about quitting.
After a long and fascinating discussion of all the permutations of quitting -- the excuses we make to avoid it and the benefits of actually doing it -- he concludes with another, more detailed, appeal for more quitting, encouraging listeners to focus less on sunk costs and more on opportunity costs:
Time and effort and even stick-to-itiveness are not in infinite supply. Remember the opportunity cost: every hour, every ounce of effort you spend here cannot be spent there.... Stella Adler, the great acting coach, used to say: Your choice is your talent. So choosing the right path, the right project, the right job or passion or religion -- that's where the treasure lies; that's where the value lies. So if you realize that you've made a wrong choice -- even if already you've sunk way too much cost into it -- well, I've got one word to say to you, my friend. Quit.
Is there any area of your life where a fixation on sunk costs may be stopping you from freeing up your time and energy for better pursuits by quitting?

Read More on BNET: (Image courtesy of Flickr user woodleywonderworks, CC 2.0)
  • Jessica Stillman On Twitter»

    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.

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