Why Quitters Prosper

Last Updated Oct 5, 2011 9:57 AM EDT

Quitters never prosper, right? We learn from an early age that giving up is a bad thing. We should endure, push forward and keep trying.

What if that's wrong? What if there are times you should absolutely, positively give up?

The guys at Freakonomics think so. Last week they did a podcast titled The Upside of Quitting. (This link takes you to the podcast. If you prefer you can find the transcript of The Upside of Qutting here.)

Many people get caught in what economists call the "sunk-cost fallacy." Stephen Dubner, from Freakonomics and Hal Arkes,a psychology professor at Ohio State University explain:
Dubner: A "sunk cost" is just what it sounds like: time or money you've already spent. The sunk-cost fallacy is when you tell yourself that you can't quit because of all that time or money you spent. We shouldn't fall for this fallacy, but we do it all the time. Arkes and a colleague learned something that makes falling for the sunk-cost fallacy even more embarrassing. It turns out that children don't fall for it - or even animals.

ARKES: Your dog is not going to have any rules like "Oh, I spent a lot of time at that location waiting for him to feed me, and I wouldn't want to waste all that time, so I'll go back there and wait even though it wasn't very successful." Now, humans have these other things that get in the way.
This is so prevalent in the working world--or at least in the people who write me."I've been at this job for 14 years and can't go elsewhere because...", or my boss/coworker is a bully or my salary is unfair. Just because you've invested considerable time in this particular career/job doesn't mean that you should continue to invest time in this job. If your boss is incompetent, toughing it out just means you'll be tougher or destroyed at the end of the game. Sometimes quitting is the best way, regardless of how much time you've put into it.

When you convince yourself that you must stick it out, no matter what, you become trapped. Every day you add another tally mark on what you'll be wasting if you quit, and the pressure to stay becomes greater and greater. But if success isn't coming in that area, why are you placing so much effort on something that will lead to either failure or further unhappiness?

The Freakonomics podcast discusses when to quit your baseball career, a woman who quit her corporate job to become a high priced "escort," people who quit their childhood religion, and even former Clinton era Labor Secretary, Robert Reich who, it turns out, did quit to spend more time with his family.

One of my favorite bloggers, Kerry Scott at Clue Wagon, quit a career as a Human Resources Executive. Why? She'd invested years and years and climbed to the top and she could have continued, successfully. She's brilliant and hilarious. (You should invest your time reading her Tales of the Clue Free Series. It will make you feel much better about yourself.) But she quit that and she changed her hobby (genealogy) into a career. She's now the online editor of Family Tree Magazine.

But what if she'd hung on? What if shes said, "No, darn it, I am experienced in Human Resources. I have a popular HR blog. If I change to genealogy I'll never earn any money again and my children will starve to death!" A bit of hyperbole, I'm sure. But, she quit and started something new.

I, too, am a quitter. I've known from a very young age that I was going to get a PhD in Political Science and be a Political Science Professor. I never changed my major in college. I loved my classes and my professors were awesome. I got a full scholarship to a top PhD program and set out to achieve my goal. Except that I hated it.

I realized that teaching was not respected and I'm a cheapskate and couldn't fathom asking the taxpayers to fund studies that show that conservatives are more likely to self-identify as Republicans and that liberals are more likely to self-identify as Democrats. (Seriously, they study things like this.) So, I quit. (After receiving my master's degree, I'm a quitter, but not a stupid one.) I embarked on a new career path and I'm so glad I did.

What if I stuck it out? And then wanted to change careers? It would have been harder to move into an entry level Human Resources job with a PhD than with a master's degree. Would I have felt, "Gee, I spent all this time and effort and I wrote this brilliant dissertation (because it would have been brilliant, if I had written it, which I didn't), I must stay in academia!"? Perhaps.

My quitting didn't end with that PhD program. Two and a half years ago, I quit corporate life and embarked on a writing career. I gave up a 401k and meetings (lots, and lots of meetings) and now earn a decent living writing about HR things. I haven't so much as looked at a power point presentation in almost 3 years. Quitting was definitely the right thing for me to do.

Are you a quitter? Given up on a career to start something entirely different? Or do you desperately want to quit and try something new, but are paralyzed at the thought of all the years you've wasted?

Because sometimes, quitters do prosper. I know I did.

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Photo by Ed Yourdon, Flickr cc 2.0.

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