I just destroyed 14 years of experience.
I had a resumé full of successful projects. I built a large network of peers who could validate me. And I put well over 30,000 hours of my life into my career — that’s 3.5 consecutive years worth of time.
Then I took a match and lit it all on fire.
At least that’s how it feels sometimes. It doesn’t help that my boss’s parting words were, “I hope you never plan to work in this industry again.” Apparently it “doesn’t look good” to quit during the middle of a big project. I guess you’re only supposed to make major life decisions after everything is tied up neatly with a bow on it.
Except that’s not how life works.
Human beings are complex. We’re hardwired with all these natural tendencies to act in certain ways, depending on the circumstances. And we have almost zero control over these actions, even when we know we’re being influenced by things outside of our control!
One of these tendencies is called the “sunk cost fallacy.” It basically means that people tend to hold onto things they’ve invested in for way too long. If we’ve poured time or money into a project or activity, then we feel this innate desire to stick with it through the end. We’re committed to making it work, even if the project is a total bust.
We may never get our investment back out of it. It may not ever work. The people we’re building this thing for don’t even like it. Yet we keep sinking more money into it to try and salvage what we started. “We’re past the point of no return. We have too much invested. No turning back!”
That’s how it works in the business world, but it’s applicable everywhere in life. Here’s an all-too-real example most people can relate to:
It’s spring training and you’re excited about baseball season, so you buy tickets in advance to the Braves game on Memorial Day. Of course, all your friends are making plans throughout the spring to host cookouts or go to the beach. You’re invited to these events, but you already plopped down $100 on a baseball ticket.
By the third week in May, the Braves record is 9 and 34. They’re awful. The hope and excitement you had during the preseason tickle fights have evaporated. In fact, just thinking about Braves baseball spikes your heart rate.
But you already spent that $100 on a ticket that’s not worth the paper it’s printed on.
The rational decision in this story is obviously to give your ticket away and go to the beach. Sure, you’ll be out $100. But at least you won’t have to sit there and endure 4 hours of misery, along with $15 beers and a $27 burger.
I’m sure you can guess that most people would still go to the game in this scenario. $100 is a sunk cost that’s too much for most people to ignore. Instead, they choose to be miserable, when what they should do is forget the money and do something else that will make them happy.
[There are tons of studies that support this. If you’re a huge nerd (like me) that likes to read about this stuff, the book Thinking, Fast and Slow is fantastic].
When my boss told me I’d never work in the industry again, he was using some expert-level persuasion. He was instilling fear in me. Reading between the lines, he was saying: “You’re ruining all of your credibility;” and “No one will ever think you’re trustworthy;” or “You’ve just wasted 14 years of your life.”
He knew exactly what I knew. That I’d worked hard to climb my way up the ladder to get to that point. That I was going to burn some bridges and would have to start all over again. That it’s risky at my age, with a family to help support.
These are the same pain points that kept me in the same place for the last few years. They’re the same thoughts that go through anyone’s head when they’re faced with throwing away some “thing” that they’ve invested that much time in.
I sunk the last 14 years of my life into a career. How could I just throw that all away?
I’ll tell you how: I had to reframe how I was looking at everything.
Rather than thinking I was throwing anything away, I started thinking about some of the skills I had honed at my job:
- Writing – I’ve written tens of thousands of emails, letters, presentations, contracts, proposals, etc.
- Communication – I’ve spent thousands of hours in meetings with thousands of different people.
- Negotiation and persuasion – One of the main parts of my job was motivating people to do things that needed to be done.
- WordPress development – I taught myself to code just enough to build a website that helped win a $25,000 prize for a corporate contest.
I stopped thinking of myself as “just a construction person,” and started thinking of myself as someone with a unique set of skills that could be put to better use. I realized that I could take my strengths with me. They weren’t going to be left behind at my old job.
Changing the way you look at your situation is hard. Your company may give you a raise to keep you motivated. Maybe it’s just enough to keep you coming back for another year until the next raise. The next thing you know, 30 years have passed and you’ve invested too much of your life into this company to make a change and try something new.
Not all companies or industries are like this, of course. I can only talk about my situation. I had to take a step back and reframe the way I viewed myself. If I didn’t, I’d still be sinking more of my time into something that was slowly killing me.
If I kept going down the road I was on, I would just keep getting a little bit better at the things I was already doing. I wouldn’t learn anything new. I wouldn’t be challenging myself or impacting others. And even after I realized all of this, the decision to throw away all of the career capital I’d built up was still difficult!
Time is the most precious resource we have. And even though I know this, it was still hard to overcome that natural urge to “stick with it.” It took a lot of motivation from my amazing wife–and maybe a little gasoline to go with the match.
If I was Tony Robbins or some sort of self-help guru, I’d say we all need to take a step back and look at what we’re doing in life. It’s time to kill all the “projects” that are a lost cause, even if we think we’re too invested: dead-end careers; toxic relationships; that table for your Big Green Egg that you swear you’re going to build from scratch.
Okay, that felt weird. I don’t know if I’m ready to dispense “life advice” quite yet. I’m just now trying to figure this stuff out. I’d rather let the great poet, Edward L. Vedder, do the talking. He’s more my style:
“If you hate something, don’t you do it, too.” – Pearl Jam, Not for You