yogi – theatre artist – mom

The Upside of Quitting

I’ve recently discovered the Freakonomics Radio podcasts hosted by Stephen J. Dubner, co-author of the book by the same name, with frequent commentary from his collaborator Steven D. Levitt. So far, the podcasts have provided an entertaining distraction on the 40 minute commute each way to and from work. I’ve even learned a thing or two, like anyone who quotes Winston Churchill has to pay royalties to his estate and gossip is actually an evolutionary function that helps us to know friends from foes. So far, the podcasts have been amusing, educational and even funny. The one I listened to today was mind-blowing.

What you do today is important, because you are exchanging a day of your life for it. – Unknown

In the podcast called “The Upside of Quitting,” Dubner and Levitt lay out in economic terms why quitting – whether it’s a job, a soured relationship or a one-time passion that’s now become a chore – is actually a good thing. Now, I have an interesting relationship with quitting. Of late, I’ve been doing a lot of self-reflecting on my career and current job. In doing so, I’ve been excavating my past and come to the realization that I quit a job every 2 years. Sometimes I go 2.5 years before leaving, but in general, from the moment I graduated college, I have left a job for a new one every 2 years. Like clockwork. In that time, I’ve also switched careers a couple of times and gone back to grad school twice. Each and every time I left a job and took a new one – and the two times I went back to school – I knew in my soul I was making the right choice for me. I’ve never once regretted a decision to leave a job or switch careers. I also didn’t stay at any one job past the point I knew I was unhappy, had outgrown the position, was no longer interested or was unfulfilled. Instead I bowed out gracefully. But my thinking goes against the grain of what most of my peers and friends consider rational and I’ve occasionally found myself on the receiving end of condescending comments about being an “ahr-tiste”.

“When you become comfortable with uncertainty, infinite possibilities open up in your life.” – Eckhart Tolle

Using the economic theories of “sunk costs” and “opportunity costs” Dubner and Levitt lay out a compelling argument that we all should quit more often in life – and we should do so more quickly rather than drawing it out like the slow, painful pulling off of a band-aid. Sunk costs are about the past – the time, money, sweat and tears that one has put into something which makes it hard to give up on it. For example, after three degrees, multiple student loans and 13 years working in professional theater, I’ve sunk a lot of my soul into my current career (arts education) and job (managing education programs for a theater). Opportunity costs are about the future – for every minute or dollar one chooses to spend on one thing, means he/she is giving up the opportunity to spend that minute or dollar on something else. Something that might actually bring more joy, money or peace of mind. The problem people run into is what’s referred to as the “sunk costs fallacy” – a wormhole of thinking that is easy to fall into and is all about what’s been invested into something and some sort of attachment to that investment. But, the thing is, sunk costs are in the past. They’re already done, gone, expended. So, they actually have no real bearing on future investments. Which brings up the question: at what point does throwing more time, money and sweat into something that doesn’t work or doesn’t make you happy become the definition of insanity in its full glory?

Leap and the net will appear. – John Burroughs

Levitt goes on to advocate quitting things quickly. Once we commit to something, no matter how much we’ve invested into it, we start getting new information – information that we should consider as we weigh the opportunity costs associated with continuing down the path we’ve committed to. Obviously, some things are hard to walk away from – some harder than others. While it’s been a no-brainer for me to walk away from jobs, more than once I’ve been trapped by the sunk cost fallacy in a soured relationship. But putting more time into something that doesn’t inspire you or make you happy just means you’re missing out on the opportunity to do something that will. So, the next time I’m certain that I need to quit something and move on to the next opportunity, I’m not going to fret or worry or think twice. Neither should you.

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