For today’s post we will explore the concept of sunk cost. Essentially it is this idea of not chasing ends that have a low probability of happening the way we want even though we have already paid for it upfront. The clearest example I have is of paying for a movie ticket to find yourself 10 minutes later hating the experience (or at least so disengaged you find yourself doing other things like checking your bank balance or writing a blog post or thinking about all the other things you could be doing).

There is this urge to leave, but it isn’t that easy. Because you have already paid for this or put effort into it and so now you feel committed. We get stubborn and say “I’m not going to go, no matter how much this sucks.”

Wait a minute. That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Why stay if you have no hope of it getting better. How is it we suspend the information we are getting and make a choice that wastes the opportunity for something better to happen. It’s not like we’ll get anything out of it really. It isn’t a demonstration of grit or anything.

Not to blame my parents (much) but from an early age I learned you don’t just quit things. Even if there is a good reason to stop, you stick it out on principle. You are forbidden from being a quitter.

Better miserable than a quitter. Or refuser. Or being true (to your experience). I think this is why we don’t return the poorly prepared meal at a restaurant, or stop reading a terrible book, or quit the job that drains of our life.

The counter to this is we don’t stand up for what really matters to us. We don’t say the unpopular because we have invested in having little conflict or avoiding loneliness. We have cultivated the life we have as it is and so don’t want to waste that. We don’t want to change.  

If we change, something we put time and energy into may no longer be relevant. And so fear keeps us stuck exactly where we are, in the theater seat gobbling up the popcorn and candy and trying not to think about how nice it is outside.

If we ignore the sense of obligation and follow instead a different philosophy, one of promoting our values, I don’t think the world will stop. To often I have let obligation and loyalty stop me from making the best choice. When I have been able to change course despite the investment already made, there have been multiple reactions. Typically I have either been characterized as a jerk or coward, to the Nth degree. Sometimes it’s just shock and rarely admiration.

But why is it that saying “no” is so poorly taken? Why is it that pointing out that something doesn’t hold personal value leads to conflict? Why does it lead to hesitation and the choice to go against better judgement?

In the past I feel I was better at following my core self and eliminating the part of life that didn’t add. I guess I was less socialized, or that’s how it feels. Parenting has helped reawaken how far I’ve come from my “rebel” nature. I find myself trying to obligate my children to do things due to my desire to not make waves with the powers that be. Things clearly not in their desire or aligning with them.

Stand in line. Sit still. Be quiet. Fill this out this way. Work more for less compensation. Do it because I say so. Better CYA in this place. (More on covering your anatomy in a future post.) It raises the question of how much conformity and following the status quo I want my children or myself to exhibit. I know the more in the box I go, the more labyrinthine it becomes. So taking from Suess, I think I better go where it is opener.

What do you think about sunk costs?  Are you the type who is willing to walk out of a movie you don’t like? Or put down that book that just doesn’t match you taste? Or change the course of your life if it doesn’t fulfill the deeper parts of your self?

Thanks as always.

With civility ~ Brian

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