Monday 26 September 2016

Well-being: Maximise your losses

It's good to know when to fold, writes Katie Byrne

Published 24/05/2016 | 02:30

Samuel Beckett: Try again. Fail again. Fail better
Samuel Beckett: Try again. Fail again. Fail better

Never give up. So goes the slogan found on fridge magnets, gym locker room walls and just about every book by Motivational Inc. This is wonderful advice if you're trying to build a six-pack, meet a deadline or run for a bus. It becomes something else entirely, though, when you start applying it to your dreams and big ideas.

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We live in a world where we're constantly told that winners never quit, and quitters never win.

This advice is largely true. Most of us are in the habit of giving up just before the final hurdle or underestimating how much fuel we have left in the tank.

But what about the people who should never have got into the race in the first place? Or worse, felt obliged to finish the race because they were told again and again that winners never quit?

There is a time to quit and a time to persist. The trouble is we can't tell the difference. Progress and pride conspires to make us push on, even when our gut is telling us to turn back.

It doesn't help that we often feel compelled to accomplish most of the things that we start. We finish meals, even when they're unappetising. We endure books we're not enjoying and we rarely walk out of the cinema half-way through.

This is known as the sunk cost fallacy. In short: we let unrecoverable investments - monetary or otherwise - influence our decisions.

Investing an hour of your time watching a movie you're not enjoying because you paid a tenner is just one example of sunk cost fallacy.

It's also an example of what's known in economics as loss aversion, which is our tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains.

These cognitive biases affect our bigger decisions too. We stay in moribund relationships because we've 'invested' 10 years. We stay in jobs that are no longer challenging because we've been with the company for 15 years - and that has to stand for something.

Tenure is treacherous ground. It can make us feel established, yes, but it can also make us less likely to leave a situation, even when all the signs are telling us to cut our losses.

We feel beholden to our big ideas and decisions - perish the thought that people would think of us as fickle or flighty.

How many romantic relationships persisted past their expiration date because the couple had moved in together? How many emigrants decide that they need to spend at least a year in a country that isn't working out, based on the effort that went into their leaving do?

Quitters are portrayed as losers and dreamers and chancers, while failure has been romanticised. Failure is a badge of honour in society and the topic of countless public discussions and exhibitions. In the words of Samuel Beckett: Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Yet we've failed to realise that the best way to fail better is to quit sooner. Strategic quitting is simply failure with foresight.

Just because you penned a business plan and secured funding doesn't mean you have to persevere with a business idea when your intuition is telling you otherwise. Likewise, a shared mortgage is no reason to stay in a loveless relationship.

There are times when we should push all in, but there are also times when we should fold. Knowing the difference is the hard part.

Seth Godin explored this idea in The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit. "Extraordinary benefits accrue to the tiny minority of people who are able to push just a tiny bit longer than most," he writes. However, he also talks about what he calls The Cul-de-Sac: The dead-end we meet when we no longer have the passion or proclivity to push ahead.

"There's not a lot to say about The Cul-de-Sac except to realise that it exists and to embrace the fact that when you find one, you need to get off it, fast," he continues.

"That's because a dead-end is keeping you from doing something else. The opportunity cost of investing your life in something that's not going to get better is just too high."

Godin has reframed the idea of quitting. Yes, it can sometimes be the defeatist and lazy option. However, maximising your potential and minimising your losses can be the wise option too.

Deep down, we know when it's time to quit. It's the very moment when we lose our passion and whatever momentum that was once fuelling the idea has petered out.

It's time to quit when it feels like you're pushing against closed doors and being obstructed by some unknowable force.

It's time to quit when your passion no longer feels authentic and when you become more concerned about what people will say if you give up than what they'll say when you succeed.

As for relationships, it's time to quit when you're sitting in a restaurant having a deaf and dumb dinner with your partner while feigning an acute interest in the shape of the salt and pepper shakers.

In the words of the late comedian WC Fields: "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There's no point in being a damn fool about it."

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