The liberation of ignoring sunk costs

ignoring sunk costsAre you stuck in a career or life that you are reluctant to leave because it would involve ignoring sunk costs? I frequently meet people who are, and I certainly understand the temptation. Here’s the story of how I liberated my life by ignoring sunk costs. Perhaps it will inspire you to do the same?

The first twenty-five years of my life

My early education environment fed me a fire hose of information that my schools decided I should learn. Somehow, I maintained an intense curiosity to understand the world. So it’s not surprising that I gravitated to studying physics. I ended up with a Ph.D. in experimental high-energy particle physics at the tender age of 25.

I could have stayed in the field, probably got tenure, and been a physicist the rest of my life.

Instead, having fallen in love with Vermont, I left the world of high-energy particle accelerators and multiyear Big Science experiments, never to return. Although some of my experience prepared me for subsequent careers in computer science and consulting, I spent perhaps five to ten years of my life studying and working in fields I have, by now, largely forgotten. Five to ten years of sunk costs.

But no regrets. Although nothing to do with my absence, the field of experimental high-energy physics yielded little interesting progress over the last forty years. I’m glad I left it.

A visit to Korea

In 1996, my family and I visited Korea. Everywhere we went, people asked my profession. They were astounded when I told them I had recently given up being a college professor to concentrate on information technology consulting. In Korea, being a college professor was the highest status you could have. (The two college professors with whom we were staying had their graduate students pick us up at the airport and ferry us around.) The idea that I would give up college teaching to pursue a different career was incomprehensible.

Perhaps if I’d been born Korean and followed the same educational path, my high status would have seduced me, and I would never have left academia. Status is a big reason why people cling to jobs that they hate. Knowing more about myself now, I’m glad I escaped such a fate.

Solar, teaching, and consulting

New careers followed. Abandoning each one required ignoring my associated sunk costs. Yet, in retrospect, there was always learning that fed my future. Managing a solar manufacturing company taught me much about business, which proved vital to my later consulting career. And teaching computer science for ten years helped me slowly become a better teacher, eventually discarding the broadcast-style teaching modalities I had experienced and unconsciously assumed.

Meanwhile, in my spare time…

Ever since I was a graduate student, I’ve felt drawn to bring people together around topics and issues they had in common. I spent most of the next thirty years doing this as an unpaid volunteer in my spare time. My only reward was the mysterious pleasure of feeling good about what I was doing.

What I didn’t realize was that, during these decades I was learning a great deal about successful and unsuccessful ways to facilitate group connection and fruitful learning. Figuring out ways to make the fundamental human act of meeting better, motivated by nothing more than the pleasure it gave me, led me to write a book about what I had learned.

To my surprise, when I published Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love in 2009, I found myself professionally involved in the meeting industry.

It took me half a century, but I finally figured out (for now) what I love to do. And organizations pay me to do it!

Are you stuck?

Are you stuck in a career or life choice that you are reluctant to leave because you would have to ignore sunk costs? Ultimately it’s your choice, of course. For me, being able to walk away from the learning, experience, and status I’ve achieved in various realms has been worth it. If my story hasn’t convinced you, I’ll close with Seth Godin’s thoughts on the subject:

“‘Ignore sunk costs’ is the critical lesson of useful decision making…

…Creativity is the generous act of solving an interesting problem on behalf of someone else. It’s a chance to take emotional and intellectual risks with generosity.

Do that often enough and you can create a practice around it. It’s not about being gifted or touched by the muse. Instead, our creative practice (whether you’re a painter, a coach or a fundraiser) is a commitment to the problems in front of us and the people who will benefit from a useful solution to them.”
Seth GodinSunk costs, creativity and your Practice

Have you ignored your sunk costs, and walked away from a career or life choice? Share your story in the comments below!

Image attribution: Flick user Falco Ermert

2 thoughts on “The liberation of ignoring sunk costs

  1. A very inspirational post and I hope that many people who feel “stuck” are moved to consider their alternatives. I’m not so good with dates and I think it’s been at least a decade since I made the switch from events to full-time freelance writing. I remember telling someone I respect a lot what my intentions were and they thought I was crazy. I had invested so much time and energy into the trade show world, why would I throw that all away. I ignored the advice, and am so glad that I did. I’ve built a successful career in writing about industrial technology and get to spend my days learning and talking to some of the smartest people in the world and then share that information with others. That said, I do think there is one key ingredient you need to be able to make the switch or even just be willing to make the switch and you mention it here–curiosity–“Somehow, I maintained an intense curiosity to understand the world.” Without curiosity anything you do is going to be a slog, so you may as well stick with your investment.

    1. Thank you for sharing your story, Traci. I agree that curiosity is a key ingredient. Though I continue to meet people who hate their job, yet simpIy can’t bear to consider doing something else. Fear of change is a factor too.

      I am glad you completely changed your professional focus with such great results. As I used to tell my students, these days there is no reason why an early career will be THE great fit for the rest of one’s life.

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