Have you ever invested a lot of time or money into something that you later no longer liked, but kept doing it anyway? I’ll give you some examples- sticking in a job you don’t like because you’ve been there a certain amount of time and have status. Sticking with an airline you don’t like for travel because you’ve built up airline miles. Continuing to wear something or use something you paid a lot of money for, even if you don’t like it anymore. Staying in a relationship for far too long and are unhappy because you’ve already spent a lot of time in the relationship. Or staying in a career field because you spent a lot of time and money going to school for it?
Enter the sunk cost fallacy.
The sunk cost fallacy states that we are likely to continue an endeavor if we have already invested in it, whether it be a monetary investment or effort that we put into the decision. That often means we go against evidence that shows it is no longer the best decision. This definition came from the long-form blog post I read on this topic here.
The sunk cost is the time, effort, or money we already spent or put into something, and we keep doing “the thing” because we feel guilty or are avoiding the sense of loss that comes from making change.
While it’s important to remember lessons from the past, they don’t have to set our future in stone.
I’ll give you an example from my life. I have my Master’s Degree in Electrical Engineering. That is A LOT of time (6.5 years of school), effort, and money (fortunately I had fellowships and scholarships). The whole time I was in school, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be an engineer. I also had a variety of internships and worked for a solar power start-up out of grad school. I was done with my Master’s Degree by the age of 23 and was just starting to figure out what I wanted out of life. I had every opportunity for a thriving career as an engineer, but I walked away.
People ask me if I regret the time I spent in school or if it was hard to walk away because I had already invested so much. It depends on how you view change, loss, or time spent. Some people would stay in that field because they already invested so much time and energy. For me? I knew there was more for my future so I took a less conventional route. I wanted to be a paid professional mountain biker. And I did it!
Can you think of some examples in your life where you overcame getting stuck because of sunk cost? You could argue that I stayed in my engineering program too long because I had already spent so much time in it and that sunk cost held me in it. There’s also something to be said for following through with a decision you made. The point of making a change is all in the nuance. The sunk cost fallacy is not black and white, but it’s in knowing yourself, what you want, what your future holds, and what you.
And one last word: it’s okay to have invested time or energy into something that is no longer serving you, and it’s okay to let it go. Sometimes you must let it go to move forward or reach new levels of happiness or purpose. I heard a quote once, “You have to pay to go to school” and that was in reference to making costly mistakes. As long as you learned and also realize that the time you spent still made you who you are today, then it’s not a loss.