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Perseverance is a good thing. It is a value that drives us towards success and achievement helping us to overcome challenges along the way. But it has the potential to trap us in mental prisons. Understand this and you’ll be able to spot where perseverance and determination can trip you up…
The Sunk Cost Fallacy
There is a misconception that we make rational decisions based on the future value of objects, investments and experiences.
The reality is that our decisions are tainted by the emotional investments that we accumulate. As we invest more into something, it becomes harder to walk away from it.
This describes something that economists refer to as the ‘sunk cost fallacy’. A sunk cost is something that can never be regained and the fallacy is that despite us never being able to regain it, we continue to ‘throw good money after bad.’
It is this type of trap that keeps us fighting wars that we cannot win.
Politicians cannot walk away from conflicts unless they can point to a clear outcome and prove that they somehow improved the situation. The human and financial cost must be ‘for something’ or it ends up being in vain. The problems come when these costs mount but a clear goal becomes harder to achieve. We get stuck, looking for something, anything to prove that ‘it was all worth it.’
It is this type of thinking that traps people in relationships that do not work for them. If you’ve been with someone for ten years, it can be difficult to just walk away. There is a sunk cost based on your time and emotional investment. Often people will view it as risky to walk away, even if they know that the other person simply isn’t right for them.
Avoiding Risk vs. Seeking Reward
In Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow, he explains how human evolution has hardwired us to avoid risk.
All decision-making involves some form of uncertainty about the future. We have to balance the risk and the reward in our minds before taking action. We like to think that we balance the scales evenly but the reality is that we are more anti-losing than we are pro-gaining.
We favour ‘avoiding loss’ rather than ‘seeking gain’.
This is hardwired into us by our evolution. Organisms that placed a higher priority on avoiding threats than on maximising opportunities tended to survive. This instinct was rewarded by survival and then passed on through the gene pool. The cumulative impact of this behaviour is that loss aversion is still a very powerful driver of human behaviour.
When I first started my own business, I delivered a number of talks at events that were put on by industry bodies. When the event was free to attend, turnout was usually 50% of the numbers that signed up. When the attendees had to pay, even if it was as little as £20, the attendance ratios shot up to around 70%. When I spoke to the organisers they said that the money didn’t generate a great deal of revenue, they charged because they wanted to create a commitment to attend. They were deliberately using ‘loss aversion’ to drive up attendance of their events.
It seems strange but when you realise our decision-making is driven by emotion, not logic, you can start to see why they chose to charge. Loss aversion is a powerful driver of human behaviour.
Can we use Loss Aversion to our Advantage?
In short, yes, I believe we can. If you understand this human bias, you can use it to influence others such as in the example above.
But you can also use it to drive yourself to persevere through difficult challenges.
I joined Royal Marines Officer Training in 2005. I am not going to talk about the entire 15 months worth of training in this article but I want to give you a sense for the type of people that get through the selection process. The number of people that apply varies annually but there are probably several hundred that walk into a recruitment centre saying that they want to join the Corps as Officers. Physical fitness, Leadership Potential, Medical and Academic tests whittle the numbers down over a six-day selection process. The top 60 that pass and get the highest scores join the Young Officer Batch in September every year. Around 30 finish the course.
It’s hard to generalise about the type of people that join. The organisation is truly an egalitarian elite – anyone can join provided you meet the standards. This means that we have a mix of graduates and non-graduates, public and state educated, working class and upper class lads.
But joining and ‘passing out’ are two different things. To pass the course you must be determined and you must be able to endure suffering. Why you join doesn’t really matter, it is why you stay that counts.
The point I am making here is that it was amazingly hard to get in and even harder to get through it.
And I can safely say that I struggled through nearly all of it, from start to finish. I was rubbish in training. Slow to adapt and pick things up, I think every mistake or shortcut I took was noticed by the Training Team. I survived rather than thrived in training.
What got me through it and prevented me from giving up was an exploitation of the sunk cost fallacy.
I rationalised that if I gave up in the first 20-30% of an activity, an exercise or even the whole course, I could not say that I had given it everything I had. I hadn’t done enough.
Once I had passed that 20-30% point in my head, I thought ‘if I give up now, everything I have done up until this point will be a waste of time, so I might as well finish it.’
This proved to be a good mental model that I used to get me through training and I suspect other people that were successful used similar techniques.
The sunk cost fallacy can drive us to persevere and endure suffering. It can help us to achieve great things that we never thought possible by delaying gratification.
Many people who achieve great success will exploit this mental model in some form or another to get where they want to go.
This works well provided it is CONSCIOUS and we are aware of what we are doing.
The challenge comes when the sunk cost fallacy drives our behaviour subconsciously. It has the potential to put us on autopilot without us even realising it.
I believe that this type of loss aversion is responsible for more human behaviour than we realise and it is one of the major factors that prevents us from embracing change.
Southern Rail Strikes – Loss Aversion and Skills Redundancy
The Southern Rail Train strikes are evidence of this type of thinking. Trains can be run almost entirely without people. The Singapore metro system and the DLR are examples that prove it can work. But that’s hard to accept that a job that you’ve been doing for 20 years can be done better by a machine and that is at the crux of this issue. Train drivers and conductors are just the first to suffer the unfortunate experience of ‘skills redundancy’.
Automation has suddenly made their skills irrelevant. That’s painful to accept when you’ve invested time in learning how to do something.
Pilots, Taxi and Truck Drivers will be next…
As I look at my seven month old son and wonder what he will do for a living, I honestly do not believe that he will have the opportunity to be a commercial pilot.
The cost of training a person to fly a plane is high – however you chose to measure it. And humans are not necessarily better at doing it than machines. The RAF will be the first to feel this.
Why train someone to be a fighter pilot when a drone can do the same job cheaper and with less risk?
Why would anyone want to put an individual’s life at risk and fly over enemy territory when I can get a machine to do it?
This applies even if we change the context from the air to the land.
Why would I want a person to defuse a bomb when I can get a machine to do it?
The risk equation changes when you take an individual’s life out of the picture.
If we don’t need fighter pilots, can we really justify needing commercial pilots? There will become a point where people will get comfortable with a machine driving or flying them. Once that happens, it will be pilots and drivers who go on strike – the train drivers will have lost that battle by then.
The Sunk Cost Fallacy creates Mental Prisons
The sunk cost fallacy drives us as individuals but it can also lead us to create prisons for ourselves.
A high proportion of people do not like what they do for a living. They spend 40-60hrs of their week ‘surviving’. Sometimes this is because they dislike that job but more often than not, it’s due to the influence of the people that they have to work for – their leaders – that make their jobs so unpleasant.
Despite this, they keep telling themselves that ‘it’s a good job, and they’re lucky to have it’. They keep going because they ‘don’t want to let other people down’. They ‘cannot afford to quit’ because their cost of living has risen to match their salary or they ‘can’t leave yet’ as they’ve only been there for six months.
These thoughts trap people into unhealthy patterns of behaviour.
This way of thinking forces people to work late and on weekends sacrificing time with their children and partners – time they can never get back.
Now there are times when you will need to push the peddle to the floor and work hard, sometimes even over a weekend. I accept that.
What I cannot accept is that this is necessary for three weekends out of four or that working from 8-11pm should become the new normal. This is unsustainable. It is the equivalent of trying to run the marathon at a sprinting pace. At some point, you will have to stop or something will break. We are not machines, despite what we might think, and we do have limits. We might not drop dead and collapse when we reach breaking point – although that does happen.
What actually happens is a slow decline in effectiveness.
You become good at smashing through tasks and getting things done but less good at challenging whether they should be done or searching for smarter ways of achieving the same result.
You maximise on efficiency whilst sacrificing effectiveness.
So how do you know when our decision-making is being affected by the sunk cost fallacy? How do we break out of the cycle?
The first thing you have to do is stop and reflect. Ask some questions.
- Where am I now?
- How long have I been working like this?
- What is the impact on my health and the important relationships in my life?
- Is the situation going to change – or am I going to have to?
If you had £100k and a gun to your head and you were being forced to place a bet, would you put the money on the situation changing or staying the same? That will give you the answer. You are being forced to think objectively – not hope.
Not many bosses are likely to have the balls to tell you to work less, you’re making them look good so many of them will try and reinforce this type of behaviour, unaware of the impact it may have on you in the long-term.
So if the situation isn’t going to change, you have to change your approach.
- How am I going to behave differently?
- Do I need to put up some boundaries or set some decision-points ahead of me?
If this situation has been unmanageable and you feel like you have been surviving – put in place some structures to help you regain control. Boundaries can help you regain control over the current situation. Decision-points force you into taking action.
Boundaries might be time-based. Make commitment to get home on time. If that’s not feasible every night, make a commitment to do something you enjoy for 2-3 nights a week. Get home early and read your children a story. Go swimming one evening. Do something for you.
Boundaries might be tech-based. Turn off your phone in the evenings and on weekends. Create a space where you cannot be interrupted. There is no such thing as an urgent email. If there was, I could email the fire department and tell them that my house was burning down.
Create decision points in the future. For example:
‘If this situation has not changed by (insert a date in the future), I will…. leave, renegotiate my contract, take a week to reflect on my options.’
Decision points are basically ‘if these conditions exist, I will do x, y, z’. They allow you to rationally consider the options in front of you and force you to chose a different path. It also makes it easier for a partner or close friend to hold you to account. If you’ve told them about this decision-point, they can follow up with you and ask what you did. If the answer is ‘nothing’, they can challenge you.
The quality of our lives are determined by the quality of our questions. Tony Robbins
It might be helpful to think about where you want to be in the long-term and work back from there.
- Where are they sat?
- What do they do for a living?
- Where do they live?
- Are they married – to the same person/someone different?
- What are their plans going to be for this weekend?
- Where did they go on their last holiday?
The clearer the picture, the clearer the end-state. You can now start to work towards this goal because you’ve clarified it. This can be a difficult thing to do because it will expose some of the sunk costs you’ve made. That relationship you know isn’t ever going to work or that promotion that will never materialise.
By clarifying the future, it makes it easier to make changes because you’re actively pursuing something you want.
If you don’t control where you are going and make proactive plans to get there, someone else will do it for you.
Like a ship without a course, you will go where the wind, current and tide take you rather than setting a course and sailing towards a clear destination.
You cannot spot the difference between an opportunity and a distraction if you do not have an end-state in mind. An opportunity can be defined as something that helps you get where you want to go. A distraction can be defined as anything else.
Creating a Remarkable Career
Let’s take one element – creating a remarkable and rewarding career. We spend 40+ hours a week working – why wouldn’t we invest some time in thinking about this in more depth?
The endstate doesn’t need to be crystal clear from day one – that is unrealistic. Start small and spend a small amount of time each day working on this as a ‘side project’. No time for side projects? Create boundaries that will give you time.
Start by doing some self-analysis.
- What are you good at?
- What do you like doing?
- What excites you?
Create a hypothesis about where you want to be in 10 years time.
- Find someone who is in that job on LinkedIn.
- Connect with them.
- Ask them for a coffee.
- Show them your self-analysis and ask ‘do people like me do well in your sector?’
If they do, great, you have some clarity on that direction and potentially a mentor to help guide you there.
If they don’t, then you’ve probably closed a door. Knowing what you don’t want to do is part of working out what you do want to do. This is time well spent. Repeat the above until the end-state becomes clear.
Practice what you Preach
In one of my jobs, I took our graduates through this process. I wanted them to take ownership of their careers. But when I took myself through the process, I realised I was not on the right path. It was time to make a change. I have since started my own business and have been going for two years. It’s going well but I am very lucky to have a very supportive wife who has been an absolute rock throughout!
But I have put in a decision-point for the end of the year.
If I cannot create a stable sales pipeline by that point then I will walk away from it. I don’t take a lot of leave and I am working exceptionally hard to build something of value but I know that I am asking a lot from both myself and my family. It is a bit like being back in Young Officer training… but without a stable salary or an end date.
There are many paths to ‘success’.
I enjoy developing leaders. If I can’t do that independently, I will just find a job where I can contribute towards the success of someone else’s organisation. I just need to ‘stay in the leadership development game’ whether that is working for myself or someone else, it doesn’t really matter provided I keep building on my leadership development experience either by leading others or helping to develop leaders.
When you think like this, it becomes liberating because you realise there is no downside. If I fail to make it work this time, there is nothing that says I won’t succeed in the future.
Your future hasn’t been written yet. No one’s has. Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one. Doc Brown – Back to the Future Part III
Beware of the Perseverance Value
Our ability to persevere is noble and should be celebrated. It creates the conditions for us to achieve great things – often against the odds.
But it also has the ability to trap us in a prison we built ourselves.
It causes us to continue relationships that aren’t working, buy things that we don’t need and finish the meal when we are full.
Knowing when to quit is a skill – and I definitely haven’t got it mastered.
I am driven by the values of determination and perseverance which puts me at great risk of the sunk cost fallacy.
But realising that – hopefully means I can watch out for it – and make sure it doesn’t put me on autopilot to a place I don’t want to go.
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