The “Sunk Cost Fallacy” and Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid to Quit

The “Sunk Cost Fallacy” and Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid to Quit

I have a confession to make—I’m a quitter.

Phew, I’m glad I got that out of the way. American society generally doesn’t like quitters, but I argue it’s okay to quit. I’ll go further and say sometimes quitting will make you a success.

Hear me out.

I want to start with the idea of failure and our emotional ties to things that are failing. One of my favorite books is The Personal MBA by Josh Kaufman. I use business principles to help me with my freelance writing business—how to get clients, how to keep clients, and how to get my money—but one of my favorite ideas from the book was the idea of "sunk costs."

Basically, investments in a project that cannot be recovered are a “sunk cost.” That could include your time, your money, or other resources. Because people pour so much into quicksand pits of failure, they often are too afraid to walk away because of what was already devoted.

This strategy is stupid, obviously, yet we see people do this constantly.

This reluctance to quit is called the “sunk cost fallacy.” I remember reading this section years ago and thinking, “Man, that’s what I feel about my screenwriting career,” or more aptly, my screenwriting dream that I’ve basically abandoned. Sure, I found success in other forms of writing (standup, journalism, and fiction), but screenwriting was a huge passion for me that also brought me tremendous frustration.

It was my sunk cost.

For background, I grew up in a small town in Kansas, and there wasn’t a lot of stuff to do, so I became obsessed with movies and television. I moved out to Los Angeles right after I finished college and attended USC Film School to get an MFA in Screenwriting. I remember getting accepted into the program and feeling like I had been chosen. Thousands of people had applied to go to the best film school in the country, and they had picked a nobody like me.

I imagined that I would sell a script immediately after school, become rich, and delight at seeing my name on the big screen. I felt so validated by my school acceptance that I didn’t care I would be taking on a six-figure debt and spending two years of my life with some of the most narcissistic people on the planet.

An example of how weird my time in school was:

I was 22, and my 30-something-year-old classmates asked me to act in a student film. I had no experience, and I was terrible. But those 30-somethings would screen my terrible acting and make fun of it continuously. They’d watch this movie over and over, and then tell me about how they watched it over and over to mock me. I remember thinking they were bullies, but that I had to still be friendly to them for networking purposes. (Side note: I know now they were not worth networking with, but I was young and stupid back then.)

Anyway, after two years of that environment, I graduated, and I got a few general meetings that were as unenthusiastic as most Hinge first dates. I don’t think the low-level executives or assistants I was meeting actually saw any commercial viability with anything I had written, but Hollywood is built on the mentality of you never know. No one was excited about me, but they didn’t want to not know me in case I one day made it big. And those were the good meetings. I could write a separate article about the agents, managers, and executives who tricked me into “meetings” that were really just dates that I never would’ve went on if I had known their true intention. Those guys were excited about me, but for all the wrong reasons.

At the time, I was still hopeful my screenwriting career was going to take off right away. But besides the meetings, nothing was happening, and I needed a job. I started applying and asking around as much as possible, and eventually, my cousin helped me get a production assistant gig on a Disney TV show. In this role, I made almost minimum wage with no health insurance and was so overworked that I once fell asleep while driving home and rear-ended a car on the freeway.

In hindsight, I should’ve quit after my accident, but I didn’t. And even without the accident, I should’ve quit because my job kept me tired and broke. I borrowed a lot of money from my older sister so that I could continue to work for a giant corporation as a PA. I wasn’t happy, but I had invested so much to be in this situation, even if it was terrible. I had wanted to work in Hollywood ever since I was a kid in Kansas, and I had finally got what I had wanted.

Don’t quit, loser!  

Luckily, the universe pushed me into another direction. The summer between seasons of the TV show, I needed money again, so I got a temp administrative job at a hospital. I ended up loving it. I was being paid well, only worked eight hours a day, and my coworkers were nice and respectful to me. WHAT?! This is what the real world is like? I was eventually offered a full-time position and this included a generous benefits package. I took the job, thinking I would work during the day and write scripts at night, but that didn’t go as planned. I was young and single, and I wanted to go out in the evenings.

So how could I still be creative?

I was unable to write scripts at work because I didn’t have access to Final Draft, so I started to write blog posts and novel passages on my cell phone and I’d email them to myself. I was on the clock, admittedly stealing company time, but while being paid to sit at my cubicle, I was writing the work that would change my life.

I self-published my fiction, and my first novel Hell’s Game became an Amazon bestseller. My second book series Red Lantern Scandals was also a hit. Additionally, I was self-publishing articles through various blog work, and that blog work started to build my social media following and got me journalism samples. While my screenwriting aspiration was met with bullying, a lukewarm reception, or exploitation, I actually felt like a success with my books and articles. But not only that, I wasn’t broke, and I was happy.

Now, some people have great screenwriting careers and have better experiences than I did. But the signs along my path were telling me I was on a road to nowhere, and I decided to detour.

After a few years, I left my hospital job, and I started to freelance full-time as a journalist, a career I’ve now been doing for almost a decade. I still dabble in writing scripts, and I feel it’s a skill that will never truly go away, and perhaps it’s a career that I will pick up later on in my life. But I absolutely do not regret quitting when I did and moving on to something that was more fulfilling and ultimately healthier for my emotional, physical, and financial health.

I often encounter unhappy people, still committing their sunk cost fallacy. I recall talking once to a 60-year-old housewife who cried because her film school classmates were now showrunners or famous screenwriters, and she felt like a failure because she hadn’t done anything with her writing.

“Why does that upset you?” I asked.

“Every time I go to their parties, I feel like I haven’t done anything. Everyone makes me feel like such a loser,” she said.

“Then why do you keep going to those parties?”

She seemed surprised by this question. How simple it was to quit hanging out with people she didn’t like or who seemingly didn’t respect her. Then I asked how she spent her days, and she said she painted or hung out at the beach or spent time with her family. I told her that her life sounded wonderful, and we laughed because it was true. Plus, she thought it was funny that someone half her age had to remind her that it was OK to move on.

But it is.

We don’t need to pursue things we once wanted just because we once wanted them. We don’t need to hang out with assholes just because we randomly met them.

It’s okay to lose money. It’s okay to accept sunk costs. But it is not okay to keep wasting your precious time, money, and resources into a sinkhole.

Go ahead and quit. And maybe one day you’ll start again. Or maybe you won’t.

Whatever you do, you’re gonna be okay.

*Feature photo by Brady Knoll (Pexels)

Writer-comedian and Script Pipeline Winner, Teresa Lo's books were optioned by 20th Century Fox, and her work appears in Yahoo, Hustler, and more. She performs standup across the US.
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