When You Have Invested Too Much To Quit

You’ve spent half a lifetime in this work, but no matter what you do, it seems you can’t win. How can you tell if it’s time to quit?

Man on his laptop in a dark room for article by Larry G. Maguire

Photo by Matthew T Rader on Unsplash

You’ve spent half a lifetime in this work, but no matter what you do, it seems you can’t win. How can you tell if it’s time to quit?

You invest months or even years in a project or a business, but all you seem to get in return is stress, anxiety and sleepless nights. Outgoings have exceeded income for a while now, and resources are low. In fact, debt is what’s keeping your nose above water. It worked well in the early days, but now it’s like a millstone around your neck.

What went wrong?

The truth is that what went wrong is impossible to understand given a negatively dominant state of mind. Stressed out and under pressure, the answers are not inclined to come easily. The harder you try to figure it out, the worse it gets. It seems like you have little option but to cut your losses and split.

Then you contemplate the fallout and loss of everything you’ve invested. “Fuck it; I need to keep going. I can make this work.”

But at what further cost?

Perhaps any further investment of time or money is merely throwing good money (or time) after bad — an old saying but often a true one. It is a phenomenon of human behaviour, otherwise known as the sunk cost effect accounted for in Kahneman & Tversky’s Prospect Theory [1].

Or you could keep going and hope that your next move will be the one that takes you out of the manure. It’s sometimes the case that just at the point of quitting, the big win awaits.

Well, this could be true. But it also could be true that you’re no different than the compulsive gambler half-drunk on alcohol and the promise of a big Saturday afternoon win at Leopardstown.

It’s a tough call, and regardless of whether you are a business of one or responsible for a more considerable ongoing concern, the decision will be unique to you. One thing is for sure, if you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll likely continue getting the same results.

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it.” — W. C. Fields

The implications of the human propensity to avoid loss at all costs was illustrated in a 1985 study by Hal Arkes and Catherine Blumer [2]. The experiment undertook to explore the sunk cost effect.

The researchers arranged to have three different types of season tickets made available for purchase at the Ohio University Theater ticket booth. Approximately one-third of theatre-goers purchased a season ticket at the full $15 price, one-third bought at $13 each, and one-third at $8. When researchers compared those who purchased season tickets at $15, to those who purchased tickets at either of the discounted prices, they found that the latter attended fewer plays over the subsequent six months.

It was apparent that those who had invested, or sunk, the most money into the season tickets were most motivated to use the tickets. Once the tickets had been purchased, all patrons were entitled to attend any, and all plays, if they so desired. It is reasonable to assume that the costs/benefits of theatre attendance were equal for all theatre-goers because they were assigned randomly to the three price level groups.

Researchers concluded, therefore, that the difference in attendance across the three groups was a manifestation of the sunk cost effect: The patrons’ sunk cost or perception of potential loss influenced their attendance decisions. In other words, the more you invest, the less likely you are to quit.

A further example of the sunk cost effect was accounted for by Allan Teger in his 1980 book, Too Much Invested To Quit [3]. Here Teger suggests that the effect can be a reverse of The Gambler’s fallacy and says that both economic and interpersonal considerations come into play. These ultimately influence whether we continue to invest in the hope of a positive outcome or decide to quit.

Teger offers an example of a career or a job.

“When a job is not going well we make still further investments in an attempt to salvage it, to make it more pleasant, easier, more rewarding. The longer we try to salvage a bad job, the more investments we make in it. So just as we make repeated investments in repairing an old car, we try one more time to pacify the boss, find a new way around a bad situation, or find a comfortable or a secure place in a changing or deteriorating environment. We accept things which we don’t like, swallow our pride, do things which we believe to be meaningless, and accept ideas with which we do not agree. As in other situations, the more investment we make, the harder it is to quit.”

Teger goes on to suggest that under these conditions we continue to invest in our jobs, or indeed our businesses, in the hope that we will at some point in the future realise rewards that will exceed prior investment. Our conditions lock us in because to quit is to admit we should not have started in the first place. Our decisions, therefore, are made in the preservation of a fragile ego and not logically based on cost/benefit analysis.

The potential realisation of financial and material loss is a significant factor in deciding to fold a business or quit a job. But our work also becomes a large part of our social and personal identity. To admit that it’s not working is to deny a large part of the self and so to remain is to keep our identity intact even if that means suffering.

Compellingly, quitting becomes a process of extrication and is required for growth. To fight against it is to fight against ourselves, but this fight is an essential element in our expansion.

Notwithstanding this, I see that we have little choice, and although we can deny the reality of current conditions for perhaps years, the sooner we cut our losses, the better despite the emotional challenge.

Quitting is an emotion-laden mental process and is a significant part of decision making — we can’t avoid it. Emotional states are essential, but the more heightened we become emotionally, perhaps the less equipped we are to make the right move.

I can say that having been down that road, there is no such thing as loss despite our perception. We have the potential to profit for all of our experiences, no matter how difficult, and all can contribute positively to our sense of self.

“Emotions and the feelings are not a luxury, they are a means of communicating our states of mind to others. But they are also a way of guiding our own judgments and decisions. Emotions bring the body into the loop of reason.” — António R. Damasio, Neurologist

Meaningful daily work is essential for happiness and should form a significant element of a positive sense of self; otherwise work merely becomes transactional and devoid of meaning. But work must be undertaken for the right reasons.

Ulterior motivation and extrinsic rewards rarely bring about happiness and fulfilment. So if these states of being are not present in your work, then maybe you’re due a time-out.

Keep going if you will, or don’t. It’s up to you. However, I have found that making the conscious decision to quit is better than someone else making it for you. You don’t exist in a vacuum, and it’s unlikely that others around you are not feeling what you’re feeling. Therefore, if it’s not working and you know it, then get out while you can exercise control.

You might be unpopular with suppliers, staff, fellow workers or whatever for a while, but they’ll get over it.

Besides, it’s more empowering if you decide for yourself. You can take a breath, find some ease, and restart.

Article References

  1. Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk. Econometrica, 47(2), 263. doi: 10.2307/1914185

  2. Arkes, H., & Blumer, C. (1985). The psychology of sunk cost. Organisational Behavior And Human Decision Processes, 35(1), 124–140. doi: 10.1016/0749–5978(85)90049–4

  3. Teger, A. I., & Cary, M. (1980). Too much invested to quit. New York: Pergamon Press.

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