Perseverance, especially during hard times, is praised so highly and so often that sometimes we forget there’s another option. And we forget how to not feel like a failure when we give up.
The slogans are seemingly infinite: You only get out what you put into it; I never dreamed of success, I worked for it; nothing worth having comes easy. Even Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000-hour rule” claims that the holy grail of mastery is achieved only through decades of dedication.
But how often do you come across a piece of advice that says you’ve tried hard enough—at starting a business, following your goals, supporting your loved ones—and now it’s time to move on? Infrequently. And how much blood, sweat, and tears are wasted on hopeless cases? A lot. Maybe you’ve been there—exhausted emotionally, financially, or both, yet you can’t bear to end it.
Why? Consider a concept known as the “sunk cost fallacy.” It comes from both psychology and economics and refers to a decision-making bias that leads us to pour more time, money, effort, or other resources into a project simply because we’ve already invested in it. We fall prey to this whether the stakes are high, like continuing to throw money and energy into a business that is not succeeding, or low, like forcing yourself to finish an overcooked steak just because you (over)paid for it. No matter the scale, humans often have a hard time calling it quits.
Why Do We Refuse to Quit?
Why did evolution do this to us? Researchers theorize that the phenomenon may come from an effort to avoid wasting valuable resources. This rule makes sense when you look at it from a scarcity perspective—better to keep working at something if you’ve already invested resources, but at a certain point the logic no longer holds up.
For example, it might seem a waste to part ways with a partner of many years, but trying to fix a broken relationship is no less wasteful. You could argue that staying is actually more wasteful and that bringing an unfulfilling, emotionally draining relationship to an end allows you to move on and try again.
The notion of failure, however, is so looked down on that it’s no wonder we keep the doors of our failing concert hall open rather than truly facing the music. Plus, it simply feels wrong to extinguish the fire even though we’re likely to get burnt. However, that feeling may actually be the sunk cost fallacy leading us astray. What do you do when you find yourself in this situation? Here are seven ways not only to give up but to feel confident about it.
Tip 1: Write down what it’s cost you and what it will continue to cost in the future.
Sometimes going with our gut can be useful, but sometimes our guts are best described by a certain spot-on quote from Nick Hornby in High Fidelity.
So work around your gut by actually writing out gains and losses associated with staying in, and gains and losses associated with getting out. It’s similar to the classic pros and cons list and it helps you focus on the often-forgotten possibilities of missing other opportunities that come with staying in.
Tip 2: Reconceptualize “giving up” as “knowing when to quit.”
In this society, everyone from Thomas the Train to Sean Paul tells us to never give up. The most straightforward never give up quote is attributed to Winston Churchill, who allegedly said, simply, “Never never never give up.”
But it turns out this was taken out of context. What he really said was, “Never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.”
Indeed, the idea of “giving up” is so undesirable that sometimes we forget the maturity and integrity required to have the insight that something is not working and that a change needs to be made. The take home message “Never give up” should not be taken as a one-size-fits-all statement. Giving in when it makes the most sense, or is the noble thing to do, is the right choice. I think even Thomas the Train would agree.
Tip 3: Giving up can be a sign of wisdom.
A study in the journal Psychological Science found that young adults are significantly more likely to engage in the sunk cost fallacy than senior citizens.
Younger adults have a stronger negativity bias, meaning they weigh negative information, such as losses, more heavily than positive information. The decisions of older adults, by contrast, generally balance gains and losses more equally. This suggests that the older we get, the wiser and more cautious we may become about the best way to invest our time and money. In short, sometimes cutting our losses is the mature and astute thing to do.
Tip 4: Throw out the baby with the bathwater.
One thing people hate about giving up is feeling like forces they could not control got the better of them. However, you can reestablish a feeling of control by reframing your choice to get out as a tough-love executive decision. This project may seem like your child, but sometimes, you just have to throw out the baby.
Tip 5: Rethink failure.
Biases and fallacies aside, the core of our protest to giving up our fear of failure. We’ve been socialized to see dreams that can’t come to fruition as failure. It’s even harder when the failure is seen by others, like a marriage or a business venture.
Choosing to end a relationship or a project, especially if you started out eager and deeply invested, is a loss to be grieved. So give yourself the space you need to properly grieve, but then, consider this: It’s not failure if it moves you forward. Call it lightening your burden, simplifying your life, making a better choice, taking stock, turning over a new leaf, moving on, rising up, whatever you want—none of which carry any whiff of failure.
Tip 6: You can’t control everything.
Sometimes life provides you with circumstances that you can’t change. Say you put your heart and soul into launching a bakery, but maybe the opening coincided with the low-carb craze, your landlord just doubled your rent, or there’s been a run-up on worldwide sugar prices. Could you control any of this? Not in a million years.
You may feel like you failed, but don’t hold yourself accountable for those things that had nothing to do with your competence, dedication, or character.
Tip 7: Knowledge is power.
Take solace in knowing that everyone experiences forces beyond their control, and most people don’t muster the necessary clarity and strength to challenge the sunk cost fallacy. So if you give up when the time is right, consider yourself operating at a higher level of human reasoning!
To wrap up, you didn’t know then what you know now. What’s more, there’s no way you could have known. But now that you have gained knowledge, experience, and, dare we say, some wisdom, you’ll be ready to chuck your sunk costs and set your sights on new goals.