I recently got a message through Instagram, from someone (let’s call her “Lori”) who dreamed of becoming a professional photographer… but couldn’t let go of her old career, because all her years of study and experience would just be “wasted.”
I get this kind of message all the time, and because I studied psychology and left behind my own very expensive & lucrative corporate law career, I have some thoughts about it…
THE “SUNK COST” FALLACY
Here’s the thing, our brains aren’t always logical, even though we THINK they are.
The SUNK COST FALLACY is a well-documented phenomenon. Basically, the more you invest in something, the harder it becomes to abandon it. Even if that something turns out to be pretty terrible…
Here’s an example. Say you spent $150 on concert tickets to this band you heard was really good. But you get there and they’re actually really horrible. A lot of people would grit their teeth and just stick around for the rest of the concert because they don’t want to “waste” the $150. But the $150 was already spent anyway, so all you’re doing is adding two hours of ear torture onto the money you’ve sunk into this concert. Logically, it would be better to just leave the concert and try and enjoy your two hours doing something else. That way, you haven’t wasted $150 AND two hours of your life. But our brains don’t think that way…
This is because our brains evolved to be scared of LOSS. A potential loss ($150) feels way more painful than any potential gain (2 hours of not-ear-torture).
So, even if walking away from your current career might lead to so much more happiness, fulfillment, and amazing possibilities in the future… your brain doesn’t see that. All it sees is the LOSS of all the time, money and effort that you put into that career.
And once you realize that, the fear of “wasting” your old career loses some of its power.
For me, the choice SOUNDS easy.
There’s no way I would continue to be miserable for ten more years as a lawyer, just so I don’t “waste” the ten years and $200K I spent going to law school and working my way up the ranks of a corporate law firm.
But I didn’t always think that way…
When I was about three months into law school, one of my classmates just didn’t show up one day. He had experienced enough of law school and future lawyers to know that it wasn’t for him. So he just walked away and started working as a bartender somewhere in downtown Manhattan while he figured out his next move.
Everyone in school was talking about him. He had probably spent around $30,000 paying for his books and classes and housing in NYC and now he was just “wasting” all of that money and effort.
But you know what? I secretly admired him. Because he had listened to his gut, knew that this path was not for him, and he got out early. And, in the end, spending three months and $30K is WAY BETTER than spending three years and $200K just because you didn’t want to “waste” those already sunk costs.
So if you’re longing to switch careers, but can’t get over the fact that you’ll have “wasted” so much of your life on your current career… think about the Sunk Cost Fallacy.
And ask yourself what would be more of a “waste”: walking away from a career that doesn’t make you happy or spending your entire life tied to that career, because it happens to be the thing you chose to study when you were 25?
Change is scary AF. But it also opens the door to so much magic. Just remember that whenever your brain tries to use fear disguised as logic to keep you stuck.
After I wrote this post, I got a message back from “Lori” saying that thinking about “waste” this way totally changed the way she viewed a potential career change. So hooray!!
Sometimes you just need a little nudge to re-examine the beliefs and assumptions you have about yourself and your life. A lot of them are probably just false beliefs and once you see them that way… they don’t have as much power over you.
So go out challenge those limitations! I dare ya ;)
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