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Career choices; the 'sunk costs' myth

Have you ever climbed a mountain, or perhaps just a high hill, hoping to get a great view from the top? There always comes a point, just as it’s raining or misty or getting dark and you’ve struggled for maybe two and a half hours, when you realise that every time you get around an outcrop you still can’t see the summit. That promised spectacular view, that amazing vista, that incredible panorama is still out of sight and you have no real idea how much further you will have to go to get there to see it.

Careers can often feel like that; a constant push to get on, in the hope that the end point will be reward enough for the physical effort, the mental stress and the exhaustion. At each turn and after every craggy obstacle you ask yourself: “Will it be worth it when I get there?” and then convince yourself “I’ve come this far, how can I turn back now?” You see a path to the left of you or to the right of you but that inner voice keeps telling you “No! Keep going. Straight ahead and upwards.”

For many, their careers are like the mountain climb that has no clear end in sight. No purpose. It’s just a question of holding on, enduring the pain, and lots of leg work.

So why keep at it?

Often the reasoning is based on a belief in the ‘Sunk Costs’ myth. The argument goes: you’ve spent a lot of energy and time getting this far so you don’t want to waste that investment by abandoning the project. Carry on and make the best of it. Don’t throw it all away.

But everyone knows the counter-argument: no matter how much time, money or effort you have put into something “there’s no point throwing good money after bad”. What is done, is done.

These two opposing beliefs often compete when circumstances change and we have to reflect on where our working lives are taking us. When new situations arise we can find ourselves facing a career junction: a fork in the road; a sharp left turn; a complete blockage. The natural response – the default position – is usually to keep going straight ahead. Of course, that may not be an option and in that situation we may feel a loss of control and a sense of panic. But even if there are many options available, we often don’t take enough time to stop and think which would be the best path to follow. Our brains tend to look back and choose the direction that continues on, as far as possible, where we have come from.

Decisions based on the ‘Sunk Costs’ myth are actually an emotional rather than a rational response. They are usually predicated on the premise of risk reduction and on keeping us in a familiar, albeit not ideal, landscape. Fear may be the felt emotion when faced with job uncertainty, but that is often as not based on values and beliefs instilled into us during our younger school and even pre-school years. It may be that as we grew up we saw our parents following the same career and staying in the same steady job. They may have preferred not to throw away but to keep and mend. These scripts for safe, secure and responsible behaviour can be deeply imprinted within us and need to be understood if we are to be able to decide to exercise rational choice.

When we reach a career junction, thinking emotionally and rationally means considering if the original end goal is worth spending more time and effort to achieve, and examining if the ‘sunk costs’ will contribute any value to that future. If the answer to both questions is yes, then maybe the best path to follow is forward and upwards. If the answer to either question is no, and the end goal is no longer the great dream it may once have seemed, then it’s time to reset the goal and to plan a new route. Setting out in a new direction is not a waste of previous effort; that effort is spent, used, and no longer in the equation. It’s not a reckless squandering of the past it’s a proactive and confident taking of control and making a clear choice for the future.

And now: we’re on the mountain once more. We can see another path going down to the left. Through the mist and rain, we catch a glimpse of distant sunshine on a lake below. It’s a beautiful wide blue lake and the boats are coursing through the water in a sparkling and thrilling scene…

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