Quitting & Failing

I think because it's graduation season, and because I love the excellent Freakonomics podcast, I've read/heard a ton lately on the topics of quitting and failing. It seems to be a topic of conversation everywhere I turn.

Two of the most representative things I've consumed on the topic are from Freakonomics: The Upside of Quitting and Failure is your Friend are exactly what you'd expect them to be about. They are both thought-provoking and entertaining, and I recommend them highly.

The narrative is simple, and generally follows one of two (very related) paths: 

It's better to quit something you're bad at as soon as possible so to move on to something you're more likely to be good at.
The most valuable thing you can do is recognize imminent failure, learn from your mistakes and apply those to something else.

In economic terms these narratives are based on two basic principals:

  1. The sunk-costs fallacy, which is I've invested too much to stop now.
  2. Opportunity cost, which the New Oxford American Dictionary defines as "the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen."

Thinking just with the left side of my brain, I understand the logic of abandoning likely failure to focus on potential success. It actually feels very right from a purely biological standpoint. I can imagine a male rhino thinking: That female doesn't seem to want to carry on our species with me, so I'll find another who will. Otherwise our future is doomed.

But where's the romance in that?

The right side of my brain interprets it very differently, and far more cynically: Don't stick with something you've poured your heart/soul/money into if you think there's something better or easier or has a higher likelihood of success out there waiting for you. Jump ship for the next shiny object, and leave everyone on it to fend for themselves.

Like most humans, I think with both sides of my brain. So I struggle with the practical versus emotional benefits/tolls of quitting or failing. I find something incredibly practical about all this advice, and something incredibly shallow about it.

Funny (or sadly) enough, it's Jim Carrey (yes, THAT Jim Carrey) who I think captures what I believe. In speaking to a group of graduating seniors he said this: 

You can spend your whole life imagining ghosts, worrying about the pathway to the future. But all that will ever be is what's happening here - and the decisions we make in this moment, which are either based in love or fear. 

And that's the thing: economic theory is rooted in future returns, not the here. And it seems to make an assumption that what we want today will be what we want tomorrow.

Or put far more eloquently by the great Hunter Thompson, at only 22, it in a letter to a friend:

Every man is the sum total of his reactions to experience. As your experiences differ and multiply, you become a different man, and hence your perspective changes. This goes on and on. Every reaction is a learning process; every significant experience alters your perspective.

I'm a realist. I understand we don't have the capacity to stick with everything that's not going right in business or life. If so I'd be playing in a men's baseball league and still trying to figure out how to make 1984 Christie Brinkley my girlfriend.

(as you can see, I had a shot!)

(as you can see, I had a shot!)

But I think there's something - it's a silly romantic notion perhaps - of choosing to stick it out in the face of failure. Because maybe at those moments, when our backs are against the wall, are when the solution will present itself. Then again, maybe not. Hey - it's a tough subject and there's no right answer.

But at the very least I know this: I don't love the fail fast narrative when it becomes a convenient excuse for walking away when things get tough. Sure, eventually enough's enough. But telling our young professionals to take the easy way out doesn't bode well for our future. But what the hell do I know about the future?

It might be right for rhinos. But I think humans can do better.