This one’s a long one, but I needed to get it out. Thanks in advance for anyone who makes it all the way through.
Down We Go
Sometimes losses must be cut lest they drag you into the abyss.
The sunk cost fallacy often applies to businesses or organizations, but can certainly apply to an individual as well. I know it did for me and it could have been a disaster.
The idea that an investment is so worthwhile or rather the cost involved has already been too great that giving up on it seems counterproductive is something that leads a lot of us to disaster. It happens in work, in relationships, in hobbies. Everywhere. We do it all the time and it’s damn hard to recognize. If you’re fortunate enough to escape before the costs become too great, then you get a lucky opportunity to reflect on just what a poor decision you were making. It’s fine, we do it a lot and we escape it a lot. But sometimes it eats a big chunk of your life and resources.
Hungry Hungry Hamartia
I entered into an apprenticeship some years back. It wasn’t my first choice of what to do with my life, but at the time, I didn’t have too much going for me. The timing was perfect. I had hit a point of aimlessness and it gave me some structure and direction. For the first couple of years, I loved it. The work was amazing, I was learning fantastic and useful skills, experiencing new things, and meeting new people.Then the economy took a shit. Thanks, Uncle Pennybags!
I was without work for some time, but I was still obligated to continue with the program. I dutifully pressed on, confident that things would improve and that my new skills would appreciate in value and help me pay the bills in the future.
I continued to go to classes. Learned the skills. Paid out of a nearly empty pocket for books and certification fees. My wife worked her ass off to make sure that we had a roof over our heads, food on the table, and bills paid. After a couple of years, work started to come back. Little bits here and there. It was exciting, and nice to have some financial relief, but something had changed.
The environment of the workplace was markedly different and significantly more hostile than in the past. My first long term job after months of spotty employment was a nightmare. I remember calling my wife the first night and telling her that it had been a mistake to accept it, but we talked it through and I decided that I would tough it out. I couldn’t stand to see her shoulder the burden of our finances herself and things would get better as I became more comfortable with returning to full time employment, right? Nah. It was a steady decline from that point forward and the bottom was coming up at me fast. I was in hell. I was at that job every waking hour (and some sleeping hours), whether I was physically there or not. My mind kept me imprisoned there.
I stomached it as long as I could, but every morning was a battle to stave off a nervous breakdown while getting ready to head in for the day. Any time I looked for help, I was met with: “Well, you’re just lucky to have a job!” Eventually, I realized that I was on my way to losing far too much by staying. This was the first time I realized that cutting losses is occasionally more than acceptable. It’s often necessary. Sometimes the cost sunk is just too great and the payoff will never come. I left that job one morning in late summer of 2012 and dealt with actual nightmares about it for a couple years after.
I wanted to quit the entire program the day that I left that job, but I was certain that it was a fluke and that future jobs would be better. And I had an obligation to finish. The idea of quitting was met with derision by anyone it was mentioned to. I steeled my resolve to finish. To power through and do my best. I did. Employment was spotty again after that, but every job was more or less as hostile in some way.
I have met some amazing people through that program these last few years. Even some awesome bosses, but the attitude toward employment in this country — and largely the world — has become incredibly anti-worker in the last decade. To a startling degree. I kept at it though. We decided that since I was so near the end of my training, it was best to finish. Best to “have it under my belt” if only to say that I completed it. I’m no quitter, dammit!
Pomp and Circumstance
In 2013, I graduated at the top of my class. This did nothing for me, but in the years that followed, I dutifully continued my work as an apprentice. I had finished the schooling, but because I lacked work experience, I could not truly graduate. I worked to make up the difference and a five year program was turning into a seven year program, and then bureaucracy failed me. Work was drying up again, and I was told I basically had no chance of completing the program before a seemingly arbitrary cut-off date and I would have to jump through hoops that I felt were a bit less than fair. I had just been laid off from work again and I finally had time to think about where I was headed in life.
What was asked of me in the end was possibly not all that unreasonable and it was legit, so I can’t entirely fault anyone, but I realized that it was no longer worth it for me. My progress down that avenue ended that day.
I feel that I should mention that through all these years, my health declined, both physically and psychologically. I knew for some time that I was not where I belonged, but I felt duty-bound to finish what I started. I had already invested so much of my life that it seemed foolish to walk away so near completion. I was soon to have my eyes opened. In my last stretch of unemployment, I was struck by lightning. The good kind.
Lightning: 1.21 Gigawatts
Let me rewind a bit. For as long as I can remember, writing has been one of my great loves. Teachers and friends often encouraged me to pursue a career in writing. Little else has given me greater joy. I tried on occasion to make a go of it as an adult, but being an adult got in the way. I didn’t have much growing up, so a steady paycheck was just too important. I needed to eat and not be homeless. Over time, the flame faded. I was beaten down by the realities of my adulthood and imagination and motivation atrophied to a nearly nonexistent point. I became content just toiling away at something I didn’t really care about for the rest of my days. I tried here and there over the years, but I could never get very far.
I felt that I had lost my creative spark and my confidence was circling the drain. What little I had produced, I was terrified to share with anyone. I couldn’t even bring myself to show something I had written to my wife. My most ardent supporter was barred access to the little bits I could muster to write. She encouraged me whenever other work was scarce to keep trying at writing. She has never not encouraged me. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I was too concerned and entirely consumed with worry about my progress in the program and the status of work in general.
In that last stretch of unemployment, when that lightning struck, I had been freed. I wrote again. It poured out of me as if a dam had been broken. I had ideas again. I had that lust for the creative process again. The first piece wasn’t much in the grand scheme of things, just over 1,000 words, but it cut a new path through the bramble patch I had been traversing. I had a moment of bravery and I shared it with a few people. The response was overwhelming and they expressed a desire for more. I felt like I had become me again. I realized at that moment that I had to drop the dead weight of the past. I had to cut my losses, even though I had sunk so much of myself into the program. I had to make this effort, or suffer my whole life never being who I have always wanted.
At face value, this might seem irresponsible. Writing does not hold the guarantee of income that a lot of other jobs might and success in general within the field is rare. And many people have told me that I could just write on my time off from work. Unfortunately, I am simply not wired that way. I have great difficulty dividing my attention in that regard. To a great detriment. I realized that if I continued with my former career, the writer in me would very possibly die and take much of who I am with it.
My greatest fan promised me that if I went at this with all I had, she would work hard for us. I am beyond grateful for the support my wife has given me. This has been a long road, but it has been wildly transformative for the both of us. Just over a year later and I have completed the first draft of my first novel, I have this blog, I am working on other short fiction as well as another novel, and I have rebuilt much of my shattered confidence.We have experienced some major losses (more on that in a future post), but both of us have become far happier and healthier than we were in all the years I was in the program.
Up the Downspout
I have no idea what the future holds. Things can get tight for us from time to time, but there is some happiness and simplicity in not having everything. Mo’ money, mo’ problems. Ya dig?
Do I desire financial success? Absolutely. I would be crazy not to, but at the end of the day, I’m thrilled to be creating again and my greatest hope is that my words touch someone in some way.
Sometimes we have to take a moment and see if the effort we are putting into something is truly worth it and avoid the trap of the sunk cost fallacy. A huge investment doesn’t always mean that something is worthwhile in the end. Be brave enough to cut your losses from time to time. It might just give you the upward mobility you need.
It has taken some time, but I don’t look back on those past experiences with negativity. It happened. That can’t be changed. I survived it all and I’m stronger and more experienced now. Sometimes quitting is the best way to win.