The only thing that mattered to me growing up was to become a famous guitar player in a band. I wanted to travel the world with my best friends, exchange energy with a crowd. I wanted to mold hours of bedroom boredom into melodies that could connect with the masses. That was it for me, there was no second option, not even close.
I didn’t think in terms of being “creative” or “artistic.” I’d just blast off in a six-string rocket ship with my anxiety and uncertainty and return to earth with a tangible lyric or riff that could keep me company, keep me warm.
Punk Rock found me first. I devoured early Green Day, Blink 182, NoFx, Lagwagon, Strung Out, The Ataris. I infected my neighborhood friends with my passion. I held them down and made them listen, made them understand, made them buy drum sets and bass guitars. We formed bands, played school talent shows, pissed off the neighbors. Black hair, black fingernails, chain wallets, cringe-worthy everything.
At 15 I was recruited by an established local band, the best local band. They were five years older, they were giants. They needed a place to practice. I had a garage and cool parents. A week before their first tour the guitar player quit. I’d been the kid eavesdropping and strumming along. I knew all the songs. I was their perfect place, perfect time, only option.
They convinced my parents to let me take the semester off and go on the tour. “Get in the van. Sex, drugs, rock n roll. It’s ok Mom, it’s ok Dad. School can wait. He’ll be back by his sixteenth birthday, probably, maybe, whatever you need to hear. Get in the van.”
Played loud, played fast. Tempe, Albuquerque, Dallas, Des Monies. Fall came, Winter went. Hurry up and wait. Wait outside until show time, 21 and up. Drink this, smoke that. Kiss her here. Lose your virginity there. Jump in the van, school can wait.
I made it home and checked in at school, but another tour was around the corner. I took every other semester off. We played SXSW. We played six weeks of the Vans Warped Tour. It was 2005. I traveled the world with my best friends, exchanged energy with the crowd. I stepped in the Punk Rock poster on my bedroom wall. I was Alice, it was Wonderland.
Two years passed, my feelings began to change. First slowly, then suddenly. I was almost 18. Playing music was all I’d ever done, all I ever thought about, all I ever considered. I missed home, missed my friends, missed my bedroom boredom. What should I do? My life’s work. I was almost 18.
Why Is It So Hard To Quit?
“Winner never quit and quitters never win…” That’s the pre-internet, gym-class meme humans have been slapping each other around with for generations.
And there’s truth in it. Perseverance in the face of uncertainty can be what separates the haves from the have nots, the winners from the losers. But if you want to create a life of meaningful accomplishment, then knowing when to quit — and having the courage to do so — is one of the most important skills you can develop.
Then why does it make us sick to our stomachs when we have to do it?
Besides the Never-Quit anthem we’ve pledged allegiance to, there’s another factor at play, spinning yarns in our psychology. It can be a useful checker when we’re aware of it. But when left unchecked, it can be immediately and insidiously dangerous.
Sunk Cost Fallacy: Human Hack or Human Trap?
The Sunk Cost Fallacy is the idea that a business or organization is more likely to continue with a project or direction even when the results are bad, simply because they’ve already invested money, time, and effort into it.
Think of the person who’s stayed at the wrong job or bad relationship when they shouldn’t. You know who they are. Think of someone who’s doubled down on a tragic mistake because they couldn’t accept that they spent all their time and money on a failure.
We see the sunk cost fallacy at play in other people and in books and movies. Thank goodness we’re not like that, right?
Not so fast…
Remember the time you took a date to the movies?
You paid $17 per ticket. Another $20 on popcorn and Sour Patch Kids. You paid $10 for parking, arrived early to get the perfect seats. And then… the movie was a disaster.
You knew within the first hour things weren’t going to get better. There were 90 minutes left. You wondered if your date was enjoying it. You wondered if you were enjoying your date. And to make matters worse, the Sour Patch Kids were long gone.
There was a cafe down the street with a live band. It was half-off tapas in an intimate setting. It was happening then, wasn’t happening later. You needed to leave now. The exit sign glowed green for go, go, go.
And yet, what did you do?
You stuck it out. You let the credits roll. You spent another 90 minutes of Sour Patchless time. Why? Because you already bought the tickets. You already built it up in your mind. You already put on your best date shirt. And now it’s too late.
Congratulations. You sunk into the sunk cost fallacy. You poor schmuck, you.
It’s a minor example but there are hundreds of others. And while it’s true that in certain situations — once you’ve committed to something — it'd downright rude to bail (for all you know your date has terrible taste in movies and is loving this trainwreck), we still fall prey to sunk cost trap in other areas that go unnoticed.
Our ability to get the most out of life is tied to our ability to recognize when it’s time to throw in the towel and move on, sunk costs be damned.
The Danger Of Not Quitting
“Winners quit fast, quit often, and quit without guilt.” -Seth Godin
In America, we use the French word Cul-de-Sac to describe streets that end without connecting to another street. This is because no one wants to live on a street named after the American translation: A Dead-End.
We often think we’re skipping through work, relationships, and endeavors on breezy Cul-de-Sacs when in reality we’re circling dead-ends.
Seth Godin, a Godfather of modern marketing and best selling author, uses this example in his book, The Dip, to point out the danger of sticking with the wrong thing for too long:
“There’s not a lot to say about the Cul-de-Sac except to realize that it exists and to embrace the fact that when you find one, you need to get off it, fast. That’s because a dead end is keeping you from doing something else. The opportunity cost of investing your life in something that’s not going to get better is just too high.”
Quitting might seem risky. Thoughts like, “I need this job, I need this person, I’ve already worked so hard to get this far,” are difficult to overcome. But the riskiest thing we can do as human beings with limited time and energy is to continue on the wrong path.
Circling a dead-end doesn’t just waste time, it prevents us from forging a new path where new possibilities and rewards are waiting.
How do you know when it’s time to throw in the towel?
2006, Austin, Texas, SXSW. The shows were great, but I was worn down. Worn down by living in a van with other guys with older wants and older needs. I thought of my friends back home, applying to colleges or just hanging around. I thought about how they were getting ready to pick a path rather than continue with one.
We played shows with the bands I’d always looked up to, the bands who were in the posters on my bedroom wall, the bands I used to think, “If I could only reach that level I’d be happy.”
They weren’t happy. They missed their families. They lived in vans too. They toured nine months a year and when they were home they still needed part-time jobs. They still struggled. They hated their bandmates, most bands eventually do.
I knew what I had to do. I knew I had to do it now. I told the band, tried to explain, couldn’t explain because I didn’t even understand it yet myself. I bought a ticket home (ok, I called my parents and they bought me a ticket home.)
I thought I’d regret it. Thought I’d get on the plane, see my hopes and dreams disappear below. I thought I’d kick and scream and tell the pilot I made a mistake, turn around, turn around.
But those feeling never came. And I’ve never regretted leaving that day, not even for a second. 13 years later it remains one of the hardest choices I’ve ever had to make and I am so grateful I made the right one.
Two-Step Realization Process
I see now, as I write this, there were two vital realizations that helped me make the decision to leave the band:
#1: It wasn’t how I wanted my days to look. I may not have “reached the top” but I had reached my own personal mountain. I’d stepped into the Punk Rock poster and explored the world, met the characters, and saw first hand what the future would look like. I knew it would never be enough for me and that the view wouldn’t hold my gaze for much longer.
#2: I removed my ego and looked at things objectively. While I was good enough to play in a band and had ambition driving me, I was no virtuosos on the guitar. I’d spent enough time around more natural players to see my limitations with the instrument. I also looked at the overall talent of the band. People liked us, we were handsome and charismatic, we had some catchy tunes. We didn’t have the it factor. We didn’t have it. We weren’t going to reach the level of meaningful accomplishment that would keep my motor running.
Could I have improved as a guitar player? Could the band have become the next big thing? Possibly. But at that moment, things were clear. I was fully connected to my heart and soul and to the cold reality of what we were and what we weren’t. I didn’t know yet what I wanted out of life but I knew it wasn’t this. Not anymore.
What I realized was that inspiration doesn’t disappear, but it does move. It’s up to us to recognize the moment it does and have the courage to pack up and follow it, no matter how uncertain the path may be.
To avoid the trap of the sunk cost fallacy, ask yourself:
If I wasn’t already doing it this way, is this how I would I begin?
Is what I’m working toward actually important? Or does it feel important because I’ve been fixated on it for so long?
Is this really how I want my days to look? Or, did I misjudge what the view from the top would look like?
Am I judging my progress, my results, and what the future holds based on objective reality?
If the answer is no, you know what you need to do.