Why It’s Better to Quit Quickly and Fail Fast

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December 16, 2016

I recall once holding on to a pair of designer shoes that made my feet throb every time I wore them. I kept them for no other reason than how much they cost me. It was pretty stupid, but I remember thinking, I need to get my money’s worth!

What about you? Have you ever held on to something (such as an ill-fitting jacket) because of how much you paid for it? Ever kept reading a lousy book right to the last page because you didn’t want to waste your dough? Ever stayed the course with a project, partnership or strategy because you’d invested so heavily in it—despite it not working?

Related: Top of Mind: 7 Reasons to Let Go of the Things Holding You Back

If you answered yes to any or all of the above, then you’ve fallen prey to what psychologists call a “sunk cost bias.” It’s the tendency to continue investing in a losing proposition because of what it’s already cost us. As human beings, we’re wired to avoid loss. Biting the bullet and acknowledging that our choice to invest in something (or someone) isn’t working out as we hoped is painful. Sometimes agonizingly so.

Our innate sunk cost bias explains why so many people stay in loathsome careers and lonely relationships. It’s why smart people stick with bad investments for far too long, clinging on with blind optimism. It’s why I held on to those uncomfortable shoes, and why you likely have a few things in your wardrobe that, if you had the choice whether to buy them again, you wouldn’t.

If you ever find yourself in a hole, stop digging. Continuously investing into something that’s already not working won’t make it better.

If you’ve ever heard the phrase “throwing good money after bad,” then this is where it applies. Except it’s not just money you’re wasting. It’s time, energy, creativity and most of all, opportunity. After all, every day you invest in something that isn’t advancing you toward what you want more of in your life is a day you aren’t investing in something that could.

Sunk cost bias can drive otherwise intelligent people into a cycle of self-defeating decision-making. Perhaps we’re misguided by General George S. Patton’s advice that “courage is holding on a minute longer.” Although it can sometimes hold true, courage isn’t just about persistence; courage is also about having the humility to own what’s not working, to admit mistakes and to try a fresh approach.

Related: How to Make the Most of Your Mistakes

So as painful as admitting defeat can be, it’s less painful than the cost of burying your head in the sand while chanting the often misguided “winners don’t quit” mantra. Winners do quit. They quit all the time. They just don’t spend long painful years doing it. Likewise, the longer you let your fear of feeling like a failure keep you from calling it quits, the harder it will be to start over and begin anew at whatever it is you truly want to succeed at.

Let me be clear though. Your initial decision was not a mistake. Far from it. We often learn far more from the choices that don’t produce the outcomes we want, than from our choices that do. The biggest mistake people make is not avoiding mistakes (avoiding risk is lethal!); it’s refusing to admit when they’ve made them.

The highly successful people I’ve met and interviewed over the years—from Sir Richard Branson to hotelier Bill Marriott to seven-time world champion surfing pro Layne Beachley, whom I interviewed for RawCourageTV—can quickly recount plenty of mistakes. What sets them apart is that they aren’t too proud to admit when they’ve made the wrong judgment call. Rather they fail fast and quit quickly. As Richard Branson advises, “Don’t be embarrassed by your failures. Learn from them and start again.”

So let me ask you, where might you be investing—time, talent, money or energy—in something (or someone!) primarily because of how much you’ve already put into it? And how might calling it a day free you up to invest in something that could ultimately serve you (and the world) so much more?

Although calling it quits can be painful, it frees you up to pursue new possibilities that will make you wonder why you ever held on for so long.

On that note, I’m going to throw out a few more pairs of shoes!

Related: 10 Daily Habits Holding You Back From Success