The Sunk Cost Fallacy: Why are you doing that?


It is a noble and exclusively human proclivity, the desire to persevere, the will to stay the course – studies show lower animals and small children do not commit this fallacy. Wasps and worms, rats and raccoons, toddlers and tikes, they do not care how much they’ve invested or how much goes to waste. They can only see immediate losses and gains. As an adult human being, you have the gift of reflection and regret. You can predict a future place where you must admit your efforts were in vain, your losses permanent, and when you accept the truth it is going to hurt.

Excerpt from You are Not So Smart; The sunk cost fallacy.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the sunk cost fallacy lately. We think we making decisions based on the future value of things when in truth we make decisions based on our past experience and the fear of losing what we have already invested in something.

My friends say things like “you have to do this for the love of doing it. You can’t ever expect to make a living doing it.” While I agree in parts with this sentiment, my brain twists and turns and remembers that every waking moment, since as long as I knew I was dedicating my life to this pursuit, has been dedicated to music. I am making a living. Because don’t you get it? If I didn’t, I would just be dying.

So am I continuing to pursue a dream that is so irrational it has no chance of materializing? Have a I failed to let it go because then I would be abandoning everything I have put into it thus far? Or have I even really admitted what that dream is? What am I pursuing? Would I be just as happy playing music for myself at home or for just a select group of local friends?

I think I need to clarify the (thing) dream (thing)  that I’m getting at here. For those who aren’t in this biz it’s I’m not trying to make it or be the kind of star in the way that lay people think about the music world.  The dream I’ve been pursuing is some kind of  practical middle-class lifestyle that includes playing around 150-200 shows a year to enough people to make it sustainable and yes, profitable. I never wanted to be rich.  I’d just like to be able to pay the drummer, a mortgage, bills and just maybe save a little for retirement. But that’s an economic sunk cost. The sunk cost that hurts the most is the emotional one. How do you decide to walk away from the only thing that has ever been a constant in your life if it begets more pain than joy? I guess the question isn’t how but when? Don’t all good things come to an end?

For me that answer is always a resounding NO!

Up to this moment, I’ve been persisting so hard I never stopped to think. In retrospect I can now see that is how I dedicated 17 years of my life to the intense study of classical music. Once I found myself ankle deep in Beethoven Sonatas, all I did was keep wading further in. I think many of us do the same in our professional pursuits. I don’t regret it, I just realize that my personal truth was that I really wanted to be a creator, a maker, and instead I pursued something that wasn’t entirely that thing. I pursued grades, accolades, awards and  the sense of accomplishment that came with playing well for my teachers. I skirted around the thing. I enjoyed the music and felt passionate about it, but I always knew that it was a pathway to something else. Classical music was an instruction manual on how to put music together.

As I get ready to step into the next phase of my artistic life and career I feel a little more aware of the motivation behind my choices. I can see how relying on my own teaching for income has allowed me to focus on making the kind of art that I want to make versus what would be commercially viable. I also see how it has slowed me down! I never felt like I had to hustle or really promote a record because I didn’t need to bank on it’s success.

Moving forward, I plan on making some major changes. As much as I love my piano students, I never wanted to be a piano teacher. I’m grateful for the life it’s provided me and wouldn’t trade the relationships I’ve developed for anything. While I won’t give up teaching entirely, I am doing some serious life-weeding! I hope that by writing about it will be even easier to materialize some of the goals I’ve created for myself.

I’m sharing these thoughts as a precursor to re-launching my blog series She Persisted. I want to continue to explore other creative types who have persisted in their endeavors while also asking the question why? Why do we persist? Why do you persist? Do you even know what you want?

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