Just Don't Do It

Americans don't know when to quit.

Just Don't Do It
Photo by Jason Mavrommatis on Unsplash

The most difficult thing in the world isn't winning against all odds.

It's quitting.

In 2016, Alex Honnold wanted to free solo the most famous rock in the world, Yosemite's El Capitan. He planned to climb it without any ropes or assistance whatsoever. If he fell, he would die. One of his friends invested serious time and money into building a film crew and making a documentary out of the endeavor. A month before winter, Honnold sprained his ankle. After a partial recovery, he tried to make the climb but turned around before finishing.

He quit.

A year later, he tried again. This time, he made it. His friend was finally able to finish the documentary. It won an Oscar. Newspapers hailed Honnold as one of the greatest athletes of all time.

Not everyone who quits wins an Oscar.

At least they don't die.

Annie Duke explores the psychology of quitting in her book, Quit. She talks about Honnold's rare example of patience and restraint. Unfortunately, the vast majority of us don't possess it. From birth, we're steeped in a culture that tells us to never give up. There's an entire genre of books, articles, speeches, podcasts, and internet slogans dedicated to this idea.

Sometimes it's called grit, other times resilience.

It's wrong.

In the 1950s, Harold Staw pioneered one of the first appliance and housewares chains in California. He made a massive amount of money and wound up expanding beyond his home state. A decade later, Kmart started outcompeting him. To stay successful, he would've had to sell off several locations. He refused. Not only did Staw bankrupt his business, but he also depleted his own personal fortune trying to support his first stores. He was too attached to them, a fallacy known as escalating commitment.

Staw's son Barry published the first paper on escalating commitment in a 1976 issue of Organizational Behavior and Human Performance. His research, no doubt inspired by watching his father's refusal to quit, found that negative consequences often compel leaders and business investors to commit even more resources toward failing endeavors. They commit the most resources when they feel personally responsible for the failure.

As Duke writes, "when we are getting strong signals that we're losing...we don't merely refuse to quit. We will double and triple down... and we will strengthen our belief that we are on the right path."

A similar study by social psychologists Joel Brockner and Jeffrey Rubin found that university students would wait so long for a dictionary during a timed crossword puzzle that it invalidated a $50 reward. If they'd resigned early, they still would've earned some cash. Instead, they waited until the reward dropped to almost nothing. That's the cost of hope.

Here's the punchline to the study:

There was never a dictionary.

It was a trick.

Brockner and Rubin eventually published their results from these studies in a 1985 book, Entrapment in Escalating Conflicts. In the decades since, psychologists and journalists have documented countless examples of individuals, businesses, and governments pouring billions of dollars and endless hours into projects that were going nowhere and doomed to failure.

Around the same time, Richard Thaler first introduced the idea of sunk cost fallacy in 1980, the idea that the time and money you've already committed to a failed project provides a reason to keep going.

It doesn't.

Thaler also introduced a related bias called the endowment effect. People tend to overestimate the value of their own personal belongings, even when they're presented with clear evidence to the contrary. This overestimation extends to beliefs and ideologies. And if you happened to build that particular business or start that particular war, then your sense of endowment and sunk cost is the greatest. You'll feel intense pressure to keep going at all costs, no matter what goes wrong.

You can see this failure to quit all over American politics. Both our current presidential candidates should've quit years ago. They keep going at the expense of the entire planet. Our climate crisis is driven by a relentless optimism that somehow we can find limitless energy without destroying what's left of our home, even as we blow through every tipping point we've been warned about. The wars we've fought for the last 50 years are classic examples of escalating commitment.

In 2019, a team of scientists played a cruel little trick on some mice. They built a device that delivered sugar for poking their snouts up a hole, gradually reducing the reward each time. Eventually, the mice were poking their snouts up the hole 20 times. That was their breaking point.

After about 20 pokes, they quit.

When studying the mice's brains, the scientists found something interesting. Before giving up, there was a surge of a chemical called nociceptin, the opposite of dopamine. The scientists published their results in Cell, speculating about the possibility of helping humans with depression by artificially lowering the levels of nociceptin in their brains.

This study is just waiting to fall into the wrong hands.

I'm sure CEOs would love to eliminate the nociceptin in our brains, to keep everyone chasing after unattainable goals despite increasingly long odds, as they sit back and reap the rewards. A mouse who keeps performing labor without any sugar possesses immense value.

Wild animals know when to quit. We've been conditioned to never give up. Time and again, the research shows that most of us will fail to extract ourselves from a losing situation once we're in it. We won't think clearly about the risks and rewards, and we'll make bad decisions.

There's one strategy to avoid all this.

It's called kill criteria.

Annie Duke used kill criteria to become a world-class poker champion. Before going into a game or tournament, she identified clear stopping points, like losing a certain amount of money or a certain number of hands. She stuck to them. It was knowing when to quit that made her successful. The idea of kill criteria has become a life-saving strategy for everyone from business investors to military commanders. They decided up front when they would quit. They identified trigger points. They stuck to them.

It sounds pessimistic to plan for failure.

Most of our public institutions don't have these kinds of kill criteria, or they do and they're horrifying.

This mindset explains why we haven't been able to deal with any of our problems, whether we're talking about inflation, pandemics, or wars. Our leaders are doubling and tripling down on the same bad plans, committing evermore resources despite clear signs they should call it quits.

Even worse, our leaders have insulated themselves from the rising cost of failure. Whether they're a senator or the head of a giant investment firm, it's almost impossible for them to truly experience failure. There's always a bailout or a golden parachute waiting for them.

Meanwhile, food companies and defense contractors reap enormous profits from escalating commitments. They love inflation and unwinnable wars. We're the ones who pay the price for pyrrhic victories.

It's easy to go around chanting "never give up" when you have endless access to government contracts, forgivable loans, a disposable workforce, and rich parents. They think they're like Alex Honnold, except they're not free-soloing El Capitan without a rope. They're just pretending.

We're the rope.

From wars on children to artificial intelligence that tells us to jump off a bridge, escalating commitments are birthing a lot of bad ideas. We're being told to exercise our way through medical problems and build up our heat tolerance in a world that increasingly can't support life.

It all comes from the same bad ideas.

I've been thinking a lot about failure recently. I left my home. I'm selling it at a significant loss. I quit my job. I gave up a career I loved. I left friendships on the table. I've got projects that aren't going as well as I imagined. If that weren't enough, I'm joining the millions of people out there who have to live through the failures of our institutions, while giving them the money we need to survive, so they can waste it on any number of lost causes.

Given all this, you're allowed to quit.

It's not always a bad idea.

They say, just do it.

I say, just don't.


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