You know you’re on the wrong career path, but can’t pull yourself away. To do so would be to give up all you’ve invested and admit failure (to everyone). So, you stick it out—despite desperately wanting to change course.
It turns out, there’s actually a name for this kind of behavior: the escalation of commitment.
Escalation of commitment (often just called “irrational escalation,” which should tell you something) is the behavior that leads us to continue to invest time, money, or effort into a bad decision or unproductive course of action even when, deep down, we know it’s all wrong.
It happens in a number of situations—for example, an organization continues to pursue a project they know is bound to fail, or a group of people decides to wait for a table at a restaurant after already having waited for 30 minutes. And, it’s the main reason we’re afraid to change careers and choose to stay in a job we hate.
So, why do we do this?
We’re Scared to Turn Back After Already Spending So Much Time and Money
In economics, there’s a concept called “sunk costs,” otherwise known as money you’ve spent that can’t be recovered. What researchers have found is that people act irrationally in the face of sunk costs—basically, because they’ve already invested X amount of money into something, they have to keep doing it, even if it’s ultimately doomed to fail or the wrong decision for them.
Take my personal story for a real-life example: Before starting my own career coaching business, I was a lawyer. Despite being unhappy, I struggled to leave. Because to leave would be to say I’d wasted a lot of time and a lot of money.
The same goes for everything you’ve put into your career so far—maybe you’ve spent 10 years in sales working your butt off, and are now realizing it’s not for you. Or, you’ve enrolled in a an engineering boot camp only to discover you don’t enjoy coding as much as you thought.
The thing about sunk costs is they’re just that: sunk, gone, irretrievable. But they’re not a waste. Everything you do makes you a better, smarter, and more informed person, even if it doesn’t directly contribute to your dream career.
And this means that almost any skill can be transferable with the right mindset (and the right wording on your resume).
We’re Scared to Admit Failure
A harder, more personal hurdle to overcoming the escalation of commitment is self-justification, or the urge to protect our egos from failure.
We self-justify our actions for two reasons:
The first reason is because we don’t like to admit defeat, to ourselves or anyone else.
Have you ever gotten into an argument with a friend, and about halfway into the discussion realized they were right? What did you do—admit you were wrong and apologize, or continue arguing for your cause?
If you chose the latter option, that’s the ego part of escalation of commitment coming into play—you’d rather continue to stand by your decision, knowing fully well it’s incorrect, than admit you were wrong from the beginning.
The second reason we self-justify is because we favor consistency in ourselves and others. Society rewards people who stick it out and are persistent. So, we worry that changing course now will make us look lazy and quick to give up.
If all this is hitting close to home, don’t fret! Your ego doesn’t have to be right—in fact, if we didn’t experience failure and inconsistency in our lives, we’d never grow and learn from our mistakes.
So, if you’re in this situation, do these three things:
- Acknowledge how much you’ve changed since you chose this path: By separating the person you were from the person you are today, you’re creating psychological distance and giving yourself permission to change your mind. You’ve changed. Your career can, too.
- Remember that you’re more than just your job: Create a list of everything you’ll still have if you change careers—your family, your friends, your hobbies, your passions. By reinforcing your identity outside of work, you’ll see that while switching paths will require change, it won’t upend your entire life.
- Remember that success isn’t always linear: Though the idea of a linear path sounds comforting, it doesn’t make much sense if it’s a straight path to misery. If your definition of success isn’t possible on this path, the only way to be successful is to turn around. (For more information on how to define what success means to you, read this article and this one.)
Yes, making a change is scary, and full of uncertainties. But don’t let the escalation of commitment keep you from doing something you really want to do, and what might ultimately be a better decision for your career.
Photo of person thinking courtesy of Hoxton/Martin Barraud/Getty Images.
Leila Hock is the Senior Innovation & Training Manager at Diversity Lab and a Career Strategy Coach who helps successful, mid-career professionals advance or transition their career in a strategic way in line with their long-term goals. After a successful, nine-year legal career, Leila realized she was headed quickly toward success in a profession she no longer cared to pursue. She founded Alignment Coaching in 2015 and has recently joined the Diversity Lab team to support the advancement of diversity in the legal profession. Connect with her on LinkedIn to learn more.More from this Author