“One day, a merchant decided that he would not have waited anymore. He sent several messages to a debtor who owed him money. Bothered by the delay, thinking he was not respected, he started a journey to go collect the 10 florins he missed.
To reach the village where his debtor was living had to cross a river, so he had to resort to the services of a boatman that cost him 5 florins.
Fortunately, the merchant managed to find his debtor who paid him the amount due. Happy and on his way back home, he had to cross the river again and pay the boatman.
When the night come, at bedtime, he realized that he had invested several hours of his life and paid money to claim a debt and eventually remained with the same amount of money as in the morning.”
This story reminds us of those who obsessively pursue a goal, without realizing that they end up neglecting much more important issues and, worse, their stubbornness can cause harm to themselves or to others.
The unhealthy exaltation of perseverance
In our society we give value to perseverance and we want to convey this value to our children. There is nothing wrong with this. Always if done with moderation. The problem begins when it is assumed as an obligation, when we believe we have no choice but to persevere. Undoubtedly, positive phrases have also contributed to this, such as “never give up” or “perseverance eliminates all obstacles”.
However, any value assumed as the only possible solution implies limiting ourselves, because it prevents us from seeing other alternatives, which may be less harmful or result in lower emotional costs. When we think that if we abandon a project that has lost its meaning or has stopped motivating us it means “failing” or “being weak”, we have a problem because, in the end, that thought is an expression of a rigid “ego”.
Persevering is important because all great things require sacrifices and time, but it is also important to develop a detached attitude that will allow us to evaluate the effort made in terms of cost/benefit, including the emotional sphere.
Our emotional predictions are distorted
When deciding whether to persevere or change course, it’s important to keep in mind that emotions can play bad jokes. Our emotional predictions are distorted. Harvard University psychologists have spent years studying the phenomenon of emotional prediction and found that although we are able to predict the value of emotions, we are not very precise in predicting their intensity or duration.
This means that we are not very good at predicting how happy or satisfied we will be when we achieve certain goals, or how long we will feel bad about dropping a project, or how intense it may be the discomfort. We tend to go to extremes: we think that we will feel very happy when we reach our goal and believe that we will feel bad if we fail, but reality shows us that’s not true.
This is due, at least in part, to the fact that the effort we made during the journey has worn us and the results we achieved did not give us the satisfaction we expected. That is why when we reach certain expectations, we may have a bitter-sweet taste in our mouth. Knowing this, we can assume a more objective attitude to assess whether it is worth continuing to persevere.
Sometimes the result is not as important as the path we have traveled
Sometimes we insist on getting something just because we do not want to waste the time and efforts invested. This phenomenon is known in the field of economy as “unrecoverable expenses”, one of the main causes that lead us to make irrational decisions.
The unrecoverable expenses are generated by our aversion to loss. In practice, we think that if we do not go ahead with a project where we have invested time, sacrifice and even money, we will lose that investment. Continuing to invest, it often produces an additional cost and so we are locked in a cycle of dissatisfaction.
We must realize that this investment is already lost, and that it is not necessary to continue investing in a failure. Perhaps we have already spent money on the ticket of the theater, but if at the last minute we decide we do not want to see the “opera”, we must not waste our time and force us to do something we do not want, we can simply change our plans.
Therefore, when a project has ceased to make sense, we are no longer excited or simply requires too many resources, perhaps it is time to abandon. When we are engaged in something and the only reason we keep going is “because I’ve been investing time and effort”, something does not go as it should.
Changing idea is not negative, on the contrary, it can be synonymous of growth. Change projects or realize that something has stopped to passionate us does not mean that we have failed, it still remains the experience we have experienced, which can be a source of wisdom. In fact, often it doesn’t matter what goal you’ve reached, but the person you’ve become while you were walking on that path.
Surrender is not negative, in some cases it can be a sign of intelligence. The true wisdom consists in finding the balance between persevering and abandoning, in being able to discern between stubbornness and real possibilities. Investing in this skill will save you the most precious thing you have in life: your time.
Wilson, T. D. & Gilbert, D. T. (2003) Affective Forecasting. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology; 35: 345-411.
Arkes, H.R.; Ayton, P. (1999) The Sunk Cost and Concorde effects: are humans less rational than lower animals? Psychological Bulletin; 125 (5): 591-600.