Should I Stay or Should I Change Career? Change job? Change company?   How to make a decision.

If you know someone who is struggling with the decision whether to continue with a job, a company or a career that they have spent 15+ years in, this article might help them.

This song (below) was running through my brain while writing and I couldn’t resist checking out the video. Interesting fact: It was their only #1 UK single and reached that lofty position over a decade after release when it was featured in an Levi’s advert.

I’ve got a dilemma for you

Your partner’s Big Birthday is approaching.  They’ve always wanted to go to Restaurant X. You’ve been on the waiting list for 6 months and a spot has come up on her actual birthday.  You pay the outrageous, non-refundable deposit to secure a table for 8 of her closest friends for a surprise dinner. The morning of his/her birthday, you are offered two tickets to an intimate, never-to-be-repeated concert for 50 people with his/her life-long, all-time favourite band, for free, ON THE SAME NIGHT!

What do you do?

·         Do you crack on with the restaurant booking because you’ve paid that whacking, great deposit?

·         Do you go to the concert and lose the outrageous deposit but give your wife a once-in-a-lifetime treat that she’ll talk about until his/her dying day?

·         Do you shrug your shoulders about wasting all those months on the waiting list?  

·         Do you forgo all those brownie points earned by remembering his/her desire to visit Restaurant X and conjuring up such a fabulous, extremely generous and thoughtful birthday present?

·         Do you even tell your partner about the concert ticket?

Sunk costs pose a real problem in life decisions…and in career decisions.

Definition of a sunk cost: Time, effort or money that you spent in the past that cannot be recovered.

The sunk cost effect: Occurs when people over-value investments of time, effort or money and irrationally continue with a past decision that no longer meets their expectations.

Why is the sunk cost effect is a problem?

Neuroscientists have discovered that we are prone to irrational behaviour when making decisions involving sunk costs. If the investment in the decision is low in emotional connection or low in cost, we can often be more rational. 

But, if high costs or high investments of time, effort or emotion are involved, things get complicated.

Every week I talk to people who have invested so much in a company, a job or a career that they believe they should keep battling on - even if it no longer fits their work or life goals.   

They don’t want to waste their past investments.

Examples of how sunk costs can get in the way of your work/career:

  • Wishing to progress up the people management ladder even though you don’t enjoy management (because you’ve read 100 leadership books, been on countless training courses and gone through so many tough “learning experiences” that you don’t want to waste all those quite painful investments).

  • Clinging on to a declining or commoditising industry even though profits, investments and future gains are all diminishing and attractive senior roles are disappearing faster than redundancy bullets can be fired (because of the time and energy already invested in developing relationships and expertise within that industry).  

  • Demonstrating loyalty to an employer that isn’t developing you or investing in your future but remaining hopeful that they will have a future together (because you believe that historical investment means something today).

  • Sticking with a project beyond the point which you have created the most value rather than moving onto the next big value project (because of the effort expended in getting it off the ground and convincing others that it was a good idea would be wasted if you didn’t see it to the absolute end.) In reality most of us know what often happens to people who tidy up the low-hanging, loose ends on projects…

  • Failing to develop meaningful relationships beyond company, industry and historical career paths (because of all of the effort, time and money invested in training to become a great Finance Director/Lawyer/Doctor/Architect etc)

Sunk costs are like gifts from your past self to your present self. You need to ignore them by asking whether you actually want that gift or not?

Sunk costs are like gifts from your past self to your present self. You need to ignore them by asking whether you actually want that gift or not?

Re-thinking sunk costs

I’d like to help you re-think sunk career costs in the way that Seth Godin helped me on this podcast.  Seth is the most thought-provoking marketing expert I’ve ever come across. He writes the only blog I read without fail and I could listen to his thoughts on just about anything on his podcast for endless hours (and often do).

Seth describes sunk costs as: “A gift from your past self to your current self.” 

I can’t tell you how much I love this idea.

OK – HERE WE GO.  HERE’S THE CLINCHER…

Remember the dilemma? 

Those expensive deposit for X restaurant for your partner’s birthday AND those free tickets to the once-in-a-lifetime, intimate concert with her favourite band – they both cost the same. 

THEY ARE BOTH FREE!

Eh?

They are both free because they were both gifts from your past self to your current self.

The only decision you need to make is…

Do you still want the gifts?  

You can’t have both, so you need to make a decision which gift you want to accept based on all the information you have available at this moment in time?

The same goes for all of these examples:

  • Your law degree/accounting qualification/medical diploma/architectural qualifications are each a gift from your past self to your current self. 

Today’s decision: Do you still want the gift?

  • Your investment in a company that isn’t treating you well is a gift from your past self to your current self. 

Today’s decision: Do you still want the gift?

  • Your relationships in your declining industry/commoditising industry are a gift from your past self to your new self.

Today’s decision: Do you still want the gift?

  • Your investment in getting the project over the value hump is a gift from your old self to your new self. 

Today’s decision: Do you still want the gift?

  • Your people management learning experiences, reading 100 leadership books and attendance at numerous leadership training courses are gifts from your past self to your current self. 

Today’s decision: Do you still want the gifts?

So, what could you say instead, if you don’t want the gifts from your past self to your current self?

What if you have realised that you don’t want the gifts (law degree, accounting career, current company etc) anymore?

You could say “Thanks but no thanks” to the gift. “I’m making a different decision based on all of the information available to me today. And that gift is not going to help me get to where I want to go.

You can be grateful for the gift but you can still say “No thanks” to taking it with you into your future.

Then…you just need to figure out where is it that you do want to go?

Other articles you might like:

10 reasons why mid-lifers stay in careers that don’t suit them anymore

Are you in a career rut or just having a bad month?

Have you reached your mid-career tipping point yet?

The key to doing work that makes you happier

If you know someone whose job, current company or your entire career doesn’t seem to be going the way they’d like it to go, why not encourage them to book in for one of my half hour “Light at the end of my Tunnel” calls where I promise to give them at least two personalised recommendations to help them figure out their next step.