The Upside of Quitting

Season 1, Episode 5

You know the bromide: “a winner never quits, and a quitter never wins.”

To which Freakonomics Radio says … Are you sure? Sometimes quitting is strategic, and sometimes it can be your best possible plan.

That is the gist of our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast, “The Upside of Quitting.” This is the last of five hour-long podcasts we’ve been putting out lately. Some of you may have heard them on public-radio stations around the country, but now all the hours are being fed into our podcast stream. (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen live via the media player above, or read the transcript here.)

To help us understand quitting, we look at a couple of key economic concepts in this episode: sunk cost and opportunity cost. Sunk cost is about the past – it’s the time or money or sweat equity you’ve put into a job or relationship or a project, and which makes quitting hard. Opportunity cost is about the future. It means that for every hour or dollar you spend on one thing, you’re giving up the opportunity to spend that hour or dollar on something else – something that might make your life better. If only you weren’t so worried about the sunk cost. If only you could …. quit.

There is a large cast of characters in this episode, ranging from prostitutes and baseball players to former government officials and a couple of Amish women who left the fold. You’ll also hear Steve Levitt talk about his quitting strategies, and I describe my life as a serial quitter, having abandoned, in order: the rock band to which I had devoted my youth; Catholicism; and The New York Times.

Some other folks you’ll hear from:

Sudhir Venkatesh, the Columbia sociologist (and blog contributor) whose research we wrote about in both Freakonomics (“Why Do Drug Dealers Live With Their Moms?”) and SuperFreakonomics (“What Do a Street Prostitute and a Department-Store Santa Have in Common?”) has lately been doing a lot of research into quitting. So we brought him aboard for this hour to talk to two groups of workers whose skills are perishable and yet have a hard time walking away from their jobs: prostitutes and baseball players.

Columbia University sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh at Campbell’s Field, home of the Camden Riversharks.

Along with one of his students at Columbia, a former ballplayer named Justin Humphries, Venkatesh took a look at the socioeconomic background and outcome of the 2001 baseball draft class (which included Humphries) and found that, for many of them, sticking it out for years in the minors amounted to a poor economic decision, at least when compared to observationally equivalent young men:

VENKATESH: “The average player probably looks like an upper-middle-class kid who comes out of college or comes out of high school. And when you follow an upper-middle-class kid for about seven to ten years, they’re probably going to make higher than the median average income. They’re probably going to live in a neighborhood that’s relatively safe. They’re going to have a career. Now, when you take the counterpart among the pool that was drafted, that median kid, that kid looks likes he’s making about $20,000 to $24,000 a year, which is not a lot of money. He’s working probably five to seven months playing baseball, and then struggling to find part-time work in the off-season. Might be coaching, might be doing some training, might be working on a construction site. Might be working in fast food.”

Justin Humphries with the Salem Avalanche of the Carolina League in 2005. Humphries was 23, already in his sixth season with the Houston Astros organization.

Not so many years ago, Justin Humphries was considered one of the best young baseball players in the country – a big power-hitter from a suburb of Houston. Getting drafted by the hometown Astros was especially sweet – and they threw in some money for education, for later. But Humphries wasn’t thinking about that. He had one goal: to make the majors. But in 2009, after a few injuries and a lot of minor-league stops, Humphries quit baseball at the ripe age of 27. Roughly 10 percent of the American ballplayers who get drafted each year will ever make the majors; but probably close to 100 percent of them think they will.

HUMPHRIES: “Well, when you’re 25, playing in independent ball, making less than $2,000 a month. Living off your parents because you can’t financially sustain yourself like that. At some point you have to say to look…with no degree. I had less than an associate degree at that point. So, at some point, you have to tell yourself, ‘I can’t do this to myself. I can’t do this to my parents. And I can’t continue …when I know that there’s untapped potential to do other things.'”

You’ll also hear from Robert Reich, the U.S. Secretary of Labor during President Clinton’s first term. He helped put in place the Family and Medical Leave Act; he raised the minimum wage. On his watch, unemployment fell below 5 percent –- the lowest it had been in 20 years! It’s hard to say how effective any one person in Washington really is, but Time magazine named Reich one of the 10 best Cabinet members of the 20th century.

Robert Reich, a happy one-time quitter, now a professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California,Berkeley


REICH: “Well, I decided. … I mean, this was long in coming. I was feeling more and more miserable about not seeing my kids, it was weighing on me to a greater, and greater extent. I made the decision that shortly after the election I would leave. And then one day I went into the Oval Office and explained to the President that I just felt that I had no choice. He was very understanding about it.”

Among the academics you’ll hear from in this episode: Carsten Wrosch, a psychologist at Concordia University in Montreal, talking about the benefits of giving up unattainable goals; and Hal Arkes, a psychologist at Ohio State University, who talks about how badly human beings weigh sunk costs (even worse, it turns out, than animals and children).

And we talk to quitters from A to Z, quite literally: a pair of former Amish women and a Zappos employee who took the company up on its famous cash bonus for quitting. The ex-Amish were particularly interesting to hear from. One is Saloma Furlong, author of Why I Left the Amish; the other is Emma Gingerich, who’s working on a book to be called Runaway Amish Girl.

Saloma Furlong with a boy she used to babysit, in a photo taken shortly before she left the Amish.

Emma Gingerich, self-proclaimed “runaway Amish girl.”

You’ll also hear from Eric Greitens, who got a Ph.D. in politics from Oxford and then joined the Navy SEALS. He fought in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, and has now has written a book called The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL. Greitens talks to us about Hell Week, during which the Navy weeds out the SEALS from the wannabes:

Eric Greitens talks about what the Navy does to encourage non-SEAL material to weed itself out


GREITENS: “It is a week of continuous military training during which most classes sleep for a total of two to five hours over the course of the week. During Hell Week, they have you running for miles on soft sand on the beach, doing two-mile ocean swims, running the obstacle course, they put you on small teams and ask you to land small rubber boats on jagged rocks in the middle of the night. There are all of these tests which are designed to push people to their physical, mental and emotional limits. … I don’t think many people want to say to themselves that they’ve quit. At the same time, we’ve all failed in our lives, we’ve all failed at different things and I think there’s a lot to be said about facing that failure squarely. And the people who I know, who are able to admit, “This isn’t the right for me at this time and I went over and I decided to quit, I decided to ring the bell,” they’re really able to move on from their experiences. And I do find that there’s only shame in it if you feel shame.

And best of all, I get to talk to Jon Wurster, one of my former bandmates from The Right Profile. (Here’s a song of ours, called “Cosmopolitan Lovesick Blues.“) Not long after we signed to a major label, I decided to quit. Thankfully, Jon kept playing music — with, among others, Superchunk and the Mountain Goats. (He is also a titan of comedy.)

Jon Wurster playing a September, 2010, concert in Durham, N.C., with Superchunk.

Hope you enjoy listening to this episode as much as I enjoyed making it. You might, of course, quit listening right in the middle.

Audio Transcript

Stephen J. DUBNER: I’d like you to stop whatever  you’re doing right now.  No no, I don’t mean like stop so you can give  your full attention to this radio show. I mean, honestly, radio is the  perfect medium for multitasking — unless maybe you’re using a chainsaw  or something. What I mean is Stop. Whatever. You’re. Doing. As in, doing  with your life. Maybe it’s your job. Maybe it’s a relationship that’s  curdled. Maybe there’s some dream project  you’ve been working on so  long that you can’t even remember what got you all heated up about it in  the first place. I want to encourage you to just quit. Or at least  think about quitting. Why? Well, because everybody else is always saying  the opposite. It’s become so ingrained that we don’t even think about  it any more. You know: “a quitter never wins and a winner never quits.”  You know what I think when I hear people say that? I think: Are you  sure?

ANNOUNCER: From WNYC and APM: American Public  Media, this is Freakonomics Radio. Today: “The Upside of Quitting.”  [UNDERWRITING] Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

DUBNER: So I hang out with a lot of economists. (I know,  you’re envious.) But there are two things they love to talk about that  will help us understand quitting. One is called “sunk cost” and the  other is “opportunity cost.” “Sunk cost” is about the past — it’s the  time, or money, or sweat equity that you’ve put into something, which  makes it hard to abandon. “Opportunity cost” is about the future. It  means that for every hour or dollar you spend on one thing, you’re  giving up the opportunity to spend that hour or dollar on something else  — something that might make your life better. If only you weren’t so  worried about the sunk cost. If only you could quit. Let’s start with  the story of a woman we’ll call “Allie.” Back in 1999, when she was  about 25, Allie’s life was already what most people would consider  pretty successful:


ALLIE:I was working for a Fortune 500, large company.

DUBNER: What kind of work were you doing?

ALLIE: Industrial computer programming.

DUBNER: What kind of money were you making then?

ALLIE: You know, sixty, seventy thousand dollars a year.

DUBNER: And you were living where?

ALLIE: I was living in Texas.

DUBNER: OK, so sixty or seventy thousand dollars  as a twenty-five year old living in Texas goes a pretty long way. That  sounds pretty good.

ALLIE: Oh, for sure.

DUBNER: And how did you like to spend your money, generally?

ALLIE: I think like most 25 year old women, you know, shoes, and I had a nice place to live and a decent car to drive, so…

DUBNER: And how did you like the job?

ALLIE: I never loved it. I am more of a social person,  and it requires long, long periods of sitting at a computer desk talking  to nobody.

DUBNER: I understand that you ended up quitting this job.  In your new pursuit — did you have to take a big pay cut?

ALLIE: The new job paid way better.

DUBNER: Way better like, fifty percent more? Twice as much?

ALLIE: More.

DUBNER: Three times as much? Four times as much?

ALLIE: Somewhere around there.

DUBNER: Somewhere around four times as much?

ALLIE: Yeah, maybe even more.

DUBNER: That means, well you must’ve of, that means you  must of had to work way more hours than you worked as a computer  programmer then, right?

ALLIE: This is what was so great about it. I had to work a lot less.

DUBNER: It must have been very, very, very difficult or unpleasant work, then?

ALLIE: Oh, no. I enjoyed my work and enjoyed my free  time and of course the extra money allowed me to do a lot of the things I  wasn’t able to do before.

DUBNER: So tell me, what was this new work that you found?

ALLIE: The new job that I found was that I was a  high-end escort. It paid somewhere between three hundred and fifty to  five hundred dollars an hour.

DUBNER: In retrospect, how do you feel about that  decision back then to quit that solid, steady fairly good-paying job for  the life of a high-end escort?

ALLIE: You know, of course it’s always scary to  leave behind something that’s legit. And go with something that maybe  isn’t considered that. I really enjoyed it. I know that it was the right  decision for me. For me, I don’t have a problem with having sex with  strangers. But it wasn’t something that I felt was demoralizing. And I  enjoyed it. I enjoyed my customers; I enjoyed the kindness, and I  enjoyed every part of it.

DUBNER: All right, so we’re probably starting off on the  wrong foot here. I encourage you to think about quitting, and the first  person we hear from quit a perfectly good job to become a hooker! But  hear me out. My thesis is simple: in our zeal to “tough things out,” to  keep our nose to the grindstone, in our zeal to win, we underestimate  the upside of quitting. Now full disclosure here: I am a serial quitter.  I’ve quit a dream job, with the New York Times; I quit my  childhood dream — being a rock star; I even quit a religion. We’ll get  to my quits later. First, here’s someone who made headlines when he  quit.

Robert REICH: Well, I decided–I mean this was  long in coming–I was feeling more and more miserable about not seeing  my kids, it was weighing on me to a greater, and greater extent. I made  the decision that shortly after the election I would leave. And then one  day I went into the Oval Office and explained to the president that I  just felt that I had no choice. He was very understanding about it.

DUBNER: That’s Robert Reich. He was the U.S. Secretary of  Labor during President Clinton’s first term. He helped put in place the  Family and Medical Leave Act; he raised the minimum wage. On his watch,  unemployment fell below 5 percent — the lowest it had been in 20 years!  Now it’s hard to say how effective any one person in Washington really  is, but Time magazine named Reich one of the 10 best Cabinet members of the twentieth century. And then Reich quit.

REICH: The question for me was well, how do I  alert my employees and the segment of the public that felt that they  were relying on me in some way? How did I handle it publicly? It’s a  delicate matter. I decided that I would write an op-ed for the New York  Times, “My Personal Family Leave Act.” I had been responsible for  implementing the Family and Medical Leave Act that actually was passed  years before. And it seems to me important to say to men as well as  women that it is OK to leave your job.
DUBNER: Here, as Reich wrote it, was his dilemma: “You  love your job and you love your family, and you desperately want more of  both.” His wife and two teenage sons were back in Cambridge,  Massachusetts. And he was — well, he could have been anywhere.

REICH: You know the other cabinet officers go to  wonderful locations around the world, Paris, London, Shanghai, and  elsewhere. The Secretary of Labor goes to Toledo, Ohio, or maybe St.  Louis if it’s really a great day.
DUBNER: The funny thing is no one believed Reich quit  because he actually wanted to spend more time with his family. That’s  what CEO’s say when they’re booted. But people — especially male people  — don’t quit White House jobs to do that. But Reich really meant it!  As he saw it, there was a big upside to quitting.

REICH: It was exactly the right move. I think if  I had not done it I would have regretted it all my life. I wouldn’t  have spent any time–the boys then would have gone off to college, off  to their careers, you know I just wouldn’t have those years. At the same  time, I think I was fooling myself a little bit in thinking that young  teenage boys would drop everything when their father came home and say,  “Oh dad it’s great to have you, let’s play!”  No, they were very happy  to have me there but then they said, “But dad, we’re going off with our  friends.” So, I kind of would trail around after them a little bit with  my with my metaphoric tail between my legs and try to, you know, well  say, “Wouldn’t you like to play? How about going to a baseball game?”
DUBNER: Robert Reich quit what was, for him, a dream job:  running the Department of Labor of the United States. But tell me the  truth — when you were a kid, did you dream of running the Department of  Labor? Or maybe you had a dream that sounded more like this.

Justin HUMPHRIES: You get a phone call that  says, ‘How’s it feel to be the next member of the Houston Astros?’ It’s a  dream come true.So I ended up signing.  I got some money to pay for  school, and went straight to Martinsville at 18.
DUBNER.: That’s Justin Humphries. Not long ago, he was  considered one of the best young baseball players in the country — a  big power-hitter from a suburb of Houston. Getting drafted by the  hometown Astros was especially sweet — and they threw in some money for  education, for later. But Humphries wasn’t thinking about that. He had  one goal: to make the majors. So he went off to the Astros’ minor-league  team in Martinsville, Virginia. And then more teams in Kentucky,  Louisiana, Florida, New Jersey. But not, you may have noticed, Houston.  He hit pretty well — but he hurt his wrist, and then his knee, and in  2009, at the ripe age of 27, Humphries quit baseball. Now, only 11  percent of the kids who get drafted each year make the majors; but  probably close to 100 percent of them think they will. Humphries, even  before he quit for good, started back in school, at a junior college in  Texas. He wound up transferring to Columbia University, where he took a  sociology course with a professor named Sudhir Venkatesh. You may  recognize that name. We wrote about his exploits in Freakonomics;  as a grad student in Chicago, Venkatesh embedded himself with a crack  gang, and got access to their financial records. We wrote about him in SuperFreakonomics too: he did an extensive survey of street prostitutes.Guess what Venkatesh is studying these days?

Sudhir VENKATESH: I’m interested in quitting for  a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it’s hard for me to  do it. But I also think it’s just really, really hard the older you  get, especially when you start identifying yourself with a job.

DUBNER: All right, so you actually looked in a fairly systematic, empirical way at baseball players.

VENKATESH: So, I actually never thought I would  be interested in looking at baseball from the standpoint of a job, and  one of my students, Justin Humphries, used to play baseball for the  Houston Astros organization. And he was in my class.

HUMPHRIES: So, I was sitting in his classroom, I  started thinking about all the issues that I had seen in independent  baseball and affiliated baseball: guys living check-to-check, struggling  with whether they should go back to school, family life, issues at  home. And I thought if I could use some of the things that we were  learning in class, talk to some of these guys, and find out whether the  stories and things that I was seeing and hearing would be reflected in  the numbers.

VENKATESH: We followed a sample of the draft  class of 2001, and so that’s about 10 years, and so we thought that  would help us understand what happens to these folks. Now, this doesn’t  include the immigrants because when they came into the country and they  didn’t go through the draft to play ball. These are just the people who  were out of high school or who were in college, and they were drafted by  a major league team. I think one of the most curious things that we  find is how much ten years matter. If you take two people who grew up in  the same circumstances, let’s say one played baseball and one didn’t,  the person who plays baseball is making about forty percent less on  average ten years after they enter the game than the person who decides  not to play baseball and who just wanted a regular career.

DUBNER: All right, so what kind of background was typical for the American-born players that you’re tracking?

VENKATESH: The average player probably looks  like an upper-middle-class kid who comes out of college or comes out of  high school. And when you follow an upper-middle-class kid for about  seven to ten years, they’re probably going to make higher than the  median average income. They’re probably going to live in a neighborhood  that’s relatively safe. They’re going to have a career. Now, when you  take the counterpart among the pool that was drafted, that median kid,  that kid looks likes he’s making about twenty to twenty-four thousand  dollars a year, which is not a lot of money. He’s working probably five  to seven months playing baseball, and then struggling to find part-time  work in the off-season. ight be coaching, might be doing some training,  might be working on a construction site. ight be working in fast food.

DUBNER: So, Sudhir, you went down to Camden not  long ago, right? To talk to some of these ballplayers? Camden is in the  Atlantic League. That’s an independent league, meaning there’s no direct  path to a big-league team. A lot of the guys on a team like this have  already been through the minor leagues and either topped out in talent  or aged out, right?

VENKATESH: Most of the guys on the Camden  Riversharks are probably in their late twenties. And so they’ve actually  had careers in the Minor League system. And it didn’t happen for them.  And so they come into the Atlantic League thinking that they’re still  going to be able to make it. You sort of want to be able to tell them,  “Hey do you know that it’s really unlikely that you’re going to make  it?” And the fact is that we learned that very few people, if any,  around them are telling them this. So they’re not really prepared to  talk about it, except some. Particularly this guy Noah Hall was a  really, really interesting person because he actually was thinking that  this may be the end.

Noah HALL: It’s probably not happening, you  know. It’s probably not happening, but I’m still going to, you know,  prepare and everything the same way I would, regardless, you know?   Because you never know. You still never know. I mean, in the back, the  way back of my mind it’s still there, you know. I know, I feel like,  trust me, I feel like sometimes hey, if I have a good start to this  year, whatever happens you never know. I could get picked up, and if I  went off wherever I went, it could happen.

VENKATESH: Noah is 34. Noah has been playing 16  seasons including this one. When you look at him, you probably don’t  think that he is a baseball player. He looks like a running back. This  is a guy who really looks like he’s never ever going to stop playing.

HALL: Some guys just see the writing on the  wall. And I just try to ignore the writing on the wall. I don’t know; I  don’t want to look back and say I didn’t give it everything I could. I  think I still, I could still play another 5, 10 years, I think.

VENKATESH: So Noah’s from Northern California,  and he was raised by his mom, a nurse. And Noah has a wife, Kelly — and  they have a lovely son, Isaiah. And Kelly and Isaiah follow Noah around  to whatever team he ends up playing for that season — and let me tell  you he’s played on a lot of teams over the years. After Noah’s practice,  I had a chance to go out to dinner with the Hall family and get to know  them a little bit.

Kelly HALL: I’m the one who’s there like when he  gets out and has a good game or when he has a bad game. I’m the one…I  go through that kind of emotional roller coaster with him.

VENKATESH: So one of the strange things we found  out when we spoke to baseball players is that they have their own  language for quitting. They actually quit. They just don’t call it that.  They don’t call it quitting. They don’t call it giving up. But, they  say, “You know what? I’m just going to shut it down for a while.”

VENKATESH: So, what does it mean to be a quitter as opposed to a “shutter downer”?

HALL: Probably the same thing, is just sounds  better when you say ‘I’m just shutting down.’ You know, it’s like you’re  not really doing it, but, you know, you are.

VENKATESH: Have you ever wanted to tell them, but you had to hold yourself back?

K.HALL: To shut it down? All the time.


K. HALL: Oh yeah, all the time. Especially in  the last couple of years. Yeah, especially in the last couple of years  we’ve really…we’ve actually fought over it. Because it is, it’s so hard.  Like I understand, being his wife and trying to be supportive. I  understand that it’s got to be really hard, because I do know how much  he loves the game.

DUBNER: Wow, that’s particularly poignant in my  view, because you know, because baseball’s one of those rare sports that  because it doesn’t have a clock, no game is ever out of reach. I mean,  you could be behind a thousand runs in the bottom of the ninth and  theoretically you can still come back and win. So that’s part of the  ethic of baseball is never, never, never quit. Quitting is not an  option.

VENKATESH: Yeah, quitting is usually not an  option. But Justin is trying to make it easier on the players to quit  and to make that transition. He’s been working on building an  organization that could help players to get out of baseball when the  time is right and to join that world that the rest of us live in.

HUMPHRIES: Well, when you’re 25, playing in  independent ball, making less than $2,000 a month, living off your  parents because you can’t financially sustain yourself like that. At  some point you have to say to look…with no degree. I had less than an  Associates degree at that point. So, at some point, you have to tell  yourself, ‘I can’t do this to myself. I can’t do this to my parents.And I  can’t continue when I know that they’re untapped potential to do other  things.

DUBNER: So Justin Humphries stared right into the dark  heart of his sunk costs, all those years he spent pursuing his dream –  and he made the big quit. We’ll hear more from Sudhir Venkatesh later in  the show. In a moment,we’ll tell you what my number-crunching  “Freakonomics” co-author Steve Levitt has in common with a bunch of  abs-crunching Navy SEALs.


ANNOUNCER: From WNYC and APM: American Public Media, this is Freakonomics Radio. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

DUBNER: So for ballplayers like Justin Humphries  and Noah Hall, quitting their athletic dream is a long, painful process.  Steve Levitt — he’s my Freakonomics friend and co-author, an economist  at the University of Chicago — he advocates quitting fast.

LEVITT: I try to talk my grad students into quitting all the time.

DUBNER: Quitting grad school?

LEVITT: Quitting grad school, yeah. A lot of  people — you make choices without a lot of information and then you get  new information. And quitting is often the right thing to do. I try to  talk my kids into quitting soccer, baseball if they’re not good at it. I  mean, I’ve never had any shame in quitting. I’ve quit economic theory, I  quit macroeconomics. I’ve pretty much quit everything that I’m bad at.

DUBNER: You do have this mantra: fail fast.

LEVITT: Fail quickly, yeah, exactly. So if I  were to say one of the single most important explanations for how I  managed to succeed against all odds in the field of economics, it was by  being a quitter. That ever since the beginning, my mantra has been  “fail quickly.”  If I started  with a hundred ideas, I’m lucky if two or three of those ideas will  ever turn into academic papers. One of my great skills as an economist  has been to recognize the need to fail quickly and the willingness to  jettison a project as soon as I realize it’s likely to fail.

DUBNER: Getting talked into quitting grad school by your 155-pound professor is one thing. How about a Navy SEAL instructor?

Eric GREITENS: So Hell Week is considered to be the hardest week of the hardest military training in the world.

DUBNER: That’s Eric Greitens. He got a PhD in politics  from Oxford and then joined the Navy SEALS. He fought in Iraq,  Afghanistan, and elsewhere, and has now has written a book called “The  Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a  Navy SEAL.”Here’s how Greitens remembers Hell Week.

GREITENS: It is a week of continuous  military training during which most classes sleep for a total of two to  five hours over the course of the entire week. During Hell Week they  have you running for miles in soft sand on the beach, doing two-mile  ocean swims, running the obstacle course, they put you on small teams  and ask you to land small rubber boats on jagged rocks in the middle of  the night. There are all of these tests which are designed to push  people to their physical, mental and emotional limit.
DUBNER: Hell Week is a useful way for the Navy to  determine who’s fit to be a SEAL, the kind of person you’d want to send  to get Osama Bin Laden. Greitens says the instructors hover over you,  taunting you, practically begging you to quit. And the vast majority  would quit before it was over. That’s the point.

GREITENS: You’ll hear the instructors come out  with their bullhorns and they’d say “That’s right, gentlemen, this is  only the beginning of the second night.” And what they did then was the  instructors took us out and they lined us up on the beach and they had  us watch as the sun was setting. And as the sun was setting the  instructors started to get inside people’s minds and said “Tonight is  going to be the hardest and the coldest and the toughest night of your  lives.” And they’d come over their bullhorns and they’d say “The week  just gets colder and tougher and worse and you’re only at the  beginning.” And they really started to get inside people’s minds. And I  can remember the instructor saying at one point, “If anybody quits right  now, we’ll give you a hot coffee and doughnuts.” Everybody was  freezing, so they set up this little incentive over there if you want to  go over and ring the bell you can quit and they’ll give you hot coffee  and doughnuts. And the whole idea is that the instructors really  encourage, they want everyone to succeed, but if people are going to  quit, they want to encourage them to quit.


DUBNER: When you quit by the bell, you ring it  three times. This tells everyone in earshot that you’re done. Greitens  says that there are two kinds of quitters. The ones who make excuses and  the ones who are honest with themselves.

GREITENS: I don’t think many people want to say  to themselves that they’ve quit. At the same time, we’ve all failed in  our lives, we’ve all failed at different things in different ways and I  think there’s a lot to be said about facing that failure squarely. And  the people who I know, who were able to admit, you know, “This isn’t the  right for me at this time and I went over and I decided to quit, I  decided to ring the bell,” they’re really able to move on from their  experience. And I do find that there’s only shame in it if you feel  shame.
DUBNER: So what would you say if I told you there’s  evidence that quitting is good for you? Physiologically and  psychologically good for you?

Carsten WROSCH: People who are better able to  let go when they experience unattainable goals, they have the  experience, for example, less depressive symptoms, less negative affect  over time. They also have lower Cortisol levels, and they have lower  levels of systemic inflammation which is a marker of immune functioning.  And they develop fewer physical health problems over time.
DUBNER: That’s Carsten Wrosch — no relation to Robert  Reich. Wrosch is a psychology professor at Concordia University in  Montreal. In a study of 90 adolescents, he and a colleague found that  being able to abandon goals that are essentially unattainable is good  for your health. Now, you have to ask yourself — what’s unattainable  and what’s not? When Justin Humphries was 18 years old, the major  leagues seemed pretty attainable. By 25? Not so much. If I were put  through Hell Week? Unattainable. According to Wrosch, each of us  encounters an unattainable goal about once a year. Unfortunately,  nobody’s walking around with a big neon sign urging us to quit.

DUBNER: This is a puzzle and we need your help  in solving it.  If persistence is a virtue, generally, how is a person  to know when he or she under which circumstances he or she should quit  or disengage?

WROSCH: Yeah, that’s I would say the one-million  dollar question.  When to struggle and when to quit. I don’t think it’s  a general answer to this question. However, people can make two  different mistakes in the regulation of their life. They can quit too  early when they should have persisted or they can quit too late.

DUBNER: OK. No offense, Professor Wrosch but that’s not  very helpful. Sometimes you quit too early when you should have  persisted and sometimes you persist too long when you should have quit?  Really, that’s all you’ve got? Really, that’s all he’s got. Which shows,  if nothing else, what a true dilemma this is — to quit or not to quit.

DUBNER: Let me ask you this, are you much of a quitter?

WROSCH: I am bad at quitting.  I really have a  difficult time. I try to persist as much as possible. Maybe that’s why  this phenomenon is so interesting to me.

DUBNER:Well maybe I can help you. Why don’t you  tell me something that you’re involved in that you think is a goal that  may be unattainable and I’ll try to talk you into quitting.

WROSCH: Well, at this point I can’t think about something that is unattainable right now. But these things they pop up over time.

DUBNER:Do you smoke by chance?

WROSCH: Yeah, actually I’m a smoker.

DUBNER:Do you want to quit smoking?

WROSCH: Well, yeah, on some level but on a different level I enjoy it very much.

DUBNER: This conversation went on for a while. I’ll spare  you the details. Let me say this: Either I’m incredibly unpersuasive or  Carsten Wrosch really, really doesn’t want to quit smoking. Maybe both.  He says he wants to quit, but he doesn’t really sound like it. It’s like  an O. Henry story: the professor of quitting who can’t quit smoking.  You can empathize, can’t you? I can empathize. There’s something you  really want to quit, you know you’ll be healthier for it, but you can’t.  You try and you try and you try but you just can’t. Until one day,  finally, you wake up and you have this vision of what your life would be  without that thing in it — and it’s not so terrible! That’s how my  first quit happened.

[MUSIC“Cosmopolitan Lovesick Blues”]
DUBNER: Yep, that’s my old band. We were called The Right  Profile. Started in college, down in North Carolina. There were four of  us. We were pretty bad at first. But we took it seriously, kept at it.  And that’s how I sound when I sing. We worked hard at it because it was  incredibly fun but also because it was our dream. I mean, c’mon, who  doesn’t dream at some point of being a rock star?

DUBNER: All right, so Jon, when you hear  that song which you didn’t play on this recording but you played this  song, I don’t know many times you ended up playing this song in your  life.

WURSTER: Probably at least 50 times.

DUBNER: That’s Jon Wurster. (We called him Chester  but his actual name is Jon.) He was our drummer — awesome drummer. You  might know his name–he went on to play with Superchunk for years. He  still plays with them, and with the Mountain Goats too. The other guys  in the band were Jeff Foster and Tim Fleming. We played all over the  place. We made demo tapes, released a single. Got a management team in  New York City, the same guys who managed the Replacements and the Del  Fuegos, which were bands that we loved. The managers brought us up to  New York to play for the major record labels.

WURSTER: Two months later, I remember going two  the CBGB’s in New York to play there a showcase show for some labels,  one of which was Arista and I remember just in this total dive, CBGB’s,  there was a table and on the table was a card that saidm “Reserved for  Clive Davis.”

DUBNER: Do you remember going up to their office  on that trip? Do you remember when he had Aretha on the phone briefly  to tell us to sign with Arista?

WURSTER: Yes. I remember when some people…when  everybody kind of walked away we would go and look through people’s  Rolodexes to find the personal numbers of Carly Simon and somebody else.  We never used them but we just thought that was hilarious just to like  thumb through this Rolodex and find her number.
DUBNER: So, it’s true: Clive Davis, the music-industry  giant, signed us to Arista Records.It was incredibly exciting. But also  weird. We were this little indie, half-punky half-country band, used to  doing things the way we did them, and now we moved to New York. It was  hard. Maybe we were just a bad fit with Arista. They wanted pop hits; we  didn’t seem to have them.

The other thing is: I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a rock  star anymore. As bands go, we were pretty straight-laced. No drugs, not  much drinking. But the whole lifestyle, especially as we got a little  bit more successful and started hanging around with bigger bands — it  became less attractive. The idea of wanting to be famous — which seemed  fun at first — began to feel unsavory, unhealthy.  For six years, this  was all I wanted. But one night I was sitting in a hotel room in  Memphis, working on some lyrics in my notebook. And I found myself  writing the words “What do I want?” I thought about it. I didn’t really  know anymore. And then, I wrote “Not this.”  A couple weeks later, I  quit the band.

WURSTER: We were playing some songs and we could  just tell you were kind of moody and maybe something was wrong but we  knew what was wrong. We knew that this might be where it parts soon, we  just kind of felt that.  We played something and I remember Jeff saying  to you ‘What’s wrong?’ or ‘What’s your problem?’ I don’t know exactly  what you said but I remember something to the effect of “I don’t think I  want to do this anymore.”

DUBNER: The hardest part was that being in the band wasn’t  just what I did — it was what I was. Like Justin Humphries and the  other ballplayers —  baseball isn’t just a thing you do; it’s your  identity. I’ll be honest with you, it was tough. I grieved; I mourned;  and I had to start over, as a writer. At that point, I didn’t know much  about economics. I’d never heard of the sunk-cost fallacy. But by  quitting something I’d put years of work into, that’s what I was  fighting against.

Hal ARKES: One of the most common examples is  the Vietnam War because it was often said that we’ve invested too much  to quit. Well, it’s not a good idea to continue to invest if you feel  it’s a losing course of action. You ought to stop that and stop the  losing course of action.

DUBNER: That’s HalArkes, he’s a psychology  professor at Ohio State University. A “sunk cost” is just what it sounds  like: time or money you’ve already spent. The sunk-cost fallacy is when  you tell yourself that you can’t quit because of all that time or money  you spent. We shouldn’t fall for this fallacy, but we do it all the  time. Arkes and a colleague learned something that makes falling for the  sunk-cost fallacy even more embarrassing. It turns out that children  don’t fall for it — or even animals.

ARKES: Your dog is not going to have any rules  like “Oh, I spent a lot of time at that location waiting for him to feed  me, and I wouldn’t want to waste all that time, so I’ll go back there  and wait even though it wasn’t very successful.” Now, humans have these  other things that get in the way.

DUBNER: What gets in the way? Apparently we take a rule we learn growing up — to not be wasteful — and overapply it.

ARKES: Well, there’s that chance that what we’re  working on actually can be rescued, can be resuscitated. Making the  distinction and trying to decide whether this is a truly a lost cause or  not, I recognize is a difficult decision sometimes because it’s not one  of these things where its clearly one or the other. But after enough  negative feedback, it should be more clear then.
DUBNER: I guess with my band, I’d finally had enough  negative feedback to quit. I’ll tell you the truth, some of the  feedback, I still miss. It was insanely fun. And part of me still wishes  I’d stuck it out, at least to finish that first record for Arista. But  the bottom line? I’m so glad I quit. For me, it was the right move. Much  as I miss music sometimes, the upside of quitting for me meant I got to  lead a life more like the one that I envisioned.

Coming up: Remember Allie — the high-end escort from the start of the show? Well, she’s back — and quitting again.


ANNOUNCER: From WNYC and APM, American Public Media, this is Freakonomics Radio. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

DUBNER: You remember Allie? The Texas woman who  quit computer programming to become a high-end escort? Sure you do. At  her peak, she was earning about $300,000 a year.

DUBNER: Now, Allie are you still working as an escort?

ALLIE: No, I decided to get out of the escort business.  You know, it was wonderful to me. I enjoyed it, I made a lot of money  but I don’t regret quitting, either, again. But we talk about  opportunity cost, and when I went into the escort business I wasn’t  dating anybody, I just really wanted to enjoy life and be free and  that’s what I did. But you know, I met somebody and we decided together  that, you now, that we wanted a lifestyle that didn’t include  prostitution. So, I let it go.

DUBNER: And besides enjoying life and traveling and spending time with your companion, what else have you been doing?

ALLIE: I went to school and studied economics, but you know, mostly I’m enjoying life. You know?

DUBNER: All right, so I realize that Allie isn’t your  typical prostitute. I mean, first of all, she made a lot of money. On  top of that, she went back to school to study economics! She really gets  opportunity cost, so much so that, when the time was right, she quit  being a prostitute. Sudhir Venkatesh, the sociologist who talked to  fading baseball players for us, he’s also been asking prostitutes about  quitting. But first, I asked him about something he recently quit.

VENKATESH: I quit an administrative job that I  had at my university for a couple of years and actually probably should  have quit after a couple days.

DUBNER: Why’d you quit, finally?

VENKATESH: Well, I think I quit because I  realized that I was no good at the job. You know, luckily I have a job  as a professor, and so I’m not in the ranks of the unemployed like so  many people who sometimes quit jobs that they don’t like. So I’m back to  doing research, which I love.

DUBNER: You heard me talking to Allie, who kind  of falls into that rare category. She’s someone who did very, very well  and decided to, if not cash out necessarily, at least to stop. But I  understand that you talked to some people, sex workers, one named Maxine  I believe, who doesn’t see that as the way to go. So talk to me a  little bit about Maxine and her attitude toward quitting.

VENKATESH: I should say that we’re not using the  real names of the women that we’re interviewed here, but Maxine, as  we’re calling her, is a really curious person because she really goes  against a lot of the stereotypes that we have about women in sex work.  She’s been working as a sex worker for twenty-two years. She laughs as  she says, you know, I don’t know if I’m ever going to quit.

MAXINE: Youknow, I never think  about retiring. I know many workers who are in their fifties, sixties, I  met one in her early seventies who is still working. And in our current  society with the tearing down of our infrastructures and our social  security nets, all of us are going to be working for a long time.

DUBNER: All right, so there are those  prostitutes who do quit. And I just wonder, you know, how does that  happen? If you want to go from sex work into the legitimate labor  market, how do you go about, for instance, putting together a resume?

VENKATESH: Right, imagine you’ve been a sex  worker for a year, two years, three years, five years, and you have to  account for that time, you have to account for what you’ve done. Crystal  Deboise is the co-director of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban  Justice Center in New York City, and actually one of the services the  center provides, that Crystal helps sex workers with, is getting their  resumes ready.

Crystal DEBOISE: So it becomes a creative  endeavor. So we dig deep, and I say, Well, what have you done? Somebody  might say, well I used to wash cars with my uncle on the weekends, and  they’ll say, “Oh no that wasn’t a job, that was just a thing that I  did.” And I was like, “No, we’re going to make that sound like you  worked, you know, that it’s a job. It was a job. You were working, you  were showing up, you were doing a good job.” And nine times out of ten  the person says, “Oh that’s lying, and I can’t do that.” And I have to  orient them into saying, “Look everybody is beefing up their resume.”

VENKATESH: So dealing with the resume, making a  creative resume is one thing. But when you leave sex work, you also face  this issue about taking a huge pay cut. They will probably never make  that kind of money again. We spoke to someone, Maya, who is a former  prostitute who now works as a booker, as a manager. She schedules and  screens appointments for other sex workers in Tucson, Arizona.

MAYA: And, so a lot of women find themselves  going back to sex work when they don’t really want to, you know, myself  included. Even booking, I don’t really want to book anymore, but it’s  very, very hard to go from making three hundred dollars an hour to  making twenty-five dollars an hour, which would be decent pay in the  real world.

DUBNER: So, Sudhir you’ve talked to baseball  players who were reluctant to quit, even though they’re not going to  make the major leagues. You’ve talked to sex workers, some of whom are  reluctant to quit, but some of whom do a really, really good job of it.  For those who do a good job, talk to me about how they prepare for it,  and maybe how what they do we could all learn from a little bit.

VENKATESH: The first thing is you’ve got to pull  that Band-Aid off, and do it quickly. And the ones that are really  successful in leaving a trade in which they thought that they were going  to be doing for a long time, or that they had prepared for, poured a  lot of hours in, you know, when they make that decision quickly, they do  pretty well. I think this idea of not looking back, I know it’s a  clichéd expression, but so many of the people that are able to move on,  just go forward. And the next time I take a job, I’m going to see if at  the second day, I shouldn’t be figuring out how to get the heck out of  there.
DUBNER: I’m sure some of you, as you listen to people  talk about quitting prostitution, your mind jumps the timeline and you  go back and stop these women from becoming prostitutes in the first  place. It’s like watching a horror movie where you’re saying: “No, no,  no!  Don’t open that door!” But these women did open that door. There  are, however, some places that try to get people to quit before they’ve  even started. We sent Stacey Vanek Smith, a reporter for Marketplace, to get the details.

Stacey VANEK SMITH: How much do you like your job?  If someone offered you money to quit, How much would it take for you to do it?

Christina GOMEZ: This job is worth more than a  million. Definitely. I love it here. It’s very hard to get in, but once  you’re in, It’s kind of like the Wizard of Oz. We’re in the Emerald  City… that’s what I feel like

VANEK SMITH: That’s Christina Gomez. And would you  believe she’s talking about a job that pays just a few bucks above  minimum wage? The job is at Zappos, an online shoe store that Amazon  paid almost a billion dollars for in 2009. At an employee training  session in Las Vegas, everybody talked like that. Most of the 35 people  in my session were headed to the company’s call center, where they will  earn about eleven dollars an hour, dealing with customer questions and  complaints. But as it trains these new hires, Zappos also throws them a  curve ball. Here’s Marcela Gutierrez, a trainer with the Zappos.

Marcela GUTIERREZ: Remember how we said, that we  want this to be more than a job for you guys, we want it to be a  career, we want it to be a calling for everybody. I’m here to offer you  $3,000 if you decide that this is not the right place for you.

VANEK SMITH: It’s known around Zappos as The offer  During training — when these new employees are already being paid,  Zappos offers 3,000 dollars to any new hire who wants to walk away from  the job. It’s been going on for a few years, and it’s … gotten some  press. But secret or no, what is the company thinking? I put that  question to company CEO Tony Hsieh, who masterminded The Offer.

Tony HSIEH: It’s really putting the employee in  the position of ‘Do you care more about money or do you care more about  this culture and the company?’  And if they care more about the easy  money then we probably aren’t the right fit for them.

VANEK SMITH: Zappos talks about its culture a lot.  And Hsieh says that culture is enough to keep people from taking an  offer anywhere else, or Zappos’ offer to leave.  And when I say culture,  I’m not just talking about free soda in the break room and casual  Fridays, as I discovered on the company tour with Zappos Supervisor  Loren Becker.

Loren BECKER: So we’ve entered the main, building. So we can like officially start our real tour.

VANEK SMITH: Everybody’s wearing sneakers and  t-shirts, there are sign-up sheets for picnics and poker groups.  Conference rooms are decorated in outer space and “Under the Sea”  themes.

VANEK SMITH: It looks like the convergence of 7 difference holidays.

BECKER: It definitely does. You’ll see that everybody’s desk is decorated different. There are knick-knacks, rubber duckies, streamers.  It’s pretty crazy.

VANEK SMITH: People are so excited to join the  “crazy,” they turn down the free money. Out of the nearly two thousand  people Zappos has trained, the company says only about 30 have ever  taken the offer. Christina Gomez is one of those people. remember her?

GOMEZ: It’s kind of like the Wizard of Oz. We’re in the Emerald City, that’s what I feel like.

VANEK SMITH: Turns out, a week after I talked with her, Gomez took the offer. I called her up to ask her what pulled the curtain back.

GOMEZ: It was very cult-like place. It was the  honeymoon period and then I started getting comfortable at Zappos and  then I started seeing some o f the things that I didn’t really like  about it, and so we broke up.

VANEK SMITH: Gomez says The Offer wasn’t the main  reason she quit.  She says the schedule Zappos gave her didn’t work with  her child care and another job she has at Apple. But how big an  incentive is The Offer? Three thousand dollars equals two months of  busting your hump in a call center. The fact almost no one takes it,  just doesn’t make sense. It does, however, make sense to Dan Ariely, a  behavioral economist at Duke who studies decision-making. He says that  easy money is actually not so easy.

Dan ARIELY: The reason that this trick works is that people spend ten days, they become a part of the family.

VANEK SMITH: Zappos is all about making trainees  feel like family. There are happy hours and scavenger hunts and team  projects. And after all that-and before you’ve started actually  working… you get The Offer. And it’s a limited-time thing. When it  expires, its real power kicks in, says Ariely.

ARIELY: There’s something called cognitive  dissonance. It says that if you’ve acted in a certain way, over time,  you’re going to overly justify your behavior. So the next morning after  you rejected the 3,000 dollars, you’re going to wake up and say, “My  goodness, I really much love this company if I rejected this amount.”

VANEK SMITH: Translation: We like suffering for  things we love; we like it so much, that if we suffer for something, we  will actually decide we must love it. Ariely says fraternities and  sororities work like this-when they make rushers stand in the rain or  run naked across campus, turning indignity into allegiance. Militaries,  sports teams, religious cults all use this tactic too: combining our  intense desire to belong with our intense desire to justify our actions.  The result? A group of employees who won’t quit even if you pay them.

DUBNER: That’s Marketplace reporter Stacey Vanek  Smith. Zappos does sound a bit like a religion. Quitting a religion is  never simple. My parents were a pair of  Brooklyn-born Jews who, before  they met each other, both converted to Roman Catholicism. This was in  the mid-1940s; my parents were in their twenties. As you can imagine,  this conversion didn’t go over so well with their families. My dad’s  father declared him dead, sat shiva for him, never spoke to my father  again. So I grew up in a very devout Catholic  family, the eighth and youngest kid. And then, when I was in my  twenties, I quit Catholicism. Went back to Judaism. My mother took it  hard, but not nearly as hard as my dad’s father took it when he  converted. Anyway, I’ve always been pretty interested in religious  quits.

Saloma FURLONG: My name is Saloma Miller Furlong. I am the author of a new memoir called “Why I Left the Amish.”

Emma GINGERICH: I’m Emma Gingerich, and I go to  college at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas. And right  now I’m also working on finishing up my book and getting it published.

DUBNER: And what is your book called, Emma?

GINGERICH: “Runaway Amish Girl.”

DUBNER: I wanted to speak to Emma Gingerich and Saloma  Furlong because quitting a religion like the Amish seems especially  traumatic, with the religion, family and community all mixed up.

DUBNER: When you look back at the decision you  made, which was a big one, to quit your religious lifestyle and  religious community, talk to me about the price that you feel you paid  or the benefit that you gained.

FURLONG: When I think of costs I think of the  things that I miss. And definitely the community atmosphere of knowing  your place in the community is part of the costs. You know, the church  gatherings where they sing the Amish chants and feeling like there’s a  sense of legacy almost in that. But the upside of it is there have been  so many times, so many moments in my life when I knew that quitting the  Amish was the right thing to do. One example was on May 29th of 1982  when I walked into the church sanctuary at Christ Church Presbyterian on  the Redstone campus and saw my husband-to-be standing there in a blue  tuxedo waiting for me to come up to the altar. That moment encapsulated  just how I was doing the right thing. That was literally the happiest  day of my life.

DUBNER: So, Emma, if you could just describe as  briefly as you want, kind of, your childhood, you know, your family  growing up and getting to the point where you decided to leave, and why  and how that happened.

GINGERICH: My family used to make baskets and we  would take them every Friday and sell them at a little town close to a  busy highway. And sometimes it would be me and my sister. We did a lot  of things that we weren’t supposed to do. But there was around fifteen  was the time when I started thinking about how I would be if I would  leave the Amish. And you know, sitting there selling baskets you see a  lot of people coming and we used to look at cars and look at all the  different colors, and try and pick which one we would want if we would  ever leave the Amish.

DUBNER: Did it feel like you became a different  person? Are you the same person who just needed a change of scenery? I  guess what I really want to know is what was the cost to you of quitting  the Amish? What were the downsides? And what were the upsides?

GINGERICH: Well the downsides would be leaving  the family and knowing that nothing’s going to be the same again when  you go back home to visit. And the upside is yes, you are a different  person. You become…to me, I became somebody else, which was good for me.

DUBNER: How old are you now?

GINGERICH: Twenty-three.

DUBNER: And do you have regrets about leaving?



GINGERICH: Not at all.

DUBNER: Saloma Furlong is in her 50s, and now lives in  Massachusetts. Not long ago, she did an informal survey of the Amish  community where she grew up, in GeaugaCounty, Ohio. Out of about  2,500 households, she estimates some 170 individuals left the  community. So quitting isn’t common, but it’s not like it never happens  either. Furlong says her father was mentally ill and violent; and that,  ultimately, is what led her to leave.

FURLONG: My life was so unbearable that the fear  of the known was greater than my fear of the unknown. So, for me, it’s a  matter of “Are you happy the way you are? And if not, then quit what  you’re doing.” It’s that simple for me.

DUBNER: You make it sound so easy, I’m wondering have you quit other things in life besides the Amish?

FURLONG: Oh, yes.

DUBNER: You’re a serial quitter?

FURLONG: Do you want me to get started?

DUBNER: Yes please.

FURLONG: I’ve quit jobs that were not  satisfactory. I quit my bakery business when I realized after ten years  of punching bread dough that it was never going to talk back to me and  that it was intellectually a desert. Let’s see, what else have I quit? I  quit a church community one time. So, yes, I’m a serial quitter. And  it’s worked for me, what can I say?

DUBNER: You’re a gold medal quitter; you’re not  just a serial quitter. You’re a champion. So, but let me ask you this,  in retrospect were all of these quits good?


DUBNER: They were. All right, so you really need  to be like a quitting coach, don’t you? You need to travel around the  world and tell people, look at this situation, why are you still in  this, why are you stuck in this? Do you think that’s a future calling of  yours perhaps?

FURLONG: Somebody just asked me that the other day about being a counselor and I said, “Nope it’s not something I want to do.”

DUBNER: Because you’d just quit anyway.

FURLONG: You might be right.

DUBNER: “A quitter never wins and a winner never  quits.” In 1937, a self-help pundit named Napoleon Hill included that  phrase in his very popular book Think and Grow Rich. Hill was  inspired in part by the rags-to-riches industrialist Andrew Carnegie.  These days the phrase is often attributed to Vince Lombardi, the  legendarily tough football coach. What a lineage! And it does make a lot  of sense, doesn’t it? Of course it takes tremendous amounts of time and  effort and, for lack of a more scientific word, stick-to-itiveness, to  make any real progress in the world.But time and effort and even stick-to-itiveness are not in infinite supply.Remember  the opportunity cost: every hour, every ounce of effort you spend here  cannot be spent there. So let me counter Napoleon Hill’s phrase with  another one, certainly not as well known. It’s something that Stella  Adler, the great acting coach, used to say: Your choice is your talent.  So choosing the right path, the right project, the right job or passion  or religion — that’s where the treasure lies; that’s where the value  lies. So if you realize that you’ve made a wrong choice — even if  already you’ve sunk way too much cost into it — well, I’ve got one word  to say to you, my friend. Quit.

ANNOUNCER: Freakonomics Radio is produced by WNYC,  APM: American Public Media and Dubner Productions. Our show was produced  by Chris Neary with help from Diana Huynh, Suzie Lechtenberg,  Ellen Horne and Peter Clowney. Collin Campbell is our executive  producer. This episode was mixed by Dylan Keefe, with help from Michael  Raphael. Special thanks to Sudhir Venkatesh, Justin Humphries and Donald  Kraybill. If you want more Freakonomics Radio, you can subscribe to our  podcast at iTunes, or go to, where you’ll find lots of  radio, a blog, the books, and more.



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  1. BL1Y says:

    If we didn’t stigmatize quitting, maybe wars wouldn’t last so long.

    One of George Washington’s greatest legacies was quitting.

    Seinfeld is beloved partly because the show quit. Compare to the Simpsons, which should have quit a decade ago.

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    • AaronS says:


      It occurred to me that in football, you quit when the time runs out. In volleyball, you quit after a certain score has been reached.

      Wouldn’t it be an improvement if there were such thing in war? You had only, say, two years to do whatever you wanted to do? And then it stopped.

      Or there was some sort of score-keeping that told you when the match was through?

      Neither are nice or appealing, but they likely are better than just fighting until you can’t fight any longer.

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      • RJD says:

        Not unlike the BUD/s training, war is usually ended when the vanquished “rings the bell” e:g; Masada, or Porus at the Hydaspes River. Often the vanquisher satisfies their hunger for rape and pillage and simply leaves. There is quitting, but it’s rarely on a specified time-frame- it’s based more upon the appetite and fortitude of the factions.- RJD

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      • lyrd says:

        Depends on what you’re fighting for

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      • GLC says:

        No rules in love or war……

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  2. caleb b says:

    Loved the podcast. Although it isn’t very inspirational to listen to on a long run.

    I thought it would have been nice to offer a counterpoint of several people that probably should have quit, didn’t, and gained tremendous success because of it. Then as a counter to that, list what percent chance they make of all people who don’t quite but should.

    Also, one note on cognative dissonance (CD)…the podcast mentions that humans tend to justify decisions after making them, so “wow, I must really love this job to turn down so much money to quit.” However, wouldn’t this same psychological condition also apply to quitting? Like, “wow, I must have really been miserable to have quit music like that.” See what I mean? If CD doesn’t apply in this situation, why?

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  3. Mike B says:

    You gotta know when to hold ’em…

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  4. Teresa says:

    A few years ago, my husband was in a horrible overnight job. When you looked at his annual income, the pay was really good, but then when you actually factored in how many hours a week he was working, it really wasn’t that good per hour. He originally took the job because he was told it would help him move up the corporate ladder, but his bosses basically told him later that unless he was willing to put in 12-16 hour days, he would probably be fired. Add in the fact that we had very little time together because it was so hard from him to move from a night schedule to day on weekends, we agreed that it would be best for him to quit his job. There were definitely some rough months (no unemployment to help us out!) but he finally got a job in the career he originally wanted to be in. He had to start at the very bottom but has quickly moved his way up the ladder. He’s now making a little less than he was at his old job but with MUCH better hours (can’t beat banker hours!) Plus, there’s still a lot more room for growth. The best part? Living without the stress of his old job. I know a lot of career counselors tell people not to quit their jobs or not take one that pays less, but I think that can be really bad advice. Sometimes the money just isn’t worth it. Did we have to cut our lifestyle? Sure, but really we had bad spending habits anyways and this forced us to correct them. Now we’ve got a much better financial picture, even though he makes less. Totally worth it.

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  5. assumo says:

    Even in certain games, quitting is considered proper strategy or etiquette.

    In chess, when it becomes clear that an opponent has a positional advantage, or a sure checkmate a few moves away, resignation is appropriate both to save the players some time, and to acknowledge the opponent’s skill.

    In backgammon, a player can propose to double the stakes of a given game. The other player must decide if it is better to continue play for double points, or to drop the game on the spot. This is a forced concession, but taking a one point loss instead of two can be the key to victory.

    In poker, folding is a huge part of the game. The ability to quit the hand lets you choose favorable circumstances for yourself. It also allows you to take risks, knowing that if things don’t take a positive turn, you can always abandon the pursuit.

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  6. assumo says:

    “The depressing thing about tennis is that no matter how good I get, I’ll never be as good as a wall.”
    -Mitch Hedberg

    If things aren’t going well in your new hobby, there is value in recognizing that and moving on to something new.

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    • BL1Y says:

      “Kids, you tried your best and failed miserably. The lesson is, never try.”

      – H. Jay Simpson

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  7. PreemptivePlacebo says:

    The shift toward specialization has been a strong influence in our lives over the past fifty years or so. We are constantly encouraged to become experts in very focused, very specific fields. We are made to believe that mastery is the key to happiness.

    Fact is, the most fulfilled people in the world are those who have a wide variety of interests. The renaissance man. He can understand basic economic concepts, fix a carburetor, wonder at the geology of his back yard and compete in a sprint triathlon.

    Quitting is a defining characteristic of the renaissance man.

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  8. Joe says:

    The podcast was very interesting but it didn’t touch on one of the biggest should I stay or should I go situations: Marriage.

    Is there any research similar to the baseball study on this?

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    • S Cowburn says:

      There are loads of stats to say quitting a marriage has a negative effect on the kids.
      Loads of stats to say divorced once means more likely to divorce again.
      Also no objective measure of what is a success in this situation. Financially you are likely to be much worse off if you divorce. That’s obvious.

      Consider the comment from House “only unhappy people buy lottery tickets and unhappy people stay unhappy no matter what”

      Answer: Stay

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      • sighthndman says:

        I’ve seen statistics quoted (but haven’t vetted them) that say that domestic murder rates have gone down in conjunction with increases in divorce rates.

        Not all marriages are worth staying in. There’s more to a situation than income. It’s really hard to give blanket advice when each situation is unique. (Well, apparently it isn’t. Just hard to give blanket useful advice.)

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