The Upside of Quitting

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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.


BL1Y

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.

caleb b

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?

Mike B

You gotta know when to hold 'em...

Teresa

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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assumo

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.

assumo

"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.

BL1Y

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

- H. Jay Simpson

PreemptivePlacebo

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.

a

placeba effect

Joe

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?

Kevin

I can't get enough of that song... I was living like a king!

Bibek

"Sometimes quitting is strategic, and sometimes it can be your best possible plan."

"This is the last of five hour-long podcasts we’ve been putting out lately."

Wait, I hope this doesn't mean you guys are quitting the podcast! I look forward to every episode and I'll be gutted if there weren't anymore.

Pramod

Four months ago, a quit my stable MNC job simply because I didn't like it and decided
to pursue a short term technical course. Most of my collegues thought I was taking a huge risk.

But I got hired by a startup ( I always wanted to work for one :) ) after completing the course.
Quitting did involve a fair amount of risk, but now I'm happy that my decision was vindicated.

Badu

I suppose I stopped dietary and calorie restriction, though I was stopped from proceeding by a wall of nervous exhaustion/burnout, I would have had to stop for a while anyway because of that. I intended to continue again once I recovered, but in that time the extent of what it took for me to hold myself in position had been breached enough in a few weeks to make continuation impossible from a place of direct understanding rather than indirectly as before.

It was afterwards that I found out this was fueling an eating disorder which I was eventually able to bring under control.

Matthew R.

Sometimes the cost of success is higher than the cost of failure.

Seth

In his book, "How to Get Rich" Felix Dennis distinguishes between stubbornness and persistence:

'Stubbornness is not persistence. Stubbornness implies you intend to persist despite plentiful evidence that you should not. A stubborn person fears to be shown he or she is wrong.

“Persistence” is a vital attribute for those who wish to become rich, or wish to achieve anything worthwhile for that matter. As is ability to acknowledge that one has made a mistake and that a new plan of action must now be made. Any such acknowledgment is not a weakness, it is a sign of clear thinking. In its way, it is kind of persistence in itself. Try, try try again, does not mean doing what has already failed, over and over again.'

Thomas Lotito

I new this party, I thoroughly enjoyed your books. But you guys lied in your books.

Daniel

Just wanted to give you a quitty pic.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/59992624@N07/6205125164/

Mark Lazar

Just finished listening to broadcast on suicide. I am reading The Art of Loving by Eric Fromm. Fromm states that "Love is the answer to the problem of human existence". "The deepest need of man is the need to overcome his separateness, to leave the prison of his aloneness". I couldn't help thinking about the people in the Amazon laughing at the story of suicide and why this might be. About the relative low rate of suicide among African Americans compared to whites. I think there must be a connection between how connected people feel with one another and not only the rate, but a reason why people commit suicide. Fromm makes the case of Love being the ultimate connection. Without Love we are alone and separate and in despair. If there is no connection to life, then it follows that there may be no reason to continue.

Inter

This was a conincidence of a podcast for me. A month ago I put my two weeks in, because I knew I couldn't do any better at my last position and I didn't like the area where I lived. So I quit and moved to Colorado. It was not an easy decision. It was one I contemplated for months and one for which I had to build up the courage to go through with. My family had a hard time understanding this, but supported me nonetheless. The days leading up to giving my two weeks were stressful. After I put in my two weeks I felt relief and happiness. Something that I hadn't felt in over a year. My co-workers said they never saw me happier. In this economy I couldn't rationlize whether it was a good move or not. I still don't know, but what I do know is that I am happier and I don't feel down anymore. I am scared that I may be without work for a while and I don't really know anyone in Colorado, but happy with the way things are working out. Having lived in a Motel for a week after arriving in Denver, I found a great place to live with great roommates. I have a couple job prospects lined up, and am happy to be out West. Next on my agenda is meeting more new people. Thanks for the podcast. It was great timing.

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