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.


steve

Winners never quit, they find better oportunities or at least thats what they tell themselves.

It's all about the attitude.

`red' robin

True story- my husband and I took a ride yesterday into the country of Connecticut. Went into a newstand to buy a magazine. They did not have the one that I wanted, but two others came to my attention. This woman I never saw before says to me, you should buy the book the "Doctor and the Diva." I thought to myself, you gotta be kidding. So I guess `Social' Science says it "All" and enough. Thanks.

PS. You know that joke about if you want to know who runs the office, speak to the Secretary. It is no joke.

Miranda

In junior high, I had a game boy color, and I played any spare minute I could. One beautiful summer day, I was engrossed in a game of Zelda while sitting outside with my younger sister. When my sister asked me to play with her, my response was a snappy "No, I must get to the next level!!!" Realizing my sister's hurt feelings and my own absorption into the world of the game, I decided to quit the game boy cold turkey.

LeahL

Dear Stephen Dubner, MFA Columbia University:

For future reference, "tenacity" is the English word you seek for the cumbersome and linguistically unnecessary neologism "sticktoitiveness".

With respect, regards, and immense pleasure listening to the podcast,

Leah

Miss Shanahan

You can use that word when you have your own radio show!

aka_ces

Interesting program.

I'd encourage you continue this theme in the context of business, economics & political economy, under the rubric of "creative destruction." You could analyze its varying application in a Steve Jobs regime vs. in the broader kleptocracy where TPTB assure the 99% that there is such a thing as TBTF.

In general, this podcast would be even better, more "relevant", if you were to show how its themes play out in the political economy that affects everyone.

Dr. Phillip Garwood (aka DR. ROCKS)

As I was returning from a programme at the Smithsonian this past Sunday, I (as is always the case) was searching for the closest NPR/PRI station. The radio programme that I listened to concerning 'QUITTING', 'FAILING' etc was so important that my first and second year Geology students are going to be required to either listen to it or read a full transcript. If I had my way, it would be required for all upcoming college students and for those already in the system.
It was important to me ,ERGO, it becomes important for them.
Marshall McLuhan would be proud!

Jesse

I can't believe you led this podcast by seeming to respect a woman about her job change and then casting her off for being "just a hooker." If you wanted to lead with a story about being making bad choices, how about people that quit their jobs to become fly by night mortgage salesmen. There's some moral decrepitude for you.

Lauren

I just posted about quitting grad school on my blog. This podcast was really comforting during that decision-making process. Thanks! http://mamanervosa.com/2012/03/08/grad-school-quittas-what-to-expect-when-youre-quitting/

patg

So, what about walking away from a mortgage? Is it only okay if i leave the house when I stop paying, or can i stay and bank the mortgage payment until i get foreclosed on, and the sheriff comes and kicks me out?

David Quisenberry

I find it interesting that in the podcast "Suicide Paradox", Dubner seemed amazed that someone would commit suicide after an impulse of less than an hour (even 5 seconds), but perfectly it seemed perfectly rational that he would quit a six year career (career suicide) after writing "What do I want?" then "Not this." (5 seconds) in "The Upside of Quitting" !?

Andy

Quitting is great if you have a Plan B. Otherwise, you'll quit, and regret.

Eric

Someone asked me what I would do if I knew I wasn't going to be successful as an artist. They had just heard the podcast and wanted to know if I'd considered quitting after struggling along in my city for over a decade. The question then became: what would you do if you quit art? The immediate answer I through out was: I'd kill myself. A year later I'm still thinking about it - often. (Before anyone starts freaking out, yes, I am seeing a therapist.)

What I want to know, when you really think about it, when you put your anxieties about this subject aside and just try to think about it in a coldly rational way, doesn't your theory about the upside of quitting still apply? Isn't it fundamentally the same question no matter what your deciding to quit?

Adam Pervez | HappinessPlunge.com

I first listened to this podcast right after quitting my well-paying job to take the path less traveled and volunteer my way around the world. You rebroadcast it this week as I ponder heading back to the U.S. to start a company that combines what I've learned in two years of traveling with what I disliked about the corporate world. I'm not quitting as a traveler, but the timing is just interesting. Thanks for sharing it again!