• Anupam Pandey

How to fight that sinking feeling at work.

Updated: Nov 23, 2018

The Sunk Cost Fallacy applied to careers.

One of life’s great idiosyncrasies is that we are trusted to chart the course of our careers at an age where we may not even be trusted to vote, drive or drink alcohol. Most of us are 17 or 18 when we decide what we are going to be studying at University and it is a decision most often based not on knowledge and self-awareness but rather half-baked ideas about a profession, suggestions by family and friends and/or parental pressure.

Couple that with the human obsession to avoid waste and it is no surprise that the world is full of people who spend entire careers in jobs that make them feel constrained and unhappy. In referring to avoiding waste, I am specifically talking about the ‘sunk cost fallacy’ – a concept in economics that refers to following a course of action, not because of the expectation of a positive outcome but due to an investment that has been made. In other words anytime you do something not because you want to but to justify an investment – in money, time or effort – you are falling victim to the sunk cost fallacy.

It is among the most common causes of irrational behavior and affects us more than we realize. Here are a few scenarios demonstrating career stagnation on account of the sunk cost effect;

  • Continuing in a particular field, industry or function to justify a significant investment you have made in training to get there e.g. an MBA, engineering or medical qualification

  • Working on projects that utilize an expertise that is unlikely to have a future instead of investing time and energy on those that do

  • Staying on at a company because you have worked there for many years, having invested significant time and effort to develop relationships and learn about the organisation

It doesn’t have to be this way.


If burnout rates are more widespread today than at any time in the past, so are instances of career mobility. However, you must first and foremost acknowledge and understand what it is you want to change - this is absolutely key, and once you have this figured out, here are three easy ways I would encourage you to consider;

  1. Retraining: the cost of professional instruction is at an all-time low, thanks to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and their accessibility over multiple platforms. Whether it is digital marketing, financial analysis or a programming language you want to master, there will be a set of MOOCs available for you from services like EdX, Udemy, and my personal favorite Coursera, among others. This means that a change of career will not require as big an investment today and because this can be done in your own time and convenience you won't have to stop your current career to start a new one.

  2. Networking: quite often the change we want is a lot less distant than we think. Your experience in customer service, for example, could be more of an asset for that dream role in corporate strategy than you might realize. You can gain exposure to your desired field by effectively networking with the right people within your current organisation and showing an interest in learning what they do. Offer to help out in your free time by using your expertise to fill the gaps in their knowledge. This will showcase your value to them and putting yourself out there in this manner will put you in good stead when a real opportunity opens up.

  3. Freelancing: if you've been working in a particular function or industry over a period of time you have likely built up a certain expertise even though you've probably never considered yourself an expert. It is a good idea to tap into that experience and think about the themes you know most about. Now consider who could benefit from all of that knowledge - are there small businesses who couldn't afford to hire you full time but would be happy to pay for a one-off project? Or perhaps an online community of young professionals who could benefit from your insights which you could share through a blog or e-book? Freelancing requires a lot of discipline to do on the side but works great to break the monotony without the need to 'transition' your career.

You may have fallen into a trap because of a decision you took in the past, but it should not become a reason for you to remain stuck going forward.


Further reading:

https://stepoutoftherace.com/executive-coaching-sunk-costs-destroy-career/ https://resources.workable.com/blog/sunk-costs-at-work

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