The sunk-cost fallacy and moving jobs

Recently I was discussing with a colleague the merits of moving jobs.

Often, when I talk with people, and, it is almost universally those who work in hospitals, they express their dissatisfaction over their current jobs (doctors, nurses, pharmacists, physiotherapists, receptionists, etc) and consider whether it might be better somewhere else.

Everyone knows the maxim that people don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad managers.

Now, is moving the right thing?

One of the reasons that people find moving difficult is because of the sunk-cost fallacy; this is an economic principle which represents the mental construct that the more time, effort or money you invest in an endeavour, the more you should stick with it regardless of success or failure.

It is this principle that contributed to some of the losses of the financial crisis of 2008, particularly those caught-up with Ponzi schemes like those of Mr Madoff.

It is a recognised ploy of fraudsters – they get you to invest a little in something which they lose (or steal) and a little more and, the more is lost, the more you think you should stick-with-it; this leads to more and more money down the drain; another analogy is wading into the sea, where you get to the point where the water is deep enough to swim and the waves just right, but you are so far out the current prevents you from returning to the shore.

Hopefully, after that cocktail of metaphors and images you get my point.

Moving (change) is difficult.

In many instances, that bad manager who is making your life hell moves-on himself or herself, things settle-down and you can keep going; sometimes it is the entire culture which is rotten and that is less likely to change.

It used to be the notion, particularly in the conservative corridors of hospital medicine, that once someone became a consultant they would keep that job until they retired.

Most of the hospital doctors I know, no matter their youth or seniority are on track for this reality, after all, few hospitals close and, so long as you are in a growth specialty – medicine or surgery, the demand will continue growing (there was a period in the early 2000’s during which the ability of cardiologists to fix diseased coronary arteries outstripped the need for cardiac surgeons, but that is the only time I can remember this happening).

Anyway, most people recognise that being a doctor is quite a safe, stable job and if you want you can keep-on being as mediocre (or amazing) as you want for 40-odd years until retire.

The move I made two years ago from Doncaster to Rotherham was after much consideration and reflection on the sunk-cost fallacy.

During my ten years in Doncaster I had invested my heart in the role of supporting and developing the various departments where I worked.

Ironically, for me, the move, as some of you know was not necessarily the success I had planned; things went a little awry, for several months before I reached my current position as community and primary care doctor.

If the situations change, would I move again? Sure.

I have realised that the investment of time and effort is really a mirage and what is important is how you feel, your potential to grow and learn, to form meaningful relationships with people and patients.

I think, when analysing the sunk-cost, it is as much the notion that a person has invested ‘x’ amount of time in something that they don’t want to give-up, it can be matched by an equally powerful notion that they have wasted ‘x’ amount of time and they want to keep going as they are sure they will eventually get somewhere.

Cut your losses my friends.

If the Millennial generation has anything to tell us it is this; life is too short to give it all away to The Man.

Move-on and prosper.

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