I was recently given an opportunity. I was given the opportunity to close a door. At first I didn’t see it as an opportunity. In fact, it felt more like a betrayal, or a slap in the face. Viewing the situation as a choice struck me as the kind of cock-eyed optimism that leads, inevitably to such bullshit as “when God gives you lemons, make lemonade.”
I will concede one thing, though. If you are going to get slapped in the face it feels a lot better to get it over with. What really hurts is to keep getting slapped in the face for years only to realize that the big slap is still on its way. It might be advantageous, sometimes, to give yourself a hard slap in the face and to wake yourself the hell up. Okay, enough potty mouth.
The door in question is one which I have held ajar with my foot for about twenty years. Behind it lay a cherished little fantasy that I have carried with me since graduating from college. I have had many opportunities over those years to let the door slam shut. I also probably had it within my power to prise it open and to walk through it. Why I did neither is a question I have had trouble answering. How can a man who flies jet airplanes through thunderstorms be so indecisive?
These little fantasies that we carry with us throughout our lives are powerful. I suspect everyone has one, or two, or fifty. Maybe it’s the girl we broke up with in high school. Maybe it’s owning a Mercedes. Maybe it’s buying our own business. Maybe it’s punching our boss in the nose on the day of our retirement- see “Oney” by Johnny Cash.
Most of these fantasies never see the light of day. They run on an endless loop inside our brains, mostly in the background, but occasionally on the center screen. Sometimes they motivate us to action but more often they simply cheer us up or bring us down like a dose of melatonin or serotonin. Sometimes they are merely an escape from the drudgeries of our day to day life.
Letting go of cherished fantasies is a sign of maturity, I think. It is logical. It is reasonable. Unfortunately, it is against human nature. Economists have a concept called the sunk costs fallacy which we all, from plumbers to presidents, are taken in by. We have a very human propensity to base our decisions not on cold, empirical facts but on our emotional attachment to the past and our fear of loss.
Wikipedia says, “In economics and business decision-making, a sunk cost is a cost that has already been incurred and cannot be recovered.” The sunk cost fallacy is described by Economists Hal R. Arkes and Peter Ayton in their paper: The Sunk Cost and Concorde Effects: Are Humans Less Rational Than Lower Animals? They say:
“The sunk cost effect is a maladaptive economic behavior that is manifested in a greater tendency to continue an endeavor once an investment in money, effort, or time has been made. A prior investment should not influence one’s consideration of current options; only the incremental costs and benefits of the current options should influence one’s decision.”
By the way, if you were wondering if lower animals are more rational than humans, Arkes and Ayton say yes. “A number of experimenters who have tested lower animals have confirmed that they simply do not succumb to the fallacy.”
So, what does all this economics jargon mean? It means just what your old Grandfather said. To wit: “Don’t throw good money after bad!” Also, “Know when to fold ‘em!”
I find it hard to give up my little fantasy because I have invested years of labor and time and money in its development. I have cultivated it carefully in my own mind. I made decisions, over the course of twenty years, which accommodated this fantasy but which made my life much more difficult and expensive. My wife and I made compromises to this fantasy which appeared to me to be investments but which, ultimately, were written down only in my own ledger book, not the one which mattered. It is probably time now to stop.
The door which I held open so long for myself, to benefit my indecision, was ultimately opened by another, a late-comer, who opened it by simply reaching out and grabbing the handle. The door opened for him and closed on my fingers while I wasn’t paying attention. I have been angry at him for doing that which I had neglected to do. I have been angry at him for taking my little fantasy away from me. I have been angry at him for betraying my good-natured sympathy for his situation. I have been angry at him for redefining my years of work and sacrifice as “sunk costs.”
My fingers are still in the door. I have a choice. I could shout my righteous indignation to the rooftops. I could demand satisfaction from the world. I could, in short, make an utter fool of myself and poison relationships that I have built over the course of a lifetime. Or…I could not do that.
Viewed correctly any choice is an opportunity. It may be irrational to consider sunk costs when making future decisions. It is also irrational to let anger get the best of you. A quote, attributed to Mark Twain, says this:
“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”
However hard this aphorism is to accept and live by, I believe it to be true. It’s time for a new fantasy, I think. I pull my hand away now. The door is closed.