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How the ‘Sunk Cost’ fallacy can keep you trapped

Q: Dan, Chief Officer, 34:

“I have been in yachting for 8 years and have been lucky enough to move up fairly easily to the position of Chief Officer on a 60m yacht. I’ve got all my tickets for this level, I’ve done all the compulsory courses and quite a lot of the non-compulsory ones, and I find it pretty easy to pass with good marks. Obviously the next step from here is to get a Captain’s ticket and then look around to start running my own boat. The only thing is, I’m not sure if that’s really what I want to do anymore. In fact I’m not sure if yachting is really what I want to do anymore – but I feel completely trapped because I’ve invested so much time and money in this career already, it would be crazy to back out now. Every day feels like groundhog day. I’m just going through the motions, basically just ‘existing’, while time flies past and I feel like life is passing me by. What can I do to get out of this dead end situation?”

A: The Crew Coach:

Hi Dan,
Firstly I want to thank you for drawing attention to something that is incredibly common in our industry, but hardly ever spoken about – not liking your job in yachting is pretty much a taboo subject! The fact is though, there are heaps of crew out there who are really not sure if yachting is the right job for them, so you are not alone at all. The thing is, before they start, everyone thinks yachting will be their ‘dream job’ and will help them achieve the dream life they are so sure will come with it. But for so many people, once the dream becomes the reality, they begin to feel it’s more of a nightmare.

For some that realisation comes quickly, within the first few months of being in yachting – but for many, it doesn’t begin to sink in until several years have passed and a great deal of time and money has been invested in moving on and up into a senior position. The problem at that stage is you begin to fall into the trap of what is known as the ‘sunk cost fallacy’, where you feel trapped because if you leave yachting now you will be leaving behind all the money and work you invested in getting to where you are.

Let me expand on the ‘sunk cost’ theory a little further so you can see how this is affecting your view of the current situation. In economics, a sunk cost is any past cost that has already been paid and cannot be recovered. When worrying about sunk costs we are focusing on the past ‘cost’ rather than the future ‘usefulness’ or ‘value’ of what you have already paid for. Sunk costs cause us to make backward-looking decisions because humans are hard-wired to avoid what we perceive as the ‘waste’ of walking away from something we have already invested in. The sad fact is that this can cause us to stay in situations that are not working for us – and often much longer than is healthy, such as relationships, jobs, living arrangements or anything else you have invested time and money in the past.

So while it’s true you have certainly sunk a great deal of time and money into your yachting career so far, focussing on what you have already spent is going to absolutely keep you stuck. The only way to free yourself from this, is to begin thinking about what you have gained and benefited over and above the direct benefits of the time and money you have spent so far. What have you learnt that could be transferred to another profession or industry? What skills and experience would be valuable in a different context? And what do you know now that you didn’t know then, that helps you hone in on, and fine tune the kind of lifestyle and work that is really important to you?

None of this has been a waste – it is all part of the beautiful tapestry of experience that makes up your life, and it may well lead you to the very thing that makes your heart sing, and gets you jumping out of bed every morning with a big smile on your face. In fact, Steve Jobs said in his Stanford University commencement speech,

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”
I have worked with so many crew over the years who have been in your position and we always start first by getting really clear on your own unique skills and strengths, passions, values and personal definition of success. Once you are clear on this you may begin to see that yachting still has something to offer you, in terms of a stepping stone to bigger and better things – which will help you become re-motivated to stick it out a bit longer. Or, you may find that the toxicity of your situation is slowly poisoning you and you really do just need to move on and out of yachting sooner rather than later – in which case doing all the above will help you know what direction to go in from here. One thing’s for sure though, doing nothing is not going to get you anywhere.

I’m opening my brand new mentoring program this week, specifically designed to help people in your situation, and if you’re on our mailing list you may have received an email about this. Life is far too short to waste a single second being uncertain about your future and unhappy with your present. Our Career & Leadership Mastermind program will really help you get unstuck, break free from the nightmare monotony of yachting groundhog day and start realising the greater plan for your life that you know you are capable of achieving.

To register your interest in this program, click the link below and pop in your details, and we will send you an email with some further information.

Career & Leadership Mastermind Program