Whether it’s a floundering business, an idea that flopped, an unproductive investment, a dwindling romance, a losing bet, a pear-shaped partnership, or an unpublished manuscript, saying sayonara to the sunk costs of money, time and energy that (apparently) produced no fruit can feel like a kick in the guts.
Sometimes that pain is so great and we’re so embarrassed to admit our big idea didn’t work that we’re afraid of walking away from those sunk costs. So we keep throwing good money (or time...or love) after bad, frozen in a failing situation.
Or we’re petrified to make another move, fearful of ever making another investment of time or money because we’ve given ourselves a vote of no-confidence. We think, “well, shit. That didn’t go to plan. So I can’t be trusted.”
Either way, we’re stuck. Stuck in the failing situation. Or stuck in the fear of future failure.
But sunk costs don’t have to sink you.
Here’s a reframe worth making: You didn’t lose anything. It wasn’t a loss at all. It was a gain.
Any time you thoroughly fail, you earn yourself a degree. And the money you lost, the time you spent, the energy you invested, that’s all just tuition paid to the school of life. An investment in your education.
You gained knowledge and know how. You gained experience. You gained insight. Your eyes have been trained to see things in a new way. Maybe you learned a new skill in the process. Maybe you learned a life lesson. Maybe there was an unexpected silver lining or a hidden gem - something you learned about yourself, an uncovered passion. Maybe the failure actually paved the way toward long-term success by leading you into something you couldn’t have imagined before. Maybe you’re more discerning about who to trust with your ideas, money or time. Maybe you know better now, so you can do better next.
So don’t get hung up on a number being in the red, or a partnership that wasn’t the big picture solution you thought it would be, or the book that needs to be rewritten, or the million dollar idea that didn’t add up to anything, or an investment that went wobbly and capsized.
It’s just the price you paid for the skills and wisdom and know-how you got in exchange. And as long as you take notes and use these earned assets in whatever comes next, it’s a net gain.
The beauty of this perspective is that it flips failure on its head. Which means that you’re more willing to be courageous and try again. And it’s our willingness to regather our resources and try again, our willingness to keep going, that leads to a life of greatness and fulfillment.
Despite the picture that the media paints for us, the truth is that there aren’t many true one-hit wonders in the world. Most people don’t hit it out of the park on the first try, or even the second.
The most remarkable writers, artists, investors, entrepreneurs, thinkers, and scientists don’t throw in the towel when their vested interests don’t render a tangible result. Because they trust that it’s not a loss. It’s progress. It’s tuition paid in exchange for insight, skill, wisdom, experience or knowledge.
So keep going. Stop letting sunk costs sink your self-worth. Pay your tuition to the school of life with gratitude, say thank you for the lessons. Then move on with courage, creativity, confidence and the pride of someone who is exceptionally well educated in this school of life. Earn that PhD, boo. You got this.