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Sunk Boats and Sunk Costs

Sunk Boats and Sunk Costs

The person you used to be is a sunk cost


Water flies into my eyes as it splashes over the bow of our green canoe. The wind whips across the lake, creating white caps all around us. I squint hard, trying to keep a good view of the target path ahead. Dark clouds loom in the distance and a hazy horizon behind us gradually approaches.

I'm kneeling on the floor of the boat, bracing my knees against the inner walls for stability, doing everything I can to stay in position as I paddle against the waves. The boat rocks up and crashes down hard over and over again.


My sternman, Ian, and I labor against the waves, but they're too fierce to handle. Water crashes into our boat as the right side tips over an inch too far. Water rushes in, tilting the boat until we fall out into the cold Canadian water.

Our tent is floating left, our gear bags right. We wrangle each item and the boat, pushing them to the shore as our lifejackets helped keep us afloat.

The canoe is filled with water. We both grab the canoe and try to move it, but the water is too heavy. The boat doesn't budge. I reflexively grab my water bottle, ready to remove the water from the boat. I start bailing, but with every other bottle I get out of the boat, a fresh wave crashes over the side, filling it back up. It's an exercise in futility and I'm exhausting myself in the process.

Meanwhile, the remaining paddlers on the wilderness camping trip have become tiny dots on the horizon — far from shouting distance. While I was bailing the boat, Ian ran up the rocky shore, waving his hands to get their attention and help.

He gets the attention of our adult trip leader, Pete, and once he gets to us and sees me, he starts cracking up.

"You thought you were going to save the boat with a water bottle?" 

Me: “Yes?”

Pete had the perspective I needed. I couldn't bail the boat by myself. My initial plan to fix the problem was insufficient. I had to let go of my old plan and find the right one.

Why is it so hard to take someone else's advice? Is it ego? All the work we've put in so far on our ideas that we would hate to think was a waste? We’re often too slow to switch to better tactics, especially when it's someone else recommending it. But the path gets a lot easier if we decide to care more about getting through the problem than who gets the credit for solving it. It goes from bumpy gravel to smooth pavement. I didn't think about whose idea it was to get the water out of the boat — I wanted to get to our campsite!

Switching tactics to achieve a goal faster means abandoning something that worked for you in the past, but doesn't now. An idea you invested in and refined into something beautiful, but whose time has already gone.

If the tactic can't serve you in the future and you can't recover any value from it now that things are different — it's sunk. It's the canoe underwater and me using too small a bottle to fight too large a wave. 

Letting go of that idea releases you to find a new one.

A sunk cost is something you’ve spent (time, resources, effort building an identity, etc) that is irrecoverable and, therefore, should not influence your future decisions.

Sunk costs impact us all the time, but perhaps rarely as much as the sunk cost of our identity. 

Nobel Prize winner and author of "Thinking, Fast and Slow" Daniel Kahneman has a powerful view of sunk costs that stands strikingly apart from the ego-driven defensive arguing we so often see today:

"When I work, I have no sunk costs. I like changing my mind. Some people really don’t like it but for me changing my mind is a thrill. It’s an indication that I’m learning something. So I have no sunk costs in the sense that I can walk away from an idea that I’ve worked on for a year if I can see a better idea. It’s a good attitude for a researcher. The main trap that young researchers fall into is sunk costs. They get to work on a project that doesn’t work and that is not promising but they keep at it. I think too much persistence can be bad for you in the intellectual world."

Kahneman cares more about learning than defending his views.

The accumulated experience of our lives has created the person we are today. We've made choices along the way to become who we are. 

The person you used to be is a sunk cost. 

You can't get the time back that you spent being them, but you can choose to let go of who you were to become who you believe you can be.

If you love that person’s brand, great. If not, great! Why not become the better version you know you can? Don't defend the brand of the person you used to be if you don't like it.

Wendy at work says you're acting so off-brand? Who cares, I like this new brand better!

Ignoring sunk costs is like looking up and realizing you can jump out of a deeply grooved rut you don't want to be in anymore. You can toss the water bottle aside and salvage the boat the right way. The horizon is not brown dirt and inevitable trajectory.

It's blue sky and possibility.

Why not look up?

Thank you to Ian Vanagas, Nick Drage, Minnow Park, Philip Hendricks, Sena Gürdoğan, Jeremy Nguyen, Corey Wilks, Psy.D., Leo Ariel, Edvardo Archer, Michael Shafer, Russell Smith, and Kym Ellis for their feedback on drafts of this post.

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