You Don’t Need to Stay the Course

As a society, we love tales of determination. They are prevalent in our novels, movies, and news. We enjoy hearing about those who persevered and succeeded, who faced great adversity and numerous setbacks yet—through their tenacity and hard work—emerged victorious. Against all odds, and often at the eleventh hour, they prevailed. These stories make us feel that anything is possible.

Perhaps we can relate to the protagonist facing defeat and rejection for the nth time. Some of us are still waiting for a breakthrough. We can’t continue until we get accepted into medical school, land a job in our desired industry, or raise money for our startup idea. Others feel stuck due to a past failure or an incomplete project. They want to redeem themselves or finish what they had started before moving on.

Though perseverance is admirable, we may become too fixated on one path. The result is that we keep spinning our wheels. Months or years go by, yet we find ourselves stagnant, having made little progress.

A Costly Mistake
Dwelling on the past can cost us in two ways.

First, there is the issue of sunk costs. Having spent significant time, money, and effort pursuing a goal, we don’t want those investments to go to waste. That is understandable. However, our resistance to change is often due to a question of identity, not a calculated decision. When we feel too personally invested, failure wounds our sense of self. And in some cases, we’ve grown comfortable in that pursuit. It’s all we’ve known for a while. To change directions is psychologically riskier than to stay the course.

So we keep holding on. We continue to put time and resources into a losing proposition. Like a gambler on a losing streak, we may even double down. Doing so reduces cognitive dissonance and gives us extended hope. But it’s a wasteful way to delay admitting that our goal, at least for now, is out of reach.

The second issue is the opportunity cost. By obsessing over one possible future, we may miss out on other opportunities. Some of them may be better suited to our personalities and skills. Though even knowing this, it isn’t easy to walk away. As mentioned, the holdup is often a matter of identity. “Giving up” feels disorienting and threatens our pride. Therefore, let me close by centering us on a few truths:

  1. Changing direction is not failure. It is an active decision to reallocate your time and attention.
  2. Your efforts were not in vain. Leverage those skills and experiences toward new opportunities.
  3. Not now doesn’t mean never. Indeed, you may arrive at your initial destination after a detour.

Now I don’t want to discourage anyone. But let’s not shy from hard truths either. If this is your situation, take time to reflect and discern. Part of that discernment is knowing when to push through and when to let go. Whatever you decide, it will benefit from this introspection and renewed energy.

This is the sixth post in our series: Challenging Your Self-Limiting Assumptions.

For further reading on this topic, visit Be Focused but Flexible.