The Upside of Quitting - Think Like a Freak - Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner

Think Like a Freak - Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner (2014)

Chapter 9. The Upside of Quitting

All these years later, the words still resonate: “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty.”

The speaker was British prime minister Winston Churchill; he was delivering remarks at Harrow, the boarding school of his youth. But this wasn’t the standard pep talk given by men like him to boys like those, urging them to stick to their studies. The date was October 29, 1941, deep in the heart of World War II.

Hitler’s army had been gobbling up huge swaths of Europe and beyond. Britain was its only formidable opponent—the U.S. had not yet been drawn into the war—and, accordingly, had paid the price. German warplanes had bombed Britain nonstop for months, killing tens of thousands of civilians. A German land invasion was said to be in the works.

The situation had improved of late, but it was still impossible to know whether Britain could beat back Germany, or whether Great Britain would even exist a few years hence. And so Churchill’s words that day at Harrow—“never give in, never, never, never”—took on an urgency and a magnitude that inspired not only those boys on that day but millions of people for years to come.

The message is unequivocal: failure may be an option but quitting is not. The American version goes like this: “A quitter never wins, and a winner never quits.” To quit is to prove oneself a coward, a shirker, a person of limited character—let’s face it, a loser. Who could possibly argue with that?

A Freak, that’s who.

Sure, if you are prime minister of a great nation that is facing extinction, fighting to the death is indeed the best option. But for the rest of us, the stakes aren’t usually so high. There is in fact a huge upside to quitting when done right, and we suggest you give it a try.

You’ve been at it for a while now, whatever the “it” is—a job, an academic pursuit, a business start-up, a relationship, a charitable endeavor, a military career, a sport. Maybe it’s a dream project you’ve been working on for so long you can’t even remember what got you all dreamy in the first place. In your most honest moments, it’s easy to see that things aren’t working out. So why haven’t you quit?

At least three forces bias us against quitting. The first is a lifetime of being told by Churchill wannabes that quitting is a sign of failure.

The second is the notion of sunk costs. This is pretty much what it sounds like: the time or money or sweat equity you’ve already spent on a project. It is tempting to believe that once you’re invested heavily in something, it is counterproductive to quit. This is known as the sunk-cost fallacy or, as the biologist Richard Dawkins called it, the Concorde fallacy, after the supersonic airplane. Its two patrons, the British and French governments, suspected the Concorde was not economically viable but had spent too many billions to stop. In simpler times, this was known as throwing good money after bad—but money is hardly the only resource that people toss into the sunk-cost trap. Think about all the time, brainpower, and social or political capital you continued to spend on some commitment only because you didn’t like the idea of quitting.

The third force that keeps people from quitting is a tendency to focus on concrete costs and pay too little attention to opportunity cost. This is the notion that for every dollar or hour or brain cell you spend on one thing, you surrender the opportunity to spend it elsewhere. Concrete costs are usually easy to calculate, but opportunity cost is harder. If you want to go back to school to get an MBA, you know it’ll cost two years’ time and $80,000—but what might you have done with that time and money had you not been in school? Or let’s say you’ve been a competitive runner for years and it’s still a big part of your identity—but what else might you accomplish if you weren’t slamming your joints into the pavement twenty hours a week? Might you do something that makes your life, or others’ lives, more fulfilling, more productive, more exciting? Perhaps. If only you weren’t so worried about the sunk costs. If only you could quit.

Let’s be clear: we are not suggesting you quit everything in order to do nothing, to spend all day on the couch in your underwear, eating nachos and watching TV. But if you’re stuck in a project or relationship or mind-set that isn’t working, and if the opportunity cost seems to outweigh the sunk cost, here are some ways to think about the big quit.

Quitting is hard in part because it is equated with failure, and nobody likes to fail, or at least be seen failing. But is failure necessarily so terrible?

We don’t think so. For every ten Freakonomics research projects we take up, roughly nine are abandoned within a month. For whatever reason, it turns out we aren’t the right people to take them on. Resources are not infinite: you cannot solve tomorrow’s problem if you aren’t willing to abandon today’s dud.

Nor should failure be considered a total loss. Once you start thinking like a Freak and running experiments, you’ll find that failure can provide valuable feedback. Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg understood this. “In medicine, or in science, [if] you go down a path and it turns out to be a dead end, you really made a contribution, because we know we don’t have to go down that path again,” he said. “In the press, they call it failure. And so people are unwilling to innovate, unwilling to take risks in government.”

Civilization is an aggressive, almost maniacal chronicler of success. This is understandable—but might we all be better off if failure carried less of a stigma? Some people think so. They go so far as to celebrate their failures with a party and cake.

Intellectual Ventures is a technology firm near Seattle with an unusual mandate. I.V.’s main business is acquiring and licensing out high-tech patents, but it also runs an old-fashioned invention shop. Some inventions originate in-house while others are dreamed up in some garage on the other side of the world. The ideas range from a new breed of nuclear reactor to a superinsulated, portable storage unit that can deliver perishable vaccines to sub-Saharan Africa.

When it comes to inventing, ideas are rarely in short supply. In one brainstorming session, a group of I.V. scientists might come up with fifty ideas. “It’s just a fact of invention that most ideas won’t work out,” says Geoff Deane, who runs I.V.’s laboratory, where viable ideas are put to the test. “Knowing when the time is right to walk away is a perpetual challenge.”

The first round of triage is made by the company’s army of business, technical, and legal analysts. If an idea survives that cut, it may make its way to Deane’s lab, a fifty-thousand-square-foot menagerie of saws, scopes, lasers, lathes, and jacked-up computers. It employs or hosts more than one hundred people.

By the time an invention makes it to the lab, Deane says, there are two forces at work. “One force really wants to find a winner. The other one doesn’t want you to spend a ton of money or time on an idea that won’t be successful. The key is failing fast and failing cheap. That’s a mantra that comes out of Silicon Valley. I prefer the statement ‘failing well,’ or ‘failing smart.’ ”

Deane, an upbeat man with a big shaved head, has a background in civil engineering and fluid mechanics. The hardest part of running the lab, he says, “is training people to understand that risk is part of their job, and if they fail well, they will be given the license to fail again. If we try to spend ten thousand dollars on our failures instead of ten million dollars, we’ll get the opportunity to do a lot more things.” In this context, Deane says, failure “has to be recognized as a victory.”

He recalls one invention in 2009 that looked to be a winner. It was a “self-sterilizing surface,” a technology that used ultraviolet light to wipe out dangerous microbes. In U.S. hospitals alone, tens of thousands of people die each year from infections they pick up from medical devices, door handles, light switches, remote controls, and furniture surfaces. Wouldn’t it be great if all those items could be treated with a coating that automatically wiped out killer bacteria?

The self-sterilizing surface took advantage of two scientific phenomena—“total internal reflection” and “evanescent field effect”—to expose microbial intruders to ultraviolet light and neutralize them. To test the concept, I.V. scientists wrote white papers and computer models, cultivated bacteria, and built prototypes. There was tremendous excitement about the project. Nathan Myhrvold, one of the company’s founders, began to talk it up publicly.

How did the testing go? The self-sterilizing surface turned out to be “highly effective in killing bacteria,” Deane says.

That was the good news. The bad news: the existing technology to commercialize the invention was simply too expensive. There was no way it could move forward, at least for now. “We were ahead of the curve,” Deane says. “We just had to wait for the world to make more cost-effective LEDs.”

Projects fail for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes the science isn’t right; sometimes it is politics that gets in the way. In this case, the economics just wouldn’t cooperate. But Geoff Deane felt good about the outcome. The work had gone quickly and had cost the company only $30,000. “It’s very easy to have a project like that go on for six months,” he says. “The technology was by no means dead, but the project needed to be put to rest for a while.”

And so Deane threw an old-fashioned wake. “We invited everyone over to the kitchen, had a cake, said a few words of memoriam,” he says. “Somebody had made a casket. We carried it outside—we have a grassy knoll—and we put up a tombstone.” Then they all went back inside to continue the party. It was remarkably well attended—about fifty people. “When you offer free food and alcohol at the end of the day, people tend to show up,” Deane says.

When failure is demonized, people will try to avoid it at all costs—even when it represents nothing more than a temporary setback.

We once consulted with a huge multinational retail chain that was planning to open its first store in China. The company’s top executives were deeply committed to opening on time. About two months beforehand, they gathered the leaders of the seven teams involved in the opening, and asked each one for a detailed status report. All the reports were positive. All the team leaders were then asked to pick one of three signals—a green light, yellow light, or red light—to indicate their confidence in an on-time opening. All seven of them picked the green light. Great news!

As it happens, this firm had also set up an internal prediction market, where any employee could anonymously place a small bet on various company directives. One bet asked whether the Chinese store would open on time. Considering that all seven team leaders had given it a green light, you might expect bettors to be similarly bullish. They weren’t. The prediction market showed a 92 percent chance the store wouldn’t open on time.

Guess who was right—the anonymous bettors or the team leaders who had to stand in front of their bosses?

The Chinese store did not open on time.

It’s easy to identify with the leaders who gave the project the green light. Once a boss gets “go fever,” it takes a lot of courage to focus on potential failures. Institutional politics, ego, and momentum are all conspiring against you. And “go fever” can have consequences far more tragic than the late opening of a Chinese flagship store.

On January 28, 1986, NASA planned to launch the space shuttle Challenger from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The launch had already been delayed several times. The mission had drawn massive public interest, largely because the crew included a civilian, a New Hampshire schoolteacher named Christa McAuliffe.

The night before the launch, NASA held a long teleconference call with engineers from Morton Thiokol, the contractor that built the Challenger’s solid-rocket motors. Among them was Allan McDonald, Morton Thiokol’s senior man at the launch site. It was unusually cold in Florida—a predicted overnight low of 18 degrees—so McDonald and other Morton Thiokol engineers recommended the launch be postponed again. The cold weather, they explained, might damage the rubber O-rings that kept hot gases from escaping the shuttle boosters. The boosters had never been tested below 53 degrees, and the morning forecast called for temperatures much lower than that.

On the call, NASA pushed back against McDonald’s decision to postpone. He was surprised. “This was the first time that NASA personnel ever challenged a recommendation that was made that said it was unsafe to fly,” he later wrote. “For some strange reason, we found ourselves being challenged to prove quantitatively that it would definitely fail, and we couldn’t do that.”

As McDonald later recalled, his boss, back at Morton Thiokol headquarters in Utah, left the phone call for roughly thirty minutes to discuss the situation with other company executives. “When Utah came back on the phone,” McDonald wrote, “somehow the decision had been reversed.” The launch was officially back on.

McDonald was livid, but he had been overruled. NASA asked Morton Thiokol to sign off on the decision to launch. McDonald refused; his boss signed instead. The next morning, the Challenger took off as scheduled and blew apart in midair just seventy-three seconds later, killing everyone aboard. The cause, as later established by a presidential commission, was the failure of O-rings due to the cold weather.

What makes this story remarkable—and even more tragic—is that the people in the know had forecast the exact cause of failure. You’d think it is a rare case when a group of decision makers know with such precision what the fatal flaw of a given project will be. But is it? What if there were a way to peek around the corner on any project to see if it’s destined to fail—that is, if you could learn how you might fail without going to the trouble of actually failing?

That’s the idea behind a “premortem,” as the psychologist Gary Klein calls it. The idea is simple. Many institutions already conduct a postmortem on failed projects, hoping to learn exactly what killed the patient. A premortem tries to find out what might go wrong before it’s too late. You gather up everyone connected with a project and have them imagine that it launched and failed miserably. Now they each write down the exact reasons for its failure. Klein has found the premortem can help flush out the flaws or doubts in a project that no one had been willing to speak aloud.

This suggests one way to make a premortem even more useful: offer anonymity.

It seems safe to say that failure is not necessarily the enemy of success, as long as it’s given its due. But what about quitting outright? It’s all well and good for us to preach the upside of quitting, to point out opportunity cost and the sunk-cost fallacy. But is there any actual evidence that quitting leads to better outcomes?

Carsten Wrosch, a psychology professor at Concordia University, helped run a series of small studies to see what happens when people give up “unattainable” goals. Granted, deciding whether a goal is unattainable is probably 90 percent of the battle. “Yes,” Wrosch says, “I would say that’s the $1 million question—when to struggle and when to quit.”

In any case, Wrosch found that people who quit their unattainable goals saw physical and psychological benefits. “They have, for example, less depressive symptoms, less negative affect over time,” he says. “They also have lower cortisol levels, and they have lower levels of systemic inflammation, which is a marker of immune functioning. And they develop fewer physical health problems over time.”

Wrosch’s research is interesting but, let’s be honest, not quite the overwhelming evidence you might need to cut the cord. Whether quitting is “worth it” is the kind of question that is inevitably hard to answer, at least empirically. How are you supposed to gather the data to answer such a question?

What you’d really like to do is find thousands of people teetering on the edge of quitting, who just can’t decide on the right path. Then, with one flick of a magic wand, you’d send a randomly chosen portion of those people down the quitting path while the rest carried on—and you’d get to sit back and observe how all their lives unfolded.

Unfortunately, no such wand exists. (Not that we know of, at least. Maybe Intellectual Ventures—or the NSA—is working on it.) So we tried the next best thing. We set up a website, named it Freakonomics Experiments, and asked people to put their fate in our hands. Here’s what the home page said:


Sometimes in life you face a major decision, and you just don’t know what to do. You’ve considered the issue from every angle. But no matter how you look at it, no decision seems to be the right decision.

In the end, whatever you choose will essentially be a flip of a coin.

Help us by letting Freakonomics Experiments flip that coin for you.

That’s right: we asked people to let us decide their future with a coin toss. We ensured their anonymity, asked them to tell us their dilemma, and then flipped the coin. (Technically, it was a digital coin toss from a random number generator, which ensured its fairness.) Heads meant quitting and tails meant sticking it out. We also asked them to check in with us after two months and again after six months so we could see whether quitting made them happier or less happy. And we asked for a third party—a friend or family member usually—to verify that the flipper actually followed the coin flip.

As ludicrous as this may seem, within a few months our website had attracted enough potential quitters to flip more than 40,000 coins. The male-female split was about 60-40; the average age was just under 30. Some 30 percent of the flippers were married, and 73 percent lived in the United States; the rest were scattered across the globe.

We offered a menu of decisions in a variety of categories: career, education, family, health, home, relationships, and “just for fun.” Here are some of the questions that proved most popular:

Should I quit my job?

Should I go back to school?

Should I go on a diet?

Should I break my bad habit?

Should I break up with my boyfriend/girlfriend?

Not all the decisions were technically a “quit.” We’d flip a coin if someone couldn’t decide whether to get a tattoo or start volunteering or try online dating. We also let people write in their own questions (although we did tweak the software to block some queries—anything containing “murder,” “steal,” or “suicide,” for instance). Just to give you a flavor, here are some of the write-in questions we received:

Should I get out of the military?

Should I quit taking illicit drugs?

Should I date my boss?

Should I stop stalking my love interest?

Should I quit grad school?

Should I have the fourth child that my husband wants?

Should I quit the Mormon faith?

Should I become a Christian?

Should I have a coronary bypass or an angioplasty?

Should I be an investment banker in London or a private-equity associate in New York?

Should I rebalance my portfolio or just let it go?

Should I redo the bathroom or finish the basement first?

Should I attend my youngest sister’s wedding in North Carolina?

Should I come out?

Should I give up my dream of being a musician?

Should I sell my motorcycle?

Should I go vegan?

Should I let my talented daughter quit piano?

Should I start a Facebook Lebanese women’s-rights movement?

We were astonished to see how many people were willing to put their fate in the hands of some strangers with a coin. Granted, they wouldn’t have made it to our site if they weren’t already leaning toward making a change. Nor could we force them to obey the coin. Overall, though, 60 percent of the people did follow the coin toss—which means that thousands of people made a choice they wouldn’t have made if the toss had come out opposite.

Predictably, the coin toss had less impact on some really big decisions, like quitting a job, but even there it had some power. People were especially willing to follow the coin’s command when it came to the following questions:

Should I ask for a raise?

Should I quit my bad habit?

Should I splurge on something fun?

Should I sign up for a marathon?

Should I grow a beard or mustache?

Should I break up with my boyfriend/girlfriend?

On this last question—the romantic breakup—we were responsible for the dissolution of roughly 100 couples. (To the jilted lovers: sorry!) On the other hand, because of the nature of a coin flip, we were also responsible for keeping together another 100 couples who might have broken up had the coin landed on heads.

The experiment is ongoing and results are still coming in, but we have enough data to draw some tentative conclusions.

Some decisions, it turns out, don’t seem to affect people’s happiness at all. One example: growing facial hair. (We can’t say this was very surprising.)

Some decisions made people considerably less happy: asking for a raise, splurging on something fun, and signing up for a marathon. Our data don’t allow us to say why these choices made people unhappy. It could be that if you ask for a raise and don’t get it, you feel resentful. And maybe training for a marathon is far more appealing in theory than in practice.

Some changes, meanwhile, did leave people happier, including two of the most substantial quits: breaking up with a boyfriend/girlfriend and quitting a job.

Have we definitively proven that people are on average more likely to be better off if they quit more jobs, relationships, and projects? Not by a long shot. But there is nothing in the data to suggest that quitting leads to misery either. So we hope the next time you face a tough decision, you’ll keep that in mind. Or maybe you’ll just flip a coin. True, it may seem strange to change your life based on a totally random event. It may seem even stranger to abdicate responsibility for your own decisions. But putting your faith in a coin toss—even for a tiny decision—may at least inoculate you against the belief that quitting is necessarily taboo.

As noted earlier, we are all slaves to our own biases. Maybe that is why the two of us are so open to quitting. We have each been serial quitters and are pretty happy about how things turned out.

One of us—Levitt, the economist—was pretty sure, from the age of nine, that he would be a professional golfer. When he wasn’t practicing, he fantasized about being the next Jack Nicklaus. His progress was substantial. At age seventeen, he qualified for the Minnesota state amateur championship. But his playing partner during that qualifier—a short, squat, unathletic-looking fourteen-year-old—routinely outdrove him by thirty or forty yards and beat him soundly. If I can’t beat this kid, he thought, how am I ever going to be a touring pro? The lifelong golf dream was summarily shuttered.*

Years later, he enrolled in an economics Ph.D. program not because he thought an economics career would be fun but because it gave him cover to quit a management-consulting job he hated. He focused on political economics and by any standard metric, his career was going well. Just one problem: political economics was no fun at all. Yes, it was an “important” field, but the work itself was dry as bones.

There seemed to be three options:

1. Plow on regardless.

2. Quit economics entirely and move into Mom and Dad’s basement.

3. Find a new specialty within economics that wasn’t so dull.

Number 1 was the easiest choice. A few more publications and our hero would likely earn tenure at a top economics department. This option exploited what academics call the status-quo bias, a preference for keeping things as they are—and, to be sure, a prime force against quitting anything. Number 2 had some intrinsic appeal but, having already tried it once without much success, he passed. Number 3 beckoned. But was there any activity he enjoyed that might also reboot his academic career?

Indeed there was: watching Cops on TV. Cops was one of the first reality shows of the modern era.* No, it wasn’t very classy, and probably not “important,” but it was incredibly fun to watch. Addictive, even. Every week, viewers rode along with cops in Baltimore or Tampa or even Moscow as they chased down disorderly drunks and carjackers and wife beaters. The show wasn’t remotely scientific, but it did get you thinking. Why are so many of the criminals and the victims drunk? Does gun control really work? How much money do drug dealers make? What’s more important, the number of police or the tactics they use? Does locking up a lot of criminals lower the crime rate, or just encourage new and wilder criminals to take their place?

Watching a few dozen hours of Cops prompted enough questions to fuel a decade’s worth of fascinating academic research. (Maybe sitting on a couch eating nachos and watching TV isn’t so terrible!) And just like that, a new career path was laid out: the economics of crime. It was an underserved market and, although not nearly as important as political economics or macroeconomics or labor economics, it could permanently keep this economist out of his parents’ basement. And so it was that he quit trying to be an important economist.

The second author of this book has quit both a childhood dream and a dream job. He played music from an early age, and in college helped start a rock band, The Right Profile, named for a song on the Clash record London Calling. Ragged at first, they improved over time. On their best days, they sounded like a rough mashup of the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, and some country punks who didn’t know any better. After a few years, The Right Profile signed a contract with Arista Records and was on its way.

It had been extraordinarily fun getting to this point. The Arista impresario Clive Davis had scouted the band at CBGB, the grimy New York club where bands like the Ramones and Talking Heads made their bones. Later, Davis invited the band to his swanky midtown office and put Aretha Franklin on the phone to chat up the boys about the upsides of Arista. Our budding rock star had more substantial career conversations with Springsteen himself, the fast-rising R.E.M., and other musical heroes. It was intoxicating to be so close to his childhood dream. And then he quit.

Somewhere along the way, he realized that as exhilarating as it was to get up onstage with a guitar and jump around like a maniac, the actual life of a rock star didn’t appeal to him. From the outside, chasing fame and fortune seemed fantastic. But the more time he spent with people who had actually caught it, the more he knew that wasn’t what he wanted. It meant living on the road, without much time for solitude; it meant living a life onstage. He realized he’d prefer to sit in a quiet room with a nice window and write stories, and then go home at night to a wife and kids. So that’s what he set out to do.

This led him to graduate school and a few years of writing anything he could for whatever publication would have him. And then, as if beckoning from the heavens, came the New York Times, offering a dream job. For the son of a small-town newspaperman, this was ridiculously good fortune. For the first year at the Times, he pinched himself daily. One year gave way to five and then … he quit again. As exciting and rewarding as journalism could be, he realized he’d rather be off on his own, writing books—like this one.

The two of us have had more luck and more fun writing books together than we ever could have imagined.

Which naturally leads us to wonder: Should we take our own advice and think about quitting? After three Freakonomics books, can we possibly have more to say—and will anyone care? Maybe it’s time for us to head over to the Experiments website and see what the coin has to say. If you never hear from us again, you’ll know it came up heads …

Now that we’ve arrived at these last pages, it’s pretty obvious: quitting is at the very core of thinking like a Freak. Or, if that word still frightens you, let’s think of it as “letting go.” Letting go of the conventional wisdoms that torment us. Letting go of the artificial limits that hold us back—and of the fear of admitting what we don’t know. Letting go of the habits of mind that tell us to kick into the corner of the goal even though we stand a better chance by going up the middle.

We might add that Winston Churchill, despite his famous advice to those Harrow schoolboys, was in fact one of history’s greatest quitters. Soon after entering politics he quit one party for another, and later he quit government altogether. When he rejoined, he quit parties again. And when he wasn’t quitting, he was getting tossed out. He spent years in the political wilderness, denouncing Britain’s appeasement of the Nazis, and was returned to office only when that policy’s failure had led to total war. Even in the bleakest moments, Churchill did not back down one inch from Hitler; he became “the greatest of all Britain’s war leaders,” as the historian John Keegan put it. Perhaps it was that long streak of quitting that helped Churchill build the fortitude to tough it out when it was truly necessary. By now, he knew what was worth letting go, and what was not.

All right, then: we’ve had our say. As you’ve seen, there are no magic bullets. All we’ve done is encourage you to think a bit differently, a bit harder, a bit more freely. Now it’s your turn! We of course hope you enjoyed this book. But our greatest satisfaction would be if it helps you, even in some small measure, to go out and right some wrong, to ease some burden, or even—if this is your thing—to eat more hot dogs. Good luck, and let us know what you come up with.* Having made it this far, you too are now a Freak. So we are all in this together.