You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough. William Blake
You are in your hotel room and hear sounds from the room next door.
“Oh my God!” she says. “Don’t stop. Don’t stop. Oh God, oh God, oh God! Keep going! Don’t stop!”
The walls shake.
“Oh God! Don’t stop. Oh my God! Keep going. Oh God, oh God, oh God.”
You can’t concentrate. You absolutely must get this blog done. A quote from Nixon-era economist Herbert Stein comes to mind.
If something can’t go on forever it will stop.
Silence. Whew! Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in awhile. We are born. We live. We die. The ups and downs along the way, we call that life. The brilliant Kurt Vonnegut said the past, the present, and the future are always there like a giant fruitcake and where you are depends on how you cut it. Fruitcake or not, we make decisions and we learn to live with them.
Making better decisions is something psychologist, author and former professional poker player Annie Duke thinks about a lot. We wrote about her book How To Decide in a previous blog. How we decide is fraught with all sorts of tricky emotions that can trip us up. It’s helpful to know about them in advance.
Don’t conflate Annie Duke’s book with a similar title, How We Decide, by Jonah Lehrer. Lehrer’s book became a major scandal when he confessed to plagiarism and fabrication. [NOTE: Annie Duke has some baggage of her own from her poker days. We will not explore that here.]
Decisions. That’s what I want to write about. In particular decisions about when to stop. The title of Annie Duke’s new book intrigues me—Quit: The Power Of Knowing When To Walk Away. I was drawn to the book because I’m a quitter and proud of it and happy to find someone that agrees with me.
The point Duke makes in her book is that there are powerful forces operating in society and in our brains that discourage us from quitting even when quitting is in our own best interest. She tells some good stories like the one about Muhammad Ali. He was told to stop boxing but he couldn’t do it. The result was tragic. By the time you quit, she says, you’ve probably already stayed too long.
“I’m 41,” says Kim Kardashian. “I always want to look appropriate. There does come a point when you’ve taken it too far. Overfilled, too tight, too much cosmetic work. There’s nothing worse.”
Is cosmetic work actually work? It’s like some Christians arguing over homoousious and homoiousious—not one iota of a difference as far as I can see. Did Joan Rivers say “Enough already?” No, it was Annie Duke. She also said: “If you quit at the right time it’s going to feel too early … Loss aversion is a real thing … Quitting is brave.”
Yes, it is. I quit a Ph.D. program in economics after eight years of undergraduate and graduate study. All that time and money is called in the economist’s jargon “sunk cost.” Sunk costs shouldn’t impact future decisions. They just shouldn’t. Don’t take my word for it (or Duke’s either for that matter). Shakespeare put the words in Lady Macbeth’s mouth: “Things without all remedy should be without regard. What’s done is done.”
Would I have been happier had I not quit? I don’t know. Have I been unhappy because I quit? No. Such what if questions are for the poets and philosophers and physicists. Tomas Tranströmer considers the what if questions in his beautiful prose poem The Blue House.
… I am grateful for this life! And yet I miss the alternatives. All sketches wish to be real.
A motor far out on the water extends the horizon on the summer night. Both joy and sorrow swell in the magnifying glass of the dew. We do not actually know it, but we sense it: our life has a sister vessel which plies an entirely different route. While the sun burns behind the islands.
Some physicists think there are an infinite number of worlds or universes where everything that can happen actually happens. Bryce DeWitt, of the University of North Carolina, writes: “every quantum transition taking place in every star, in every galaxy, in every remote corner of the universe is splitting our local world on Earth into myriad copies of itself.”
Oh wow! Somewhere out there is my sister vessel. I am a Ph.D. in economics and I’ve solved the inflation problem. Not! Even economists know their limitations. “It’s not a science,” said European Central Bank Christine Lagarde. “What we are doing there is an element of art.” Rather like cosmetic work, yes?
Like Annie Duke, I quit an unhappy marriage.
I quit a restaurant job and a job as a financial adviser. Holding down a real job proved impossible so I became a blogger.
As I said, I’m a quitter. After six years I thought about quitting the blog but I’m having too much fun.
It is impermanence that creates value and beauty. If the sunrise lasted forever you would never know the beauty of the sunset. Behind The Locked Door
By the way, artists do not get a free out of jail card. The artist Jackson Pollock is reputed to have been perennially uncertain about when one of his famous “drip” paintings was finished. If he stopped too early, the picture lacked tension; but if he worked on it too long, it became a mess. This is a fundamental problem all artists, designers and inventors face: when is it time to stop? What is at stake is your reputation. If you hang around when you’re bored and frustrated, your reputation will suffer. Legend has it that Pollock’s friends would creep into his studio and take his paintings away when they thought they were done. They protected (or helped make?) his reputation.
Getting a little help from your friends is one of the strategies Duke recommends in her book. “Find someone you trust, who has your best interests at heart, and sit down with them,” she says. “A friend can help us through those hard decisions, because to others, it can often be pretty obvious that we need to quit.”
For some activities it’s best to never start. That’s what behavioral economist Dan Ariely thinks. The worst behavior usually starts with a small step that crosses the line (Bernie Madoff, Sam Bankman-Fried?). When it comes to fraud, drugs or dieting Ariely says you should set strict rules.
There is something else. I have had lots of discussions with big cheaters – insider trading, accounting fraud, people who have sold games in the NBA, doping in sports. With one exception, all of them were stories of slippery slopes. You look at the sequence of the events – you look at the end – and you say, my goodness, what kind of monster would do this? But then you look at the first step they took and say, I can see myself under the right amount of pressure behaving badly. Then they took another step, another step, and another step. Most organizations go down a slippery slope rather than having some vicious, vicious plan….
Codes of conduct are incredibly important for companies. But companies are wrong in how flexible they make these codes of conduct. When you have a serious code, it is easier to see if you are on the right or wrong side of it. When you have something that is very fuzzy, it is hard for us to see that we are violating it. Think about something like Alcoholics Anonymous. The rule is very clear. No drinking whatsoever. What would happen if the rule was half a glass a day? We would get very big glasses. You would drink today on account of tomorrow. There will be all kinds of tradeoffs. In general, we do not like very clear-cut rules because we understand the exceptions. We understand that we cannot create a good rule. But good rules really help us. They help us to figure out for ourselves what is good. Dieting, by the way, is the same thing. If you have a clear rule about what you eat and do not eat, it is really easy….
The idea of an optimal stop time flows from two time-honored economic concepts: opportunity cost and decreasing returns. When you choose to do one thing you give up other opportunities—these are the opportunity costs of your choice. Women are famous for multitasking (men can’t walk and chew gum at the same time) but even Annie Duke can find it hard to balance all the options.
Annie singles out her tendency to be “overly focused” on the kids as the reason behind [the divorce]. “I think that’s what happens a lot to moms,” she muses. “Maybe I wasn’t as nurturing of the relationship.” When she found herself staying at work longer and longer to “avoid the problems at home,” Annie realized that action needed to be taken. “I wouldn’t have gotten divorced if I didn’t think what was going on in the marriage was affecting my kids negatively,” she explains. “When I realize that it started to affect the way I parent, that’s when it was over.” The kids are “so much happier” as a result, Annie says.
Decreasing returns is when the second (or third) popsicle doesn’t provide as much satisfaction as the first and the fifth one makes you sick. We ignore decreasing returns at our peril—it can lead to addiction. Sometimes it takes an outside shock to wake you up. When asked how he got sober, Elton John replied:
“You know, I was having people die right, left and center around me, friends. And yet I didn’t stop the life that I had, which is the terrible thing about addiction,” he said. “When you take a drug and you take a drink and you mix those two together, you think you’re invincible. I came out of this HIV-negative. I was the luckiest man in the world.”
The singer credits meeting Ryan White, the American teenage hemophiliac who contracted HIV through a contaminated blood transfusion, with providing the impetus for his start on the path to sobriety. “I had the luck to meet Ryan White and his family,” he said during a Harvard University talk in 2017. “I wanted to help them, but they ended up helping me much more. Ryan was the spark that helped me to recover from my addictions and start the AIDS foundation. Within six months [of White’s death] I became sober, and clean, and have been for 27 years.”
Everything works until it doesn’t. Long before it doesn’t it’s time to stop. Relationships, jobs, addictions, Fed tightening, speculation, scams—I knew a guy once who had a fancy car, the license plate read LOWKEY. He hung on too long and ended up in jail.
Leave something on the table for the next guy. You don’t need to sell at the top and you don’t want to sell at the bottom. There is an asymmetry that makes quitting hard—fear of the unknown, loss aversion. There is a bias against quitting. You don’t want to be a quitter. Better to tough it out. So says he who regrets it later.
Rather than filling it overfull
Better to stop in time
They say the Captain goes down with the ship. You don’t have to be the Captain. It isn’t always wise.
Anyway, you get the point. If you want more read Annie Duke’s book. In the meantime, that wall’s beginning to shake again. It’s time for me to stop and post this blog before the power goes out. Sweet Jesus! The roof is caving in.