Jul 30
Hubble telescope in space

Escaping the Sunk Cost Fallacy

“But it didn’t take long for [him] to realize he wasn’t happy as a lawyer.”

This sentence appears in the biography of someone who became famous.  As a career coach for lawyers,  I know that this is one of the happier sentiments that you can voice about someone.  And what makes the sentence happy has nothing to do with leaving the practice of law.

The following sentences are equally happy:

“But it didn’t take long for her to realize that he was not the right man for her.”


“But it didn’t take him long to realize that he was spending too much time watching TV.”


“But it didn’t take them long to realize that the needed to leave the town in which they grew up.”

You get the drift.  What makes these happy sentences is the combination of realizing something important and doing it reasonably quickly.

When it comes to changing careers, this is sometimes referred to as combatting the sunk cost fallacy.  It’s the fallacy that you should stick with something you don’t like because you have already invested time and money into it.  The logical error is this–what you have already devoted to something is a sunk cost. It is what it is and, unless you have a time machine, you can’t undo it.  All you have control over is what you do or decide now.

And that’s why it’s commendable when people do realize that their career choice may have been a bad one.

In case you’re wondering, the person who realized that law wasn’t for him is Edwin Hubble.  He got a law degree in 1913 and started a law firm in Lexington, Kentucky.

He did, however, recognize his mistake and four years later obtained a Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of Chicago.  In the late 1920s, while working at the Mount Wilson Observatory outside of Los Angeles, he was the first person to discover that the universe consisted of more than the Milky Way Galaxy, that the galaxies were moving away from us, and that the universe was expanding. These are among the most momentous scientific discoveries of the 20th Century.  They lead to the formulation of was later called the Big Bang Theory.  In 1990, The Hubble Space Telescope, which is named in his honor, was launched. It continues to beam back amazing images.

You probably won’t reach the heights that Edwin Hubble did after he left the practice of law, but you can emulate him by avoiding the sunk cost fallacy, and acting on your realization that a particular job or career path isn’t going to make you happy.