What Drives Your Decisions – Pain or Gain?

I’ve just thrown a book across the room. I will not finish it. It is obvious, superficial rubbish. I thought it would be better. I persevered. Really I did. I got almost half way through before it all became too much and I threw the book across the room. I felt faintly embarrassed, even although there was no one there.  

This is the third book I have thrown across the room. I have read a lot of books. I should have thrown a lot more of them across the room. When I threw number two across the room about six months ago I promised myself that whenever I came across a book worthy of throwing across the room I would not hesitate. And I haven’t. In future, I will throw a lot more books across the room.

What used to stop me throwing bad books across the room?

Well, when you buy a book and spent time reading it you are invested. Invested in the book. It would be a waste of money and time to stop reading it, wouldn’t it?

Yes it would be a waste, but not of the book. It would be a waste of my time if I spent any more time reading a book I had developed a healthy hatred of. Spending more time reading will not make the book better or get me back the time I have already invested.

Taking conscious steps to create a loss is painful BUT essential.

The book example is trivial. Books are cheap. But some of our investments are huge and walking away from them is very painful. But I would argue that if the investment is no longer giving you the return you need, it’s time to stop investing. If you can get some of what you have invested back that’s great but if you can’t that shouldn’t change the decision to walk.  

Some examples –

  • Relationships – are you getting what you signed up for? Still waiting for things to get better? Don’t wait too long.
  • Job – thrilled to be Head of Department. Good for you. But when it stops turning you on and you know you’re not just going through a sticky patch…get your coat on.
  • Beliefs – there’s a lot of physicists right now girding their loins, hoping they don’t have to accept that some particles CAN go faster than the speed of light. It’s difficult to walk away from something that you have believed for decades. 
  • Money – your investment halved in value? Sell it before there’s nothing left.   
  • Identity – I am a research scientist and I do research science. Hmm…maybe. Beware expertise – it’s often a rut.

All of these invested positions cause standstill – an inability to take action because we feel walking away from what we have invested so much in is simply too painful.

You may also know this phenomenon as “sunk costs” – the investment has been made, you cannot get it all back. Continuing to invest more money hoping that the prior investment will turn around makes no sense. Ten pounds spent today does not increase the value of ten pounds spent yesterday.

We are wired to avoid pain but decision making based on avoiding pain rather than achieving gain gives poor results.

Trying to achieve gain is almost always the better decision. It is almost always better to move than to stand still.

It seems that the aphorism really is true: “no pain, no gain”.

Once again, our pre-historic brain-wiring does not help us in the post-sabre-toothed-tiger age. But our awareness will save us – so let’s make sure that we regularly ask ourselves if we are making decisions based on avoiding loss or on attracting gain.

And when a book needs throwing, throw it.

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Thanks a lot. Mark

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2 Responses to What Drives Your Decisions – Pain or Gain?

  1. Badr Soliman December 12, 2011 at 12:47 pm #

    A painful truth…

  2. Harry December 12, 2011 at 1:33 pm #

    Learn before you throw! Is the book right … but we don’t like the message or are irritated by the presentation? Be really clear about this.

    The point remains though, don’t throw good time after bad to abuse an idiom.

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