Sunk-Cost Fallacy: A Quick Lesson from An Art Student

Have you ever felt so stuck, but making a change seems so scary you don’t know what to do? Let me tell you a story of mine.

Yes, indeed. This is a bit of story time about sunk-cost fallacy, from Mel to you.
It all started back when I was a student. If you ask me what lesson(s) did I learn during my one year intensive course in the media school, my answers will be different depending on who you are:

Are you a recruiter? 
I can pull my not-updated-yet demo reel out for you to watch now to part of the lesson I learned.

Are you a high school student/polytechnic student/whoever interested in learning this certain field? 
I can tell you that if you can code, your life will be better; and if you have a high-end PC (with additional pocket money to pay for monthly to yearly licenses for each programs you want to use), you are basically a wizard (or you can learn to be one easier).

Are you none of the above? 

*inhales*

I can tell you about how terribly stupid it is to think that you can run from Maths and Physics by taking art major (I am guilty of that); or about how you can feel stress physically; or how difficult it is to tell an art student/an artist that ‘taking a break is totally okay’–because not touching your work for a day (and getting caught doing it–is scarier than having a big needle in the back of your hand.

*exhales*

Well, I am not writing this to (just) whine or to scare kids who want to take digital arts major when they grow up, but this is the reality, at least to me.

There is one lesson, though, which transcended the art students’ world; since I can apply to basically every other aspect of life: sunk-cost fallacy. It is truly the one lesson which changed my (and will change your) perspective.

It started with a question:

“Why don’t you just restart from the beginning?”

–J, my classmate

J asked me that question in two instances.
And there were two responses I gave to the question.

That one time when I avoided answering the question.

The first instance was during the very first term. A sculpting software (it was ZBrush) was introduced; and after a brief explanation, we were asked to choose our favorite human 3D character, and sculpt it. Seems like a fun lesson, right?

Well, turned out, we needed to sculpt it from the muscles, up the fat (if the character has any), and then the skin as the cherry on top. That was an anatomy lesson, sneakily wrapped with game character.

I was terrible at it, and I am not going to lie to save my face.

Looking back at it now, I realize why was mine not working out well–and I don’t intend to redo it now for redemption, no–but of course the me at the time couldn’t. We started from the head, and I sculpted a bacon-face. Next class, the lecturer checked my work and gave feedback, but of course he wouldn’t wait for me to fix it, so we continued to the neck, all the way to gluteus maximus and minimus, and then to the feet.

I huffed and puffed and my bacon-face turned into bacon-woman.

At one point, I actually almost (or maybe I) cried while holding my Wacom pen. J, my classmate, gave me tips and tried to help me, but as I carved the bacon-woman, she asked, “Why don’t you just restart from the beginning?” Yup, it was the quote above.

Spoiler alert: I didn’t.

And I am not going to lie, at the first glance, that suggestion might seem a bit cold. The type which is easy to say but difficult to do, something like “get over it” or “calm the f*ck down”. Because how the frick can I redo all these in this already limited time which I have wasted?!

That other one time when I actually did something about it, facing the question.

Fast forward to the second term.

I was fiddling with Houdini–not the magician, the software–with anxiety attack on my back. Remember my answer for if you are a student and interested in the field above? I have none of those. I was busy making a wild guess, trying to understand what’s going on; and by the time I figured things out, the setup I was trying to make went haywire.

Then J asked that question again, but this time she added,

“When I am stuck, I restart, and it actually becomes easier for me to finish it, you know?”

–J, my classmate

So I tried. And she was right. I finished it better, and even faster compared to my first attempt. By restarting, I solved the problem from the roots. J looked at me proudly. I was just glad that I could get that assignment out of my way. Thank you, J.

Here comes the sunk-cost fallacy lesson:

Are you familiar with the term sunk-cost fallacy?

It is a term based on Economics (and some other finance and business-related subject)–sunk-cost is a cost that has been done and cannot be recovered.

From my story, it will be the hours and hours of my days, spent to work on the two assignments: the bacon-woman and the Houdini one.

So how can it be called a fallacy? It is a fallacy when people start making decisions based on the sunk-cost.

It will be like crying over spilled milk, or as we Asians call it: the rice has turned into a congee, so what are you going to do about it, right? Well, some people would just go on with the consequences, ruining their mental health in general. Imagine licking milk off the floor.

Gross, right? I know.

The bacon-woman case was me following the sunk-cost fallacy–I was licking, no, trying to make do with the milk on the floor. I didn’t bother to take the risk and restart it, because:

  1. I have spent a lot of time to do it already; it’s such a waste to restart
  2. I can make it better as I go, watch me do it!

And, yup, I didn’t make it better. I was dying inside as I continued, and embarrassed with the result.

Have you ever had thoughts/said things like:

“I have dated this person for 7 years, how can I break up with him/her even though s/he is so unkind to me? Look at these new bruises/these screenshots of him/her flirting with someone else, though! But I spent so much time already, I must marry them!”

“I have spent almost my whole young adult lives to study this and I realize that I hate it, but how can I change to another major/industry? I don’t want to really waste the money my parents spent on my education for real by not working based on the current industry!”

Do you see the pattern of milk-licking?
And do you see the miserable you?

On the other hand–the Houdini case, I decided to throw my previous work away, and started anew after knowing half of the things I wanted to do to achieve my end goal–which is a finished assignment. I was fully aware that I have spent a lot of time on it, just like the bacon-woman, and if I decided to lick the milk, I will spend more time being miserable trying to fix things.

What I did was:

  1. Acknowledge that I have spent a lot of time on it, and acknowledge the result it brought,
  2. Take a step back and assess the situation, weigh the pros and cons as objectively as possible (in my case I admitted that ‘the situation is sh*tty right now’),
  3. And then remind myself what goal am I trying to achieve in the first place (finished assignment, or maybe a happy marriage, or a more fulfilled life),
  4. Collect as much courage as I could, take a deep breath, go YOLO and take one step while focusing on the goal from no. 2.

Obviously, finishing the assignment was way easier to do compared to breaking free from toxic relationships, or risking everything to try something new from zero; what I am trying to say is that YOU HAVE THE POWER TO MAKE YOUR OWN CHOICES.


Well, this experience of mine brought an awareness about sunk-cost fallacy up onto the surface and changed my perspective; this is the message “love yourself” brought to another level. Until now, the story encourages me to take a step forward, alongside the support from people I care about.

And hopefully this story time can push you to take the first step as well. Do you find this story relatable? Feel free to tell me more on the comments below!

Cheers,
from Mel to you.

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