Maya Angelou and the Sunk Cost Fallacy

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While in Kentucky, I had a lot of time to think.  Not knowing anyone other than Rion’s family and not having a desire to get to know anyone in anything other than a superficial manner really freed up my time.  Yes, I was working a ton and I did interact with other people in my immediate vicinity, of course, but not being integrated into a community or trying to do so left me to my own devices.  Whether good or bad, thinking for thinking’s sake, or overthinking, is a habit I’ve yet to shake.

For the longest time, I found it very difficult to let things go. Depending on what the “thing” is may determine how long I hold on to it.  Leaving Houston was a perfect time to get rid of material possessions that I did not need, but it was also the perfect time to let go of people, relationships and acquaintances, which were toxic or into which I had no desire to exert more effort.

Letting go of people who have been in your life for a long time can be difficult just as it is leaving a job after a long tenure, or talking yourself out of doing something new because you have been doing something else for an extended period of time. The Sunk Cost Fallacy affects most people in some way or another, and like most irrational actions it is based in an irrational fear. However, as the drunks in Alcoholic’s Anonymous say, “We only change when it is less scary than staying the same.” Those drunks might have a point.

Letting go of other’s concept(s) of who we are is contrary to what we are taught by society.  For me, I just couldn’t see why people always wanted to put me in my place. Though I see myself as direct, loyal, and knowledgeable, some of the people I had allowed to be a part of my life saw me as a confrontational, arrogant, and annoyingly demanding. The perspective of the other people is perfectly valid, but that has very little to do with me. However, this disparity of perception also provides a large space for understanding and acceptance.  But, the acceptance of a person’s perspective is not necessarily indicative of accepting the meaning that he/she/it is assigning. The perspective does exist, but this does not mean that the perspective, perception, thought, or belief coming out of them are facts themselves.

Part of leaving my job was not only due to the Pinochet-lamenting Chilean who was struggling to find her footing, but also due to the fact that I got tired of defending myself against the perceptions of other people. For a good two years, there had been nothing but conflict between me and some others at my job where neither of us was prepared to budge on our perspective.  The difference was that I would not accept the perspective of my colleagues about me as true and they were unwilling to consider that their perspective of me was predicated in their own sense of inferiority or desire to put me in my place.

I did ask “why” these colleagues saw me this way, and their answers were always odd to me.  They accused me of saying things I never said and I would ask them to show me evidence of what they were accusing me.  These colleagues could never produce anything other than what they had inferred from what I did say.  Which, I never got personal or talked about them in a personal way, but I would speak directly about our work, errors in judgment, or why something might not work out. Often times, these colleagues heard “you are shit at your job and stupid” when I all I said was “this was the error and here is why it didn’t work.” The fact was that our perspectives were completely different, they thought I was attacking them and I thought I was fostering teamwork and efficiency. We were both wrong to some degree, though.

In order to be able to work together, we had to reconcile our differences. One the one hand, nothing I ever said, no word I ever wrote was unprofessional or inappropriate, it was just incredibly direct.  On the other hand, though, different people have different levels of emotional maturity in different areas of life. After weeks of meetings with HR, they determined that I had done nothing wrong and had not been unprofessional nor had I actually committed any infraction of which I had been accused.  However, the fact that I had been so direct in my communication had offended my colleagues, which, in their minds, gave them permission to attack me personally.  HR did not agree with that course of action, and much to the chagrin of my colleagues, they were reprimanded for their actions which were the direct result of their actions and a tangential result of their lack of acceptance and assumption that their perspective was a fact.

My colleagues did not want to accept that I was only working to earn money and that I only wanted to work as efficiently as possible so that I didn’t have to work overtime.  However, my colleagues were more interested in how they were perceived and their status, or potential status, within the company. I was unwilling to play politics, because, probably erroneously, I thought I was above it, choosing not to play the game at all. Our respective goals and what we valued were very different, some might say, contrary.

Who had to change? Both of us did. My colleagues could not take out their emotions on me and they had to accept my words as they were written and not read anything into them.  I had to find a way to be a more effective and gentle communicator. In fact, I had to find a way to see the colleagues with conflict as more human, overlooking both their occasional and constant instances of incompetence and accepting that their decisions resulting from that incompetence had nothing to do with me – my only responsibility was performing the tasks assigned to my role in that company and nothing more.

Letting go of my perspective and my colleagues letting go over their’s, at least enough for us to be able to work together cordially, was the key to creating a good working relationship. Not everything needs a response and not everything needs to be “correct.” Sometimes, just accepting things as they are and moving the hell on is the best option. This is also true, maybe even more so, when it comes to personal relationships.

In 2016, I ended a friendship that had lasted 18 years and in 2017 I walked away from one of 3 years.  Why?  Well, the most honest answer is that I did not want to be friends with those people anymore. But, as with most things, the reasons are more nuanced, that is to say, there were reasons that I didn’t want to maintain these relationships further.

The 18-year friendship had more ups than downs, but it had been predicated on convenience and the amount of time that had been spent figuring out a way to make it work. We were very similar to each other, however, there were core differences between us that made the relationship tenuous. He was competitive at everything and had a tendency to scam people. On the other hand, I am not competitive and I think that if I can’t get obtain something honestly I don’t need it. Plus, when I started to feel like I didn’t want to be his friend anymore I started to really try to figure out why that was so, and I began to analyze. I figured out that we became friends for superficial reasons (being from the same place, having the same hobbies, etc.) and then, we continued to remain friends simply because we had been friends – we had sunk so much into making our friendship work, that it seemed foolish and silly to end it.

I could accept that I had made that made the decision to sink my time into the relationship trying to make it work for the years we had been friends. The core differences between us, which were the biggest issue for me, were something I could accept, but I could not accept the behavior that comes from the aspects of my friend’s core values that I didn’t like. My friend of 18 years had started to run a scam on me and instead of being forgiving and accepting the behavior, I told him I wouldn’t accept the behavior and I wasn’t interested in being his friend anymore. Though harsh to some, I did not feel within my rights to ask him to change or not be who he is by nature. However, I was not willing, and did not deserve to be on the receiving end of his fuckery.

The friend of 3 years was much easier to and required less consideration when it came to ending the relationship.  She was funny and smart, but required a lot of attention and was emotionally volatile. Though her emotions were not directed at me that often, her whining and constant need for reinforcement was soul-sucking. Plus, she was unable to step outside of her own world to be present for me. I began to feel like her therapist, and she was rarely interested in anything about me. She only ever wanted to talk about herself. So, I didn’t ask her to change, I did not ask her to be anyone other than who she was, I just told her I was not interested in pursuing a relationship with her anymore.

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them” is the famous quote from Maya Angelou. This should be the golden rule of life.  However, this is not the entirety of the quote. “When someone shows you who they are, believe them; the first time” is what she wrote.  The last part is where I have continually failed in my life, and where a lot of us fail, as well. Too often, we think that we should or can control the actions, nature, or agency of other people – the biggest error we can make. Most of us will never be dictators, kings, queens, or gods. Plus, most control comes through some kind of manipulation, and I just don’t have it in me to manipulate someone to like me.

Rion asked me how I felt after I had not been in contact with these two former friends for some time, and in all honesty, I felt absolutely fine with them not being a part of my life. In fact, I was happy about it.

“Explain to me how it makes you happy? Rion asked me intrigued.

“Well, I don’t resent them.  Had I continued to have them be a part of my life I would resent them,” I explained. “Just because we aren’t friends now, or we aren’t a part of each other’s lives doesn’t mean that we weren’t ever friends.”

You see, the people I was friends with, and the people I worked for even, they still have everything I ever gave them. They still have the time I gave them, the loyalty, and the parts of me that I decided to give.  Whether anyone remembers, they still have ownership in the moments we shared in the past. The relationships that ended needed to end for me. No one is owed an apology for that.  I would much rather have as many good memories of those relationships as possible. But, staying in relationships that don’t suit me or help me will only build resentment toward someone who is just being who they have decided to be, they don’t deserve my wrath or judgment just because I don’t like what I found.

Staying in any relationship that does not serve you, grow you, or support you is foolish. However, when we do not accept things as they are, and we continue to sink resources into it we run a real risk of getting to a point where we have spent so much trying to spin straw into gold that we end up having wasted a lifetime on something that was never going to happen in the first place. If we clear away the clutter and avoid hoarding mediocrity, we create the potential to allow quality things into our lives. Though they may not be as numerous, they surely are much more fulfilling.

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