I have had the bones of this article floating around in my head for so long that you could make a stock out of my brain juice. They form the skeleton of a relatively new philosophy for me, and they’re pinned (at least loosely) by science. The degree that I’m set to complete at the end of the year is not my first. I came back to undergraduate study because I wanted to have something closer to the full university experience — I wanted to get involved, engage with the university community and my fellow students, and try launch myself into a career that didn’t make me hate myself.
Not content with just getting my feet wet, I jumped into the deep end and involved myself in a lot of things. I joined a few clubs and was involved with multiple committees at the university. I’ve been involved with committees in local community not-for-profit groups. I have attended conferences, helped out at market stall days and participated in endless workshops. Every time the tide went out, I swam further out, looking for new things to pique my interest.
I started to notice a pattern: people like the idea of obligations and commitments, but not the idea of following through. They’ll sign up for a position and never come to a meeting. They say they’ll write something and it never happens. Basically, most people are unreliable, and reliable people are a useful commodity, so people like to keep you around. It is a frustrating thing indeed to be a reliable person in a sea of unreliability. I felt like a pinball bouncing between the bumpers, trying to get things done and constantly running into obstacles; people wouldn’t answer emails, people wouldn’t follow up after meetings, people would nag about deadlines that they would then ignore. I soldiered on because I had made a commitment.
Once I had learned the things I was interested in learning, and the roles settled into routine rather than growth, I looked to move on and give someone else a chance to have that experience, and look for something new for myself. This was easier said than done. It’s surprisingly difficult to quit something if people don’t want to let you go, in a lot of ways it’s actually much easier to just keep on going to meetings and doing the work.
If you start digging a hole to plant a tree and realise halfway through that it’s in the wrong place, you can’t get your time back, or recover the energy you’ve spent digging — they are sunk costs. A ‘sunk cost’ is something that has already been invested that cannot be recovered. You can choose to abandon that hole and start digging somewhere else, or you can keep digging the same hole and try to make it work anyway.
Your urge to keep digging in the same spot is known as the ‘sunk cost fallacy’ — the point where you decide to keep persisting with something, despite its lack of viability, because of the effort already invested. You feel tied to the commitment you’ve made (another term is ‘escalation of commitment’). It’s tied to something called ‘loss aversion’, which is a very human tendency to avoid losses rather than aim for equivalent gains, the classic example being that you would rather avoid losing $5 than finding $5.
The illusion that it would be easier to stay on doing the same thing, even though it is no longer useful to you, is heavily coloured by these ideas. You lose the position, you lose the people relying on you, and you feel like you’re abandoning your post. You can save a lot of saying, “No” and awkward conversations by just continuing what you were doing before.
It’s easy to stop doing something because it costs you money — there are apps that will count how much you can save if you stop drinking or smoking or putting so much on your credit cards. I haven’t yet (and maybe I’m not as diligent as I should be) found one that will calculate the amount of time you spend on someone else’s bullshit. And it’s hard to work out what’s time spent. Sometimes you meet up for a coffee and realise it’s someone else’s dump session. Sometimes you turn up for a meeting with someone, and after half an hour you realise they’ve forgotten they were meant to meet up with you. Sometimes you find yourself with someone only talks to you when they have a favour to ask, or they want to brag about something.
We are social creatures, and these connections and commitments to each other form a fragile web that stops us from descending into Mad Max territory. But a web looks just like a net, and sometimes it’s hard to know whether it’s supporting you, or whether you’re caught in it. I could rattle on about how society has changed and how relationships are shallower now. I could rant and rave about how emails and text messages make it easier to ditch on your obligations without having to actually speak to another human being. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter why things have changed. I’m not here to save the world, but I do want to make it a better place. Can I make it a better place if all of my time is being taken up by people and things that fail to enrich me? Can I help people if I’m stuck doing tasks that serve only to make someone else’s life easier, at the expense of my time and mental bandwidth?
One final term: opportunity cost. Opportunity cost refers to the things that you can’t do because you’re doing something else instead. If I spend $5 on a coffee, I can’t spend it on a sandwich. I can’t watch TV this afternoon if I clean the car out instead. If you cut that out of your life, where could you refocus your time and energy that would actually help you and the people around you, instead of just grinding that rut a little bit deeper?
As I look to graduate and leave behind all of the groups and programs I was involved with at Federation University Australia, I know I’ve learned more than my degree required. I’ve learned a lot about relationships, I’ve learned a hell of a lot about obligations, and I’ve definitely learned what I’m capable of. Learning to say ‘no’ and stand my ground to protect my own time and interests hasn’t won me a lot of friends, but it did save my sanity at points. As I’m writing this, I’m terrified of sounding bitter, but what I want to tell you all is to support the people and things that support you. If you’re in a situation that’s one-sided and you’re not getting anything out of it, then ditch it and spend your time on something you can be passionate about.
The last two-and-a-half years with FedPress have been a hectic, swirling mass of emails and spreadsheets and rotating websites, but I wouldn’t have done it any differently. There is nothing more rewarding than pouring your time and care into something and seeing it grow. When I tell you to cut the fat in your lives, it’s because I want everyone to experience the satisfaction of a project that works out, or to produce something that makes a difference. So thank you to each and every one of you for your time over these last few years, whether silent readers or active contributors. Thank you for your help, thank you for your encouragement, thank you for your emails and thank you for your time.
by Rebecca Fletcher