Sunk Cost: Knowing When to Call It Quits
Preparing for an upcoming Hawaii trip, my grandsons and I decided to take scuba training together. The course consisted of about six hours of self-study, two hours in a classroom, and twelve hours of pool time using scuba gear.
Training culminates in open-water dives in a lake to demonstrate competency and complete certification. We walked into the lake, stopping in about three feet of water to put fins on with the help of a buddy. You each are wearing about sixty pounds of gear and a rented wetsuit that constrains your movement, so it’s awkward and challenging.
Using snorkels, we swam out to a dive float thirty yards offshore. The plan was to rally at the float, then go down in teams of two, supervised by the instructor, to demonstrate mastery of key skills.
When I got to the float, something was wrong. I was tired and unable to catch my breath. I was paying attention to my body, and I knew this should not have been so exerting. The equipment is bulky, but once you’re in the water you inflate a vest so that you float. I didn’t understand why I was having so much trouble breathing. I wasn’t panting because I was anxious, but I was becoming anxious about how much I was panting.
The instructor signaled me and my grandson to be the first team down.
There were many things going through my head:
- I had invested a lot of time and money to get here
- I thought I was in better shape than this, and I didn’t want to seem weak in front of my grandchildren
- I was disappointed
- Diving in my current condition would not be safe
I told the instructor, “I have to abort the dive. I can’t catch my breath.”
The decision was both difficult and simple—difficult for stupid reasons, like sunk costs, pride, and disappointment; simple because sunk costs, pride, and disappointment don’t matter if you or your buddy get injured or killed because you took a needless risk.
This is a shoutout to those who make the hard calls: Testers who say, “In my opinion, this product isn’t ready to ship.” Project managers who say, “I don’t believe we can deliver a quality product by the target date with the resources available.” Operations folks who say, “I understand this fix is urgent, but we need to follow our process before we put this into production.”
Those decisions might seem simple, but knowing the consequences (concerns about sunk costs, embarrassment, and disappointment) can make doing the right thing challenging.
For my training dive, I definitely did make the right choice. I later discovered that the hood and vest I’d rented were too snug. This wasn’t obvious to me on land, but when I put the wetsuit over the vest and got in the water, it had the effect of wrapping a big rubber band around my chest, making inhaling difficult. Removing the vest relieved the problem immediately, and I was able to dive and receive my certification. Hawaii, here we come.