On failure and sunk cost [Part 1]

I fail at things fairly often. I'm being trained (against my will) to stop saying this, because people in the creative industry, especially women, like to support each other. So when I say "yup, I screwed up there!", the impulse is strong for my lovely friends to be like "no no, you were brilliant!" But sometimes that's a lie, and I just sommer failed.


I think it's important for creative people to talk about our failures. It helps us process what we did wrong, how it makes us feel, and what we should do differently next time. Often, though, I'm self-conscious trying to discuss failure with creative friends, because it can easily seem like I'm looking for reassurance, or like I want my decisions to be validated. Sometimes that is true, but a lot of the time it just helps to process things out loud so you can learn from them and move on.

I've experienced more than my usual share of failure in the past year or so, in part because I did something I've been mulling over for about four years: I Went Freelance™. It's been a fun road to get to this point, and (like most fun roads) it was peppered with wins and losses. This post and the next one feature two big, juicy losses for you to enjoy.

I just Mccan't

After six months working in social media in the later half of 2015, I was head hunted by a recruiter for a big huge ad agency. I like to mention that they contacted me, because somehow the idea that someone talked me into it makes me seem 2% less ridiculous in this story.

I started at this agency in January 2016, and I just couldn't do it. On my first day, I sat in the same status meeting I'd been sitting in every day since I started working in 2012. I received the same brief I'd received every week for almost four years. I sat at the same desk with the same hardware and thought the same tired thoughts. And I just couldn't. So three hours in, I went to see my new ECD, told him I'd made a mistake, and went home. 

I like telling this story because when I see it through other people's eyes, it's hilarious. I'm a badass! I quit a great job after three hours and never looked back! What a legend!

In reality, it was humiliating. I cried in the bathroom on WhatsApp with my husband, feeling like a terrible partner for putting our joint income at risk. I cried in front of my ECD when I resigned. I cried in the car on my way home, and in bed when I got there. I was disappointed in myself for being so reckless, and dreading having to explain myself to everyone I had told about my exciting new career direction.


In the end, it all worked out. I had already spoken vaguely with my best friend about going to work with her on the marketing side of the fitness industry, and that was just the break I needed. For a few months, at least. So, you know, don't quit your job in a flood of rage tears unless you have an inkling of what to do next.

What I learned from the whole mad experience is to pay better attention to my gut. I thought my social media job was the problem, or that if I was working on different clients in a different environment, it would all click into place. It turns out that graphic design and advertising just isn't for me. Sometimes we fail at things because we're lazy, or scared, or not ready to tackle them just yet, but sometimes we fail at things because they are the wrong things. 


That was a really scary realisation, because of the sunk cost fallacy. It's the same reason why people stay in unfulfilling relationships, or throw more money into repairing a broken appliance than it would cost to replace it. "I've put so much time/money/effort into this! If I bail now it would all be for nothing!" But as the money people  say, you shouldn't throw good money after bad - don't throw good time after bad, either.

I'd studied for five years and worked in the industry for almost four, which made me a flipping spring chicken. But still, the pressure was immense to push on through. If I had, I likely would have spent another few months or years being unhappy and restless at work, and then ended up exactly where I am now - just a little older, and probably mad at Past Jess for not making a move sooner.

In the past I've hesitated to dole out this advice too frequently - "Had a bad day? Maybe advertising isn't for you! Quit your job and start an artisanal snail farm!" It feels like a slippery slope toward giving up on everything. But please, give your intuition some credit. YOU know deep down whether you're just having a bad month, or if you really need a drastic change.