The Neverending Quest for Greener Grass

February 28, 2021

I love a catchy saying.

Several years ago, someone once told me:

“Oli, the grass is greener where you water it”

‘Woah…’, I thought. ‘What an inspiring way to live’.

From then on, the idea of nurturing opportunities already in front of me took root in my psyche. And after bearing witness to the destructive effects of divorce, ‘commitment’ became one of my deeply-held core values.

The saying offers a powerful little heuristic, and for some people it’s exactly what they need to hear. But as a blanket rule, it doesn’t work so well.

You see there’s a constant tension at play in all of us. We need to strike a balance between cultivating what we’ve got, and seeking out greener pastures.

When it came to weighing up whether or not to leave medicine, I agonised for months and months.

As tends to happen when making big scary decisions, lots of little voices popped up to torment me:

“This isn’t going to work for me in the long-run; I need to make an exit plan”

“Wait.. remember that saying? Isn’t the grass greener where I water it?”

“Hmm.. does that mean leaving medicine makes me a ‘quitter’”?

On it went.

Did the ‘medicine lawn’ need more watering, or was I supposed to leave it altogether?

And what was making the decision so hard to process?

An answer… from Aristotle

It’s time to put on my armchair philosopher hat.

Over the millennia, philosophers have had interesting things to say on the topic of ‘virtue’.

One of them was Aristotle. He proposed that each virtue is the balance of two extremes – or ‘vices’.

Take courage as an example.

Taken to one extreme, ‘excess’ courage might transform into overconfidence in the face of a very real threat.

At the other end, a lack of courage means cowardice – succumbing to our fears.

One virtue built into human nature is ‘commitment’.

Psychology has shown time and again that most of us have a strong, innate drive to appear consistent with past decisions.

We have a deep aversion to appearing flaky or unfocused. But this brings the risk of forgetting about the other extreme – overcommitment.

A blind devotion to our past decisions can easily become ‘tunnel vision’. In many contexts, this can be a vice rather than a virtue.

Why? Because when those decisions aren’t panning out as expected, doubling down on efforts and investing more energy only risks amplifying the problem further.

Behavioural economics has its own term for this phenomenon – the ‘sunk cost fallacy’.

This is the tendency to continue behaviours or endeavours primarily due to previously invested resources, like time or money.

But we don’t need fancy terms. The English language is rich with pithy sayings which get this across:

“Don’t throw good money after bad”

“It’s never the wrong time to make the right decision”

“If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging”

But hold on… we also receive mixed messages from society instructing us to do just the opposite. Here’s a particularly damaging one:

“You’ve made your bed, now lie in it”

And of course, we have the more well-meaning version:

“The grass is greener where you water it”

Confusing, right?

Let me give you a concrete example of how liberating it can be when you stay conscious of the sunk cost fallacy.

In pre-pandemic times, I would often purchase cinema tickets in advance, to get the best seats. Problem is, on the day I might feel like doing something else. Perhaps it was a nice day out and I preferred to go for a walk.

Option A is to begrudgingly watch the film out of guilt or obligation. This is probably what most people do.

Option B is the more enlightened route. It’s to go out and enjoy the sunshine. After all, I’ve bought the option of watching a film, not the experience itself. Whether or not I go to the cinema, the costs have been incurred. It might have been the wrong decision, but it has already been made. I’m free to make a second, more informed choice.

On a larger scale, there’s the gambler going broke trying to recoup losses, or the couple that stays together purely in order to make the years of emotional investment worthwhile.

Sunk costs and careers

Perhaps nowhere does the sunk cost fallacy rear its head more prominently than when you’re considering a career change.

With years of blood, sweat and tears behind you, it’s no wonder the prospect of making a leap can feel unspeakable.

Maybe there are years of demanding study and tuition behind you.

Maybe you’d feel guilty about throwing away the emotional investment from your close ones.

Or maybe you’ve become attached to a certain identity which would be hard to let go of.

Whatever the case, it can feel like we’re a marionette being pulled by hundreds of invisible strings.

What’s more, the prospect of appearing to others as though we lack staying power, or that we have shiny object syndrome, can be painful. So instead of paying attention to the intuitive sense that we’re in a rut, we double down our efforts and work even harder.

Unfortunately, this can be a recipe for burnout. But only you’ll know deep down if that’s where you’re headed.

The take-home message

If I want you to take one thing from this article, it’s this:

No matter how much time, money, emotion or energy you’ve poured into your career so far, you always have the freedom to choose a different path.

As a culture, we worship the idea of commitment, persistence and staying the course no matter what.

And for good reason. Those things are how we expand our ability to thrive and contribute to the world.

But they can also trap you in commitments which no longer serve you nor the people around you.

So look at the lawn you’re on right now.

If you’ve read this far, I’m guessing you’re doubting whether to keep watering it.

Perhaps your lawn is under attack from weeds: Do you have what it takes to fix that?

Or maybe it turns out the lawn you’re on isn’t actually yours: Do you need to find another one?

Then again, maybe you just hate watering grass full stop: Is it time to go do something else entirely?

[Okay, I’ve pushed this analogy as far as it’ll go.]

When you keep going with something purely because of prior investments, in the hope you’ll see some kind of financial, emotional or spiritual payoff, you cage yourself in prior decisions.

This is what keeps people in loveless marriages, friendships that drain them and careers they hate.

The thing is, people change.

What they want changes. What they care about changes. When I signed up to be a doctor as a teenager, I was a totally different human being.

So when you’re in the midst of an upheaval, give yourself permission to change your mind. And once you’ve granted yourself that simple license, watch as your newfound sense of freedom unlocks exciting new possibilities.

Thanks for reading,

Oli