Teach like a Freak: The upside of quitting

“Winners never quit and quitters never win.”

This is a phrase that was drilled into my head (and that of most Americans as well, I suspect) from an early age. I probably heard it on the baseball field when I was ready to give up because hitting the ball was too challenging and frustrating. I cannot say I’ve always fully bought into the belief that quitting is bad but even the words quit and quitter sound strong and contain negative connotations to me. 


Image courtesy of Lifehack Quotes and quote by the one and only Vince Lombardi.

When my friend and colleague Kevin Giddens (who, incidentally, introduced me to the This American Life podcast) told me about a Freaknomics podcast episode called “The Upside of Quitting” all the way back in 2011 I was surprised about the title because I automatically associated being a quitter with being a failure or a loser. I think the episode is well worth a listen but if you are not into the whole listening to a podcast thing you can see the full transcript of the episode here. Also, Kevin blogged about this episode and what it meant for his life and career, which I think offers a lot of insights. 

I enjoyed the podcast on the benefits of quitting and found it fascinating. I can’t say it impacted my life very much immediately or even ever. However, I did think about the episode from time to time when I was considering quitting and sometimes got something like permission in my mind from Dubner and Levitt, the Freakonomics authors. Aside from those situations  I didn’t think about this episode too much until I found myself reading Think Like a Freak this winter.

Reading the chapter on the benefits of quitting gave me some new perspectives. Aside from the fear of being labeled a quitter (and thus a coward or worse) Dubner and Levitt suggest there are two other factors at play which tend to bias us against quitting. One of them is the idea of sunk costs which means the amount of time, money, or “sweat equity” we have already devoted to a project. It is easy to believe that after we have devoted these things to a project it becomes counterproductive to quit. When we stick with a project or idea and continue devoting things like time, energy, money, brainpower because we simply don’t like the idea of quitting we are falling for the sunk-cost fallacy. (Dubner and Levitt 191) A classic example of the sunk cost fallacy I can very much relate to includes overeating at a restaurant after accidentally ordering too much food in order to get my money’s worth.

An example of the sunk-cost fallacy that comes to mind at the classroom and lesson level is when teachers stay with a lesson plan not because it is working or because it seems like it will work but because of the amount of time we spent planning the lesson or preparing materials. I have fallen into this trap too many times to mention and just knowing about and considering the idea of the sunk-cost fallacy has been beneficial for me to hone my decision making. I might ask myself, “Mike,are you sure the reason you want to continue with this idea is because of the educational value? Are you sure it is not because of the time and energy you have already devoted to this idea?” I believe this type of questioning can be extremely helpful as we try to figure out where our initial reactions are coming from. I am not saying it is always easy to let go or that we always should do so but I think a basic idea of the sunk-cost fallacy can be helpful for everyone including teachers.

A bigger and perhaps sadder and scarier example of the sunk-cost fallacy might be if someone chooses to stay in a field or job because they have already spent so much time, energy, and money getting to where they are. Those resources are already used up and we can’t get them back. Maybe you really want to be a photographer but can’t quite manage to shake the TESOL bug and part of the reason is because you worked so hard for that DELTA. Maybe you want to be an accountant but all that money you spent on the MATESOL is holding you back and keeping you stuck where you are. I won’t pretend that I am in a position to give advice on these major decisions but I will say perhaps the sunk-cost fallacy is worth keeping in mind as people make these major decisions. Again, for me, just being aware that the sunk-cost fallacy is a thing has made it easier to pinpoint my own biases against quitting. 

The third force Dubvitt mention that acts to prevent people from quitting is  focusing on concrete costs as opposed to opportunity costs. They explain opportunity costs as “the notion that for every dollar or hour or brain cell you spend on one thing, you surrender the opportunity to spend it elsewhere.” (Dubner and Levitt 191)  They suggest we are much better at identifying and focusing on concrete costs as than opportunity costs. Part of this is because concrete costs are easier to isolate and calculate. For example, if you are considering doing a CELTA you might immediately recognize it will take around $3,000 and a month of your time. The opportunity costs here would be what else could you do with the time and money? What else would you need to sacrifice for this?

While seemingly simple, I think this is an incredibly important way of thinking when it comes to classroom practice as well. Everything we do in class takes away opportunities to do something else. By choosing to spend the first 10 minutes of class taking roll we have sacrificed this time we could have spent doing something else. For every moment use in class to explain what is on the syllabus we are losing the chance to do something else. And on and on. Even if we choose to do something that seems important and productive we are still missing out on the opportunity to do something else, whatever it might be. This might seem simple, obvious, and intuitive but I think that it can be easy to forget about or fail to identify opportunity costs. Perhaps thinking about what we are missing out on might lead us to drop certain activities and routines. 

Beyond the classroom level, imagine a teacher who is obsessed with professional development and attends conferences nearly every free weekend. Let’s take it a step further and say this teacher volunteers their time with a local teaching organization. Sounds great and professional, right? Maybe. But perhaps this teacher is missing out on other things in life, including just chilling out and thinking through what they have heard and read.  Maybe this teacher is forced to slack off a bit when it comes to lesson planning due to time constraints. Maybe this teacher gets less sleep or exercise than he or she needs. Maybe this teacher gets less friend or family or personal time than they’d like. Maybe this teacher would benefit from quitting the conference scene or at least taking a break or slowing down a bit. Maybe it would be worthwhile for this teacher to consider what they are missing out on when they choose to devote all this sweat equity to conferences and professional development. Lots of “maybes” here but hopefully there is something to think about. 

I want to be clear that I am not advocating quitting everything or shunning all forms of professional development. I am not suggesting that you quit teaching and try to join the professional World of Warcraft or competitive TV binge watching circuit. I am just offering some ways to think that might be helpful as you make these important decisions. I do hope they are helpful. Let me know if you think so or think otherwise. I’d also be curious to know about any examples where readers fell victim to the sunk-cost fallacy or failed to consider opportunity costs. Of course if you had any thoughts related to how these ideas or the act quitting itself has benefited you, I’d love to read those as well. 

This is the second of a series of posts under the umbrella of “Teach like a Freak: How Freakonomics might inform EFL teaching” which is the title of my (10 minute) plenary talk at the upcoming excitELT Conference. The first post is here. For some background information on Freakonomics please see this explanation on the Freakonomics About Page. My blog posts and talk will be based more on Think like a Freak than the other books (which include Freaknomics, SuperFreakonomics, and When to Rob a Bank but I might try to draw some insights from the other books and even the podcast.


  1. Hada Litim

    That was really interesting Mike!
    I’ve never fallen for the sunk cost fallacy and have often quit courses, jobs, projects or even countries (!) in my life, despite the advice of my near and kin who’d think I was making a big mistake…until they’d realise I’d wind up in something better – as in better suited to me.
    IMHO quitting is only wrong depending on circumstances and what comes after.
    Sadly you’re right to point out that’s it’s seldom seen that way. The the terms ‘quitting’ or ‘moving on’ have different connotations yet they could actually be describing the same thing.

  2. timothyhampson

    Really interesting post Mike, I want to give a more detailed response when I have time (feel free to nudge me to do so). I’m really enjoying the ‘Teach Like a Freak’ series. My fingers are crossed that it runs for a while 🙂

  3. jenniferartan

    Quit? Impossible…I just read “Yes Man.”… Your description of the instructor pursuing the professional development is something I can relate to! Wallace’s “Yes Man” was about being open to opportunities – I was influenced by that and have had a tremendous amount of satisfaction and growth. But now the question is how to say no, how to back off when the plate is already so full? Or, how to say, okay, maybe all the time and effort I put into this lesson plan is still worth it if it leads me towards something the learners really need? I find a lot of ways that don’t work before I finally land on something that does. (I’m thinking of the edutech I’ve come across that required a lot of effort to learn and use, and then I’ve been forced to admit that the tech just wasn’t a good fit for the learning I wanted the students to experience.). Looking forward to reading some more…

  4. Chewie

    Well said. Your presentation sounds quite good. I wish I could attend it. Much of this resonated with me, from the smaller stuff like abandoning lessons to quitting/resigning from jobs.

  5. careymicaela

    ‘Winners never quit and quitters never win’ was drilled into me as well. It’s a slogan I associate with soccer and track. Sounds like it was popular with coaches when we were growing up. I wonder if it still is.
    Great post! I like the way you took a concept from Freakonomics and related it to teaching. Love, love, love Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics!

  6. Zhenya

    I really enjoyed the post Mike! I generally like the idea of brining ‘non-teaching’ ideas into ELT world – and Freakonomics kind of thinking is a wonderful example. I loved the link to planning lessons (and general decision-making process) you offered in the post. I also a huge potential in how this kind of thinking might impact teacher training decisions on a course (and perhaps helps participants/teachers take a step back and think outside the ‘ELT box’!)
    Looking forward to a post about the presentation you made – maybe it is something you had in mind anyway 🙂

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