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Pursue Your Dreams: When to Abandon the Thing You’ve Invested In

Writer Pooja Shah was an attorney, until she realized she needed to overcome sunk cost fallacy in order to pursue her dreams

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Words by Pooja Shah

In late July 2022, I returned from a trip to Thailand, tanned and tired. The fatigue was not attributed primarily to the nearly 25 hours of travel, internal airport transfers, and cardboard-tasting airplane food, but a mental exhaustion brought on by an identity crisis of sorts in my professional life.

For the last seven years, I’ve been practicing as a compliance and regulatory attorney across various law firms and the financial services industry. Unlike Suits, which portrays a sexy and unrealistic depiction of legal services, my job consisted of speaking to various shareholders and partners at my respective organizations to ensure that any new work they were taking on complied with internal policies and external regulations in the jurisdiction they operated in. Basically, I lived on Microsoft Outlook and on the phone.

Reading and writing were my first loves, but a combination of external and internal factors made me lean toward abandoning my personal desires of being a writer. I attended Boston College intending to pursue medicine (per the request of my South Asian parents, who worship the medical profession), but decided against it primarily because I simply cannot handle the sight of blood. Law school seemed like the common sense alternative—what else was I going to do with my dual English and chemistry degrees? Turns out sometimes common sense is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Truth is, I’m a testament of how the phenomenon known as “sunk cost fallacy” played a huge part in my career.

Therapists refer to this concept to describe a reluctance many feel when abandoning a strategy or course of action they are heavily invested in. Sunk cost fallacy is why many people continue to stay in jobs, relationships, or marriages for longer periods of time than intended or recommended, even when abandonment would be more beneficial.

The decision making associated with sunk cost fallacy contributes to a feeling of obligation of seeing a task or situation through.

To break it down further, suppose you are dating someone for seven years, and you realize that this person isn’t actually your soulmate. Instead of breaking up with the person, you decide to keep working on the relationship and trying to make it work because of the time already invested. The decision making associated with sunk cost fallacy contributes to a feeling of obligation of seeing a task or situation through.

That’s exactly what I did throughout my legal career. Any free time I had after work, I would use to network with industry professionals; I craved success, especially given how underrepresented South Asian women are in the legal profession. I advocated for myself and found a role at a prestigious London-based law firm. I thought happiness meant doing work that was satisfactory, mentally stimulating, and in a collaborative work environment.

It wasn’t until my first international group press trip where I understood what happiness means to me. I was surrounded by fierce, intelligent, and supportive female journalists. We all shared a single desire: tell the most unique stories by honoring and respecting the destination. I saw how invigorated the journalists were—a feeling I never experienced in my professional pursuits.

On my way back home to New York from Thailand, I sat in the aisle seat in a spacious Qatar plane when it dawned on me that I should travel and write for a living. This thought had terrifyingly crossed my mind multiple times, but I always brushed it off. After all, I had a stable, recession-proof career with a steady paycheck and benefits. Why would I want to give that up? What would my parents think, or worse, what would my community think? There’s a common phrase in the South Asian culture of log kya kahenge, which translates to “what will people think” and is often a hindrance in South Asians following their personal dreams. Guilt consumed me, too, when I reflected on the years and tears I invested in obtaining a legal education and the mental anguish in enduring the New York Bar Exam. The thought of “throwing” that away and “wasting” the money spent towards my Juris Doctorate seemed foolish. 

There’s a common phrase in the South Asian culture of log kya kahenge, which translates to “what will people think” and is often a hindrance in South Asians following their personal dreams.

During a layover to the States, I texted my husband that I was going to quit my job.

“About time,” he texted back immediately. 

And it has been. It took me the better part of a decade to finally prioritize myself, and my true passions. 

I thought that the prestige and stability that comes with being an attorney would fulfill me long term, but I was wrong; the investment satisfaction of going to law school soon wore off, much to my surprise. Thailand was the tipping point I didn’t even know I needed. Being in a different part of the world, where the Buddhist culture emphasizes a holistic way of living, showed me that seeking happiness is ultimately the goal. 

The week after returning, I walked into my boss’ office and quit.

The past few months have been a whirlwind of self-discovery, learning how to navigate my newly discovered career as a full-time writer, and finally peace in knowing that the ultimate investment is the one I make towards my happiness.

Published on January 9, 2023

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Words by Pooja Shah

Pooja Shah is a lawyer and freelance writer based in New York City. She writes on food, culture, travel, wellness and lifestyle. More of her work is at www.pooja-shah.com.