Sunk costs and traditions

Recently, I watched a short video series by Seth Godin where he asserted we make too many decisions badly because we can’t let go of sunk costs. He argues that we should see where we are and what we have (both physical and in the way of knowledge) as gifts from our past selves and feel free to say no thank you to any of them in order to move forward in the way that is best for us now. (“I don’t have to keep using my degree/holding on to this couch/using this service/providing this service just because I spent time/money/energy on it.”)

His thoughts on this make sense to me, and while I’ve read or heard variations on this rant several times before, periodic reminders are helpful. I was glad to get another dose.

Later in the same day, I saw a note I had written to myself two years ago regarding traditions:

Not all traditions are positive!

The two concepts instantly melded.

[For purposes of simplicity, I’m going to write and refer to family traditions for this post, but we could have a similar conversation about larger systemic traditions as well.]

Some family traditions make us feel happy and connected when we participate in them. Things we do to kick off the weekend. Or to celebrate something sporadic and happy. Or to weather recurring storms.

Especially when related to holidays or children, traditions can make or break the day for some of us. What do we have to do for Christmas? Or Valentine’s Day? Or our birthday? Or when a kid loses a tooth? Or graduates from high school?

Not all of those traditions make us feel good. If we came from a home where one parent’s traditions were what the family was going to do no matter what, and that was abrasive instead of connective, continuing those traditions isn’t going to feel good, nostalgic, or connective.

Likewise, if a tradition is outright hurtful (intentionally causes physical pain or mental distress or both), it’s not going to be positive.

I’m going to take a moment to say here that anything that you’re doing regularly to have entertainment at someone else’s expense—especially if they should “lighten up” about it—is toxic and you should stop.

That said, you can apply the notion of ignoring sunk costs to traditions. Just because that’s what you’ve always done doesn’t mean that’s what you need to continue to do. The way you’ve done it is only one way to do it, and no matter what you’re thinking about, there are alternatives. (Ask other people what they do. You’ll find differences.)

Maybe you have an idea for what you’d rather do. Maybe you don’t and just know that this way isn’t working for you.

Who would be affected by the tradition changing? Can you get them on board with a change? Maybe the other people aren’t excited about this tradition either, and change will be welcome by everyone. (Wouldn’t that be nice?! Everyone assumes everyone else is happy and no one has spoken up.) Maybe you have a way to tweak what you’re doing without burning the whole thing to the ground. Maybe you have an idea that they’ll like better than what you’re doing now. Maybe you can have a conversation and brainstorm a new idea together. There is something special about creating something new together.

If the affected people aren’t wanting to change can you change the affected people? For example, if you always kick off the weekend with a specific few people from work, what y’all have been doing isn’t working for you, and they’re not willing to change it, can you find other people to kick off the weekend with in a way that works better for you?

It’s also OK, even if it’s uncomfortable, to leave a temporary vacuum. “I know I don’t want this, but I don’t know what I want” is a space you might live in for a while. I lived in that space for several years for a few different holidays until finding a new groove. The new groove is excellent. It was worth the wait.

Obviously, if you like what you’ve always done, keep doing it. But if stress has creeped in (this seems to apply extra to Christmas, kids’ birthdays, and sometimes Halloween), even if you like it, pare it down before you resent it. It’s OK to do less.

“We’ve always done it this way” is not a good reason to do much of anything. What do you want to do instead?

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