Ben Testani with coworkers at Sno Top ice cream stand


A post about economics and quitting that never mentions the sunk cost fallacy.

From a young age, my parents instilled in me a strong resistance to quitting things. My siblings and I were raised to finish what we started, no matter how much we hated soccer practice or chess club. Young Testanis knew that once they signed up for something, they would be finishing it.

Commitment was a valuable lesson to learn as a kid. As I got older and some commitments became unavoidable, I naturally resisted the urge to simply quit, which was seen as a sign of maturity. And when I was so frustrated with something that I did want to give it up, my parents either talked me out of it or prevented me from quitting in the first place. 

When I struggled with computer science my senior year of high school, I begged my mom to let me drop the class. I didn’t need another science credit and had about as much of a chance of scoring a 5 on the Advanced Placement Computer Science exam in 2016 as I would have of scoring a 5 on the AP Chinese exam right now. But my mom refused to sign the drop form for my counselor, arguing to me that taking an extra science class would look great on my college applications. While I will never know if that specific computer science course set me apart from other applicants, I know I was accepted into my first choice university and that I thanked my mom for not letting me drop out of the class.

What many people don’t realize, however, is that quitting is a skill of its own. Knowing when to quit requires practicing the skill of quitting, just as knowing when to multiply requires practicing the skill of math or knowing when to activate your turn signal requires practicing the skill of driving.

I became obsessed with my commitment to never quitting, internally twisting the notion of what it means to quit, and taking the aversion of quitting to logical extremes. I never missed a day of high school for illness, insisting I felt fine even on days where I couldn’t finish a sentence without coughing. I worked the same job throughout high school, gritting my teeth and bearing it while the ice cream stand’s manager insisted I work until 11:30 p.m. on school nights. I had corrupted the lesson taught to me when I was young. Instead of learning to appreciate dedication, I learned to fear failure, and I insisted on trying to make things work well past the point at which I should have walked away. 

Ben Testani with coworkers at Sno Top ice cream stand
Me on my last day of work at Sno Top, the ice cream stand where I held my first official job.

Upon moving away to college and largely taking over my own life, I found myself steadfastly refusing to deviate from any goal I set. I was approved by my university to take Arabic as a freshman when I tested out of First Year Writing. I struggled mightily. But as the drop deadline approached and I witnessed many of my new friends abandoning courses or even entire majors, I never considered dropping Arabic and starting the my study over again as a sophomore.

Deep inside, I knew I was not going to succeed at learning Arabic as a freshman, but that innate awareness of my own shortcoming kept bumping up against my equally securely held conviction that to drop a class was to admit defeat, and to be defeated was to be a quitter.

My bastardization of the meaning of dedication grew worse with time. By my sophomore year of college, I realized I derived no joy from economics, my primary major. Sophomore year is a perfectly appropriate time to change majors, and that change is not particularly difficult at most universities, especially when changing departments within the same college. I could have dropped one class and given myself more free time to think about what academic pursuits I actually enjoyed. I could have met with an advisor or dean, or even an older econ major, to figure out if I was temporarily dissatisfied or in need of real change. I did none of those things. Instead, I complained passively to my friends, and they in turn likely complained to each other that I complained so much without ever intending to make any changes. 

That same year, I started therapy. Starting is the opposite of quitting, and my poor brain is addicted to starting new things. When I first start something, it’s easy. I learn something like

print ('Hello, world!')

or Hola, me llamo Ben! or how to graph supply and demand and I fell like a genius. But after a few hours, chapters, classes, or semesters, I encounter array sets or pluscuamperfecto verbs or the residual sum of squares formula and realize “Oh shit, it might take more than two hours of half-assed work to truly understand New Thing.”

The residual sum of squares formula.
On the other hand, maybe quitting economics after learning about the residual sum of squares is totally justified.

Immediately upon arriving at a difficult task, part of my brain will beg me to quit trying out of a fear of not succeeding. But as a whole, my brain is so quitting averse that it’s developed a different coping strategy. It learned from my frustrations with my high school job, and my college major, and a million smaller obstacles in between that I didn’t quit but should have, that it figured out I will never allow myself to openly quit and admit defeat.

Unfortunately, my brain was also molded by diagnosed depression and anxiety disorders. It craves dopamine and is desperate for the positive stimulation that comes with success, so my brain figured out a neat trick that allows me to avoid both quitting (shameful!) and taking on challenges (scary because I might fail!). I can always take a break and try something new.

This solution of sorts eventually became a problem of its own. I can no longer count the fun personal endeavors that I quit because I wasn’t an overnight success or because I encountered some medium-sized problem that required more than thirty minutes of my attention. Examples include a clothing brand I spent hours designing samples for only to abandon the project overnight, teaching myself to code at least three different times so far but giving it all up when I get to arrays, two half-finished language courses on Duolingo, and half a dozen unfinished video games piled on my shelf.

In the last two years, however, I committed to improving my mental health. Not only is this easily the hardest task I have ever taken on, it is also the longest; by definition, I will never be cured of my depression. I will be treating it for the rest of my life. I don’t have the option to get stuck and move on to some other health condition that catches my eye, and some days that permanence can feel overwhelming. But lately, more often than not, I find the forced commitment inspiring. 

I don’t want to keep moving on from passions as soon as they become challenging. I want to keep practicing graphic design, become conversational in Portuguese thanks to an angry green owl, and finally beat Breath of the Wild. I need to stop holding myself to such an absurd standard – where I am simultaneously scared to devote time and effort to new interests because I might fail at them but also scared to quit when I am legitimately unhappy because it also feels like failure.

After two weeks, I am not a Pulitzer winning writer. I’ve Ben Thinking did not go viral on Twitter. I still know all of my subscribers personally. But I like writing. It’s fun, it makes me feel good, and I don’t see myself moving on from this anytime soon.

Ben Testani
Ben Testani is a freelance writer and young professional. Though originally from Central New York, he is currently based out of Sacramento, California. He enjoys basketball, noise-cancelling headphones, and the National Parks Service.
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