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  • Brendan Stec

Are you getting tunnel vision?

Escalation of commitment—Re-thinking our plans—Tunnel vision

Stuck in My Ways

I’ve been running competitively for over 9 years now… and it took me 9 years to finally invest in a staple that almost all serious runners own: a GPS watch.

For all those years, I didn’t officially keep track of the miles I ran each day—or any of the other crucial data points runners often obsess over, such as heart rate and stride length. I simply timed how long I ran for. And sometimes I kept a mental note of any interval work I did, logging everything manually into an Excel spreadsheet. CTRL-SHIFT-DOWN.

It was a nail-clippers-to-trim-grass level of efficiency. I basically only had a rough estimate of my mileage every week, and the process for keeping track of what information I did have was time consuming and inaccurate.

My new GPS watch tracks my mileage, heart rate, stride length, and stride cadence automatically, providing a much richer understanding of my training progress for my upcoming marathon. It can also make sounds.

Buying it was a no-brainer! So why did it take me 9 years to change my mind and replace my old one?

Why did I have trouble re-thinking a sub-optimal routine—even when I knew there was a better way?

My armchair-psychologist guess is that I had experienced a decision-making pitfall that psychologists call escalation of commitment.

Escalation of commitment occurs when we commit to a course of action that turns out to be wrong, but we continue pushing forward down the wrong path anyway because, essentially, we’re afraid to admit our mistake. We’re afraid of losing what we committed to so far, which is often time and money but also a sense of identity, a sense of pride.

When you pick the slowest check-out line at the grocery store and don’t move to the faster lane, that’s escalation of commitment.

Coming back to my simple example, I was aware that manually keeping track of my training regimen was inefficient and inaccurate. But I had also committed significant time and effort to that strategy, and I told myself a narrative—that I didn’t need some fancy GPS watch that made sounds. An identity congealed around this decision. It became very difficult for me to admit there was a better way.

Me? Wrong?

Escalation of commitment appears in all sorts of interesting situations. It somewhat-famously-as-business-stories-go caused the corporate raider Robert Campeau to over-pay in his deal to purchase Bloomingdale’s… by $500 million. He was unable to humbly walk away from a bidding war after he had invested too much of his pride in winning the deal, and a few years later his company was bankrupt.

Escalation of commitment also negatively impacted Mike Lazirides, the founder of BlackBerry. Even as it became apparent in 2009 and 2010 that users preferred a touchscreen smartphone with a browser, Mike and his team refused, year after year, to re-think the design of the BlackBerry. They were committed to their vision of a smartphone, through and through, even if that same vision was no longer shared by their users. Needless to say, escalation of commitment can make even the smartest people make poor decisions.


"We laughed and said they are trying to put a computer on a phone, that it won't work. We are now 3-4 years too late." (1) —Employee letter to Mike Lazirides (2011)


Tunnel Vision I also like to think about how escalation of commitment can affect how we make our long-term career plans. If we commit too much tenacity and drive toward achieving a specific career outcome, it can lead us to acquire tunnel vision. It becomes challenging to re-think and re-adjust our plan, because we’ve already committed so much of our resources and pride to our existing path. Grit becomes a burden. Psychologists sometimes refer to this special case as identity foreclosure. In his book Think Again, Adam Grant says identity foreclosure happens “when we settle prematurely on a sense of self without enough due diligence and close our minds to alternative selves.” The cliché: a high schooler commits full-stop to getting to medical school/investment banking/FAANGMULA because of some insecurities or illusions or pressures at the time, and without much due diligence or introspection. But as we’ve seen, once you commit, pick the major, and tie-up the ego, it becomes that much harder to challenge the original choice later on. In his book Mastery, Robert Greene illustrates how Freddie Roach had to break out of a kind of identity foreclosure when it became clear he would not make it professionally as a boxer, though he had trained almost his entire life for it. He fortunately pivoted to build a career as a trainer. He became one of the greatest of all time, training greats such as Manny Pacquiao and Mike Tyson. But first he had to admit to himself—and everyone around him—that he was better off outside the ring than inside of it. I can’t imagine it was easy for him to do that. He had to swallow his pride and ignore the inevitable gossip about his shortcomings. We’re often taught that changing plans is a sign of weakness or failure. A lot of us are familiar with Angela Duckworth’s book, Grit, and the importance perseverance plays in success. But grit does not excuse tunnel vision, and there is a fine line between prudent perseverance and blind obstinance. As I touched on in my last note, I've tried running through enough injuries to learn that lesson the hard way. Adam Grant’s suggestion for battling tunnel vision is to take a day every 6 months to have a “check-in” and re-evaluate our plans, our values, our ways of doing things. Spend that time reflecting on how some plans may need to be adjusted—or scrapped altogether. Get away from the daily grind, slamming the foot on the pedal, squinting to see some narrow manifestation of the future and nothing else. Paradoxically, the parts of our identity we’re most committed to could be the parts we might need to re-think most. Too much commitment can make us stuck in our ways, our minds closed-off to better opportunities or better habits. Industries are disrupted, cities ebb-and-flow, and our interests change too. And opportunities sometimes seem to appear out of thin air. Can we re-think at the appropriate time to capture them?


“Progress is impossible without change; and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” —George Bernard Shaw


References (1) Think Again, Adam Grant (p. 29)

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