THE BLOG
02/07/2012 07:56 am ET Updated Apr 07, 2012

Why You Won't Quit

When I began writing Passion & Purpose in 2009, I met Susan, a young woman on the brink of quitting her investment banking job to pursue her lifelong passion of starting a non-profit. A year later, when I asked how her new venture was going, I was surprised to hear that she "couldn't bring herself to quit" in the first place. And when we bumped into each other last week, I found her toiling away in exactly the same role, still dreaming of her non-profit venture, but now more depressed than ever. Why can't Susan just leave the job she despises? More generally, what powerful forces are pulling us back towards the "devil we know"?

As job dissatisfaction rates climb up toward 80 percent, it's pretty safe to conclude that many of you reading this would rather be doing something else. But in my interviews, I was surprised to find that people's inability to quit their current jobs had nothing to do with either the perceived riskiness of their new professions or how well they had defined their proposed new career step. An overworked lawyer was hesitant to pursue his dream of regaining balance in a comparatively safe 9-to-5 corporate job, despite given numerous opportunities to do so. A marketing professional who dreaded the thought of planning the next strategic campaign couldn't bring herself to move into management consulting, a move which she acknowledged would be both exciting and a much-needed change. And the many young men and women I met who hated their jobs but didn't know what to do instead? Most of them are in the exact same place today.

As I've found out, throwing in the towel on a dead-end job (or a toxic relationship) is actually really difficult, even when you really want to. Here's why:

You've been conditioned

Scientists know that the best way to train someone to perform a behavior is to reward them for doing so at random intervals. In the famous Skinner experiment, one group of rats earned a food pellet after pressing a lever a random number of times, and another group of rats earned the pellet after a fixed number of lever presses. When the rewards ceased, the rats under the fixed schedule stopped working almost immediately, but those under the variable schedules kept working for a very long time.

What's the link to quitting our jobs? If you look closely enough, you'll find that the corporate world is littered with hundreds of these variable reinforcement schedules. Spontaneous recognition from our bosses, an unexpected bonus or promotion and landing a big new client are all professional "pellets" subconsciously conditioning us to keep working that lever. Whoever called it a "rat race" wasn't joking.

Your losses are more visible than ever

Ubiquitous connectivity plus social media equals high virality. In other words, news now travels fast. So when your early-stage venture fails, or your new relationship falters at the first hurdle, your friends are going to know about it.

Why does this matter? It's generally accepted that most people are risk-averse -- they'll take the sure thing over a potentially higher, but uncertain payoff. In the age of high virality, your personal and professional losses are amplified and more visible than ever before, effectively increasing the downside of quitting your known, but undesired, path. This means that most people, already extremely cautious, are finding it more difficult than ever to jump ship and sail away from the safe harbor.

You suffer from premature optimization

Theresa Amabile's "progress principle" argues that by accumulating small wins, we can achieve big results. But I've found that a sharp focus on incremental gains could also lead to "premature optimization." Instead of surveying the landscape and climbing the highest mountain possible, we're too busy scaling the first peak we happen to stumble upon.

Many of the individuals I interviewed displayed a sharp tendency to prematurely optimize, rather than to explore their options and start the climb to higher heights. One stated that "I'll figure it out after I get promoted." Another said "one more month" for 11 months in a row (and counting). As a whole, the group displayed a distinct preference for hitting "just another" small milestone, rather than starting from the bottom of a different (but potentially more lucrative) mountain altogether. This strong human bias towards accumulating small wins is what we call progress, but paradoxically, it seemed to be inhibiting many individuals I surveyed from reaching their true potential.

So often in life, you need to, want to, and should, quit. But you just can't, and it's a pretty good bet that you won't. Why?

A version of this post was originally published on HBR.org.

For more by Daniel Gulati, click here.

For more on emotional intelligence, click here.

For more on success and motivation, click here.