As I See It: Quitting Time
October 28, 2019 Victor Rozek
Unlike relationships based on mutual regard, if you have issues with your job, your job doesn’t care. It’s just there, waiting to get done, by you or someone else. Nothing personal, just business.
It’s more of a one-way relationship, with all of the emotional highs and lows experienced by the employee. And while managers have three options for dealing with undesirable workers: fix, move, or fire; employees have but one option for dealing with undesirable jobs: quit.
But even when the workplace becomes intolerable, people often contrive to get themselves fired because they don’t have the courage to stand up and quit. Perform badly enough, for long enough, and freedom (euphemistically known as separation in corporate parlance), will be your reward. “Separation” in this context is a curious word, benign yet biblical. As if they’re talking about banishment from paradise rather than something more akin to a prison break.
Still, freedom at the price of security can be daunting. And while it’s easy to romanticize leaving, unemployment is, in and of itself, not necessarily good or bad. It’s simply a condition.
Getting fired is frequently preferable to quitting because, when facing massive uncertainty, it’s easier to believe one had no choice in the matter. The role of the righteous victim, however contrived, is still nobler than that of the discarded failure. “They’ll regret firing me,” is more comforting than the possibility that “I’ll regret leaving.”
But even if you can summon the courage, if you don’t already have something better lined up, deciding to quit a job is seldom simple. Considerations such as eating regularly and living indoors will tend to keep your butt firmly planted in your seat regardless of the discomfort.
Nonetheless, there are times when quitting is necessary. Broadly speaking, they fall into two categories: To preserve your sanity and/or to preserve your ethics.
The biggest sanity-drain in the workplace is boredom. Incessant boredom is exhausting, frustrating, and the onramp to assorted attempts at self-medication. Work without challenge is drudgery. Endured over time, a deep internal panic intensifies as years of being underutilized chip away at dreams and ambitions until eventually choices narrow, opportunities diminish, and all that’s left is a well of regret and cynicism.
If you’ve experienced the phenomenon of getting increasingly weary as you approach the workplace, and simply walking into the building is depleting, that might be a clue. If you can’t remember the last time you were happy at work, it may be time for a change.
As self-help author Mark Manson notes: “This is your life and every breath you take is killing you.” In other words, each night we all make our camp one day closer to death. And if that day is dull and unfulfilling, and worse, like every other day in recent memory, it’s time to make an alternate choice before you run out of days.
But what if you don’t know what to do?
In that case, just do something different. Anything. Careers are no longer linear. The function of work history is similar to the function of education: it not only helps you discover what you want to do in life, but what you don’t want to do as well. Do something else for a while and you’ll soon determine whether you like it or not. If not, do something different still. Not everyone from age six knows they want to be an astronaut. There’s no shame in not knowing; but it is exceedingly sad to quit searching for the things that inspire passion.
As important as finding fulfilling work may be, maintaining your personal integrity is perhaps of even greater consequence. A “great job” in a company that doesn’t represent your values, working for people you don’t respect, is a contradiction in terms. There is no such thing as a small breach of integrity. Like a small leak in a dam, if not addressed, over time it leads to structural failure and catastrophe.
At core, values are simply beliefs about what’s important. And consistently sacrificing the important for the less important (or unimportant) is a form of personal betrayal. It comes at the cost of self-esteem and respect. As Jeff Flake clearly understood: “You can go elsewhere for a job. But you cannot go elsewhere for a soul.”
It seems quaint by today’s standards to champion such considerations as ethics and honor when they have all but disappeared from many of our institutions. The very act of “winning” seems to exonerate the people who think nothing of privatizing profits while socializing costs. Thus, quitting is almost always presented as a fault or weakness. If you Google quotes on the subject, you’ll find near unanimous admonitions about character flaws and recipes for failure.
But there was one exception.
Author Osayi Osar-Emokpae stands against the tide of conventional wisdom with this insight: “Quitting is not giving up, it’s choosing to focus your attention on something more important. Quitting is not losing confidence, it’s realizing that there are more valuable ways you can spend your time. Quitting is not making excuses, it’s learning to be more productive, efficient, and effective instead. Quitting is letting go of things (or people) that are sucking the life out of you so you can do more things that will bring you strength.” In other words, if the treasure is not to be found in this particular hole, stop digging.
In a recent interview Warren Buffett offered a series of suggestions for success in business as well as life. Part of his formula, however, could easily be reframed as a potent argument for quitting a job that fails to inspire.
Buffett recommends: “Try to work for whomever you admire most.” He believes that being around what he calls “high grade people” inspires you to act more like them. Therefore, “one of the best things you can do in life is to surround yourself with people who are better than you are.”
For many of us, that shouldn’t be too great a challenge.