If someone asked me in recent years “How do you like your job?” my go-to answer was: “Everything about the job is great! Except the job part…”
What I meant, and would proceed to explain, is that I worked in a beautiful building, in a prime location, with a very reasonable commute (especially by LA standards), for a well-regarded nonprofit with a worthy mission, amongst a community of both highly-educated and highly likable people, in a pleasant working environment with an above-average corporate culture that in some ways was truly fantastic (chief among these for me was a workplace music club; for more on that, check out the series of posts – with video samples embedded within – that begins here).
So: what on earth was I complaining about? Objectively speaking, and compared to many other people’s work situations (including previous ones of mine), I had it pretty great. I was, in many ways, both privileged and fortunate to have this job. What right did I have to be unhappy with it? (Believe me, I asked this of myself regularly – which, by the way, is a tell-tale sign you’re not happy with something.)
The bottom line is that, despite the myriad benefits and the fact that it was the most desirable office job I have ever had for the above cited reasons, it was still very much that: an office job. I was good at the work I did, and I took a certain amount of pride in being reliable, responsive, proactive, and dutiful in my role, but it was wholly unsatisfying work. It felt of very little consequence, was devoid of any intrinsic meaning, was not a stepping stone toward something else that was desirable, was not particularly challenging (other than enduring it 😯), did not provide opportunities for growth, and did not make use of what I feel are my unique skills, strengths, and talents. In sum, it was soul-deadening. I made bids at securing other positions within the company, but competition was stiff, and these efforts all proved fruitless. (And, truth be told, none were likely to have been dramatically better.)
So, I played a very familiar game with myself that I like to call The Bargaining Game. It goes like this:
- Experience existential distress over job dissatisfaction.
- Weigh out the pros and cons of the situation. Make the same lists over and over and over and over again in my journal.
- Decide that it’s not wise to leave the job without some other plan for earning income.
- Play the Calendar Game (this is my favorite sub-game within the Bargaining Game – check it out!). The Calendar Game consists of looking ahead at the calendar and telling myself: “Look, just hang in there until x date” that equates with some reward (e.g., a slew of upcoming paid holidays, a three-paycheck month [hey, these only come around twice a year when you’re paid bi-weekly], becoming fully vested in the company’s retirement plan, some arbitrary savings milestone that will have been achieved by said date, etc.).
- Rally myself to make it to the future date decided upon.
- Repeat Steps 1-5 above.
This game can be played, literally, for years and years. It never ends until you decide it does (or Life decides for you). While I feel like I invented this game and perhaps should have patented it long ago, I suspect it is one of those games that exists in humanity’s collective imagination and dates perhaps as far back as the invention of jobs itself, if not farther.
Now, I’ve ended up playing The Bargaining Game at nearly every job I have ever had (certainly every office job). And this has gone on for decades. (If you have a lot of time on your hands, and want to read more about my personal journey in this realm, I wrote a ten-part series of posts years ago called “What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?” that starts here and traces my numerous attempts at breaking this cycle within the larger context of answering that question.)
I’ve done it all: left jobs of this ilk with very well-thought-out plans for work I would do instead, with somewhat-thought-out plans of what I would do instead, and even with no plan at all. I’ve gone back to school, tried to grow a side-hustle into a full-time business, worked as a freelancer, done all sorts of things, but have always (thus far) ended up with my ass right back in a chair in a cube in an office somewhere. My own personal version of Groundhog Day.
Right now, we’re (still) in the midst of a pandemic. Uncertainty – economic, and otherwise – remains high. And I’m 48 years old, no spring chicken.
And yet, I’ve just gone and done it again: I’ve quit my job. I will tell you that in all my life I don’t think it’s ever taken as much courage for me to do as it did this time.
So, why did I do it?!?!?!?! Simply put: I don’t want to live this way anymore. It’s not the worst of all possible lives (in fact, that’s what’s so insidious about it, and why it’s so easy to remain stuck there). But I want to change the direction of this story, and leaving the job forces me to do just that.
Starting now, for sure, my day-to-day life will be different! I am well aware that “different” doesn’t always translate to “better”. I am signing up for certain challenges and stresses that I may otherwise have avoided or continued putting off. However, as you probably are already aware: everything in life is a trade-off. There are pluses and minuses to pretty much every decision you can make and every situation you might find yourself in. (It can sometimes feel like a stretch to find the positives, or in some cases the negatives, but they are probably there, even if it takes some work on your part to become aware of them.) With this in mind, it makes sense, then, to make decisions that are truly worth making. And by “truly worth making” I mean decisions that, to you, after thoughtful consideration and deliberation, are worth the trade-offs. This is a very personal and subjective thing. Extreme cases aside (especially ones that cause obvious harm to others), there typically are no right or wrong decisions, just choices that have corresponding consequences. Consequences you must be willing to accept and deal with, both anticipated and unanticipated.
In some cases, a decision is a no-brainer because the benefits clearly outweigh any perceivable downsides, or we reason that we have “nothing to lose”. In other cases, though, we may be paralyzed by indecision and end up playing some version of The Bargaining Game for months, years, decades, or perhaps the rest of our lives. And doing so has definite opportunity costs.
So how did I, personally, arrive at this particular decision to leave my job, you might ask? How did I manage to stop playing The Bargaining Game (at least this time around)?
In this case, it was a series of insights and events that built to a crescendo wherein I finally reached my tipping point.
(WARNING: if you want to make sure you don’t follow in my footsteps, I suggest you stop reading here. 😉)
For a long while before quitting, I tried very hard to implement the sensible/logical/reasonable approach, which to me sounded like this:
Keep the job and work on other projects on the side. If something gains traction and even generates income, great! If not, though, nothing lost – you still have the job.
Sounds convincing, doesn’t it?
There was just one small problem with this approach. Though the reasoning seemed airtight, in practice I found it nearly impossible to build any momentum on personal projects, especially ones with an eye on eventually earning income. Why? Two major reasons:
1) Work days were basically spoken for. By the end of them, my energy and concentration reserves were all but depleted. I had no freshness of mind to devote to such projects. Rather, after work I had a strong need to decompress, relax, and recover. This meant that my only potentially productive days (personally speaking) would be non-work days. But that meant I would have to, on the weekends, sacrifice recreational activities that restored me in favor of working on possibilities for alternative income streams. Even if I managed to devote significant time to the latter on a given weekend, the subsequent work week would sweep me away from such a project, and I would find that I would be all but starting over again when I revisited it. Progress was frequently stalled, and slow-going at best. Even negotiating a schedule of reduced hours with my employer did not change this dynamic. It wasn’t enough.
2) My motivation for working on “alternative income stream” ideas in my free time was generally not high. Why? My income needs were already met by my job. It wasn’t an urgent problem! Far too easy, then, for me to put this off.
I would come across things periodically, online and off, that would “speak” to me about my dilemma and clue me in on the decision I needed to make. I’ll share a select few of them here:
1. A couple of old blog posts by Jack Bennett.
Specifically, this one: Go To Your Edge,
and this one (that I had actually left a comment on a number of years ago!): Go To The Places That Scare You.
The quotes that stood out to me from the latter were as follows:
“Generally speaking, the path you’re most afraid of following is almost certainly the path of most rapid growth.”
“We do not gain power by avoidance of reality, but only by facing those things that we wish we could avoid.”
2. A TEDx Talk by Scott Samuelson called How Philosophy Can Save Your Life.
These lines from the talk, in particular, cut right through me:
“If you want to save your life, you need to turn it from a humdrum thing into the precious thing that it’s meant to be.”
“Freedom is the one thing you should never ask for.”
I still needed to work through some inner resistance, however.
Even just considering quitting my job caused me anxiety at times. I felt so fortunate to not have had my job and income seized from me involuntarily during this pandemic year like so many others had. The truth is I had come very close to the brink of leaving the job just before the pandemic hit. I recall in February 2020 being so tired of everything that I nearly gave my notice. Why I didn’t do it back then, I cannot honestly say. Perhaps it was divine intervention, or my future self traveling across time and space and interceding on my 2020 self’s behalf. When all hell broke loose in March, I was so grateful I had not quit! There was so much fear and uncertainty in the air, and my employer rose to the situation and handled things beautifully, really prioritizing the safety and well-being of us employees and, like many other companies, allowing the majority of us to work safely from home.
When safety and survival are your primary concerns, self-fulfillment appears as a luxury that is beside the point. So it was pretty easy, then, to brush it aside again. For a while.
Many of my established ways of coping with my job dissatisfaction (cultivating friendships with colleagues across the organization via in-person lunches, embracing the previously mentioned musical opportunities at work, going to yoga classes walking distance from the building I worked in, etc.) were, obviously, no longer options. And after a full year of working from home, those desires from deep within for doing something more satisfying with the majority of my conscious hours came to the fore with a vengeance and needed to be reckoned with. Of course, this past year has had many of us rethinking our lives and priorities in general, as all kinds of shifts have been and still are taking place worldwide.
Quitting the job forces me to come up with something better. If I relegate that to a side project – placating as this might be to my security concerns – I have found that, in practice (at least for me, at this stage of my life), it simply will not happen.
I must emphasize that I am in a fortunate and privileged position, as a function of both dumb luck and deliberate behavior on my part, to be able to take such a risk. I have steadily saved (this last year more than usual, working from home and being restricted in terms of going out). I have kept a vigilant eye on my finances for many years and know my spending habits and patterns well, so I have a good sense of how long my savings can support my current lifestyle. My wife and I have medical coverage under her employer’s insurance plan, and we don’t have any kids (two huge factors right there). Perhaps most significantly of all, I have my wife’s blessing to do this. She understands me and my long-standing dilemma quite well, and is supportive and onboard with my making this decision. (I’m not sure I would have been able to go through with this decision otherwise, quite frankly. It would certainly have made it much more strife-ridden.) For this and numerous other reasons, I can tell you that my choice of marriage partner has been, easily, among my very best life decisions. 💖
Even STILL…actually taking the leap, for me, meant summoning quite a bit of courage. I want and am determined, as I’ve always been, to do right by both my wife and myself.
There were some important realizations I had come to regarding my job, that I had captured in my journal. Here were the main three:
- Leaving the job was never a question of “if”, only “when”.
- Keeping the job, in my case, was a fear-based decision. I was clinging to the perceived security of it, and staying at the job out of fear of losing this “security” – not out of love for and/or belief in the value of what I was doing each day.
- Despite the ease and comfort (and discomfort, but known discomfort) of my job, it was clear that THERE WAS NO GROWTH ON THIS PATH, ONLY STAGNATION. I want to do far better for myself – and for others – in terms of my creative productivity, sense of purpose, and doing what feels like meaningful work.
None of these realizations were new to me, per se. What tipped me over the edge into courageous decision-making really amounted to this, plain and simple: a heightened sense of mortality – namely, my own.
My wife is a palliative care social worker and sees firsthand on a near-daily basis how life can rob people of their grandest plans, even those who did everything “right”. For instance, those who worked hard their whole lives and saved for retirement with plans of living out their dreams in their golden years, only to have their health be too compromised at that point (or, in many cases, dying before even reaching said golden years). The reality is all of our years are golden years (most especially those in which we have good health), and none of us knows how many of these we ultimately will have.
Around the time I was coming to a head with my decision, I was reading Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, a beautiful and beautifully written, deeply humane and philosophical book that touches on issues of aging, dying, and quality of life (particularly as one nears the end of one’s life, but in essence for us all). This also got my internal needle moving.
Perhaps the biggest tipping point of all, though, was not merely hearing about or reading about death in the abstract, but by experiencing the deaths of people I knew. Over the last several years I have lost several friends and even more acquaintances (the natural trend as one gets older), including a friend whose death I witnessed firsthand in the hospital. In January of this year, two more came along, one at a far-too-young age (i.e., quite close to my own), and one at a tragically young age (36) that was completely unexpected and shook me to the core.
Death is coming, folks! And it really has a way of trivializing the trivial.
At the start of this post I mentioned that my personal assessment of my job, whenever asked, was: “Everything about the job is great! Except the job part…”
This response may have been cheeky, but it was also sincere. There were many secondary benefits to the overall situation that was my job. And, somehow, these benefits convinced me to remain there for, arguably, too long, trading in that most precious of resources – years of my life – in exchange for the security-producing effects of a steady paycheck.
Now think of it this way, especially if you have related at all to the job predicament I have described in this post. Suppose you had asked me: “How is your relationship going?” And suppose my answer had been: “Everything about the relationship is great! Except the relationship part…” And I then proceeded to explain my position to you by citing all of the benefits of the overall situation that amounted to my relationship (let’s say, for example: we live in a beautiful house together that I could never otherwise afford, my partner comes from a wealthy family and I get to travel all over the world with them several times a year, people like my partner and tell me how fortunate I am, my parents adore this person, etc.), but I also mention that the relationship itself is a far cry from satisfying and that I feel like a pale, hollow version of my best self within it.
What would you think?
Perhaps you would think that the trappings of the relationship, great as they may or may not sound to you, are just that: trappings. Maybe you would surmise that I was staying in such a relationship because I did not believe I deserved, or could attain, better. Or that I did not have the courage to strike out on my own and try.
Now, it is a fair argument (and one I, myself, have made) that I am not comparing apples to apples here. A person can survive – and even thrive – without a life partner (plenty of single people do), whereas a person almost always needs some amount of money/income (and, if you live in the US, health insurance sure is helpful, too) in order to survive, not to mention thrive. I cannot refute this point. But what I can say is that we often stay in less-than-ideal situations because we don’t, or can’t, see a better option for ourselves, whether or not this is actually true within the scope of possibilities that make up the Great Unknown. This has certainly been the case for me with respect to my working life.
Maybe, now, that will change.