By day, I work with college students. Often, those are students who are in academic trouble. And every day, I ask questions like, “Why didn’t you drop the class when you failed the midterm?” or “Why are you so determined to stick to a major that’s making you flunk out of school?” The answer, inevitably, is, “I don’t want to be a quitter.”
I get it. You don’t want to run at the first sign of trouble. That’s not what we’ve been taught to value. We’ve been taught that when you’ve worked hard for something, or hell, even if you’ve started something, the disciplined among us will stick with it ’til the bitter end.
So what happens to those people who are miserable and decide it’s time to throw in the towel? What’s the cost when people realize that despite trying, they’re not succeeding? Through interviewing dozens of people over the past few years about their career paths, I’ve discovered the dark truth about walking away:
It’s true. I’ve found that interviewees who’ve had the experience of quitting something unfulfilling are the happiest I talk to. Having taken that risk to hit the eject button and start fresh along a new path, they feel more in control of their lives rather than feeling stuck along a path they mistakenly wandered down. And moving forward, they tend to be less anxious about the decisions they make because they understand that there is no perfect move, there’s just giving a variety of things a real, all-in try until we find something that clicks. They are kinder to themselves, more forgiving of mistakes, because they know they are never trapped. And these people are still motivated, determined, and hard working. When they find something they love, they dive in.
I once quit a job after two days. I had gone through three months of interviewing. I’d been put through tests, writing samples, and role-playing interviews (my nightmare). This was supposed to be my first real job out of my masters program. I bought my first smartphone for it. I bought a suit jacket.
But in those first two days, I became baffled. They weren’t training me for the position I’d been hired into. They were training me for one much lower. (It was also the weirdest training I’ve ever experienced. At one point, I was asked if they could videotape me. But that’s a story for another day.)
When I confronted the owner about why I sensed I was being demoted before I’d even started, he tried to dodge the question. I pressed and insisted I wasn’t leaving until he gave me a straight answer. Eventually, his temper snapped. “Do you expect me to let you around clients with your pedigree?”
I was stunned. I knew he meant where I’d chosen to go to college (he’d brought it up a suspicious amount of times over the past few days), though I also don’t think I’d impressed him by still having a flip phone when I interviewed (I’d bought my first smart phone for the job. This was 2013. I am not quick on the technology.).
So, I quit. I’d like to say I gave a sassy one-liner and strutted out the door à la Bridget Jones instead of anxiously calling my mom on the way home, then pulling over to send in my resignation via email on my new smart phone.
But I did quit. And every time I think about how I might have been trapped in that awful, degrading place, I’m so, so thankful I walked away. The memory makes me feel empowered and free. I found a new job that was still crappy but allowed me to do the work I’d been hired for. And I worked hard. I’ve always worked hard. Quitting didn’t change that.
We ought to be kinder about quitting. When people in our lives end up in a situation that makes them unhappy, we should think twice before saying, “Don’t quit now! You’ve worked so hard for this!” Sometimes people do need encouragement, but there can be bravery in realizing that just because a lot of time and effort has been sunk into a goal, doesn’t mean more time and more effort should be lost toward something that no longer makes sense.
People should share their quitting stories with people proudly. And I don’t just mean the “And I told my boss to shove it!” stories. I mean the times a major wasn’t working out. The times we gave up on relationships. The times we realized our dreams had shifted and needed to let go of an old idea. It might be the encouragement someone needs to leave a bad situation. Sometimes it takes quitting something that’s wrong to start something that’s right.
If you want to hear people sharing their experiences with walking away from something big, check out my interviews with these inspiring and brave quitters:
Kelsey Gorter: Wine Enologist (Quit biotech and teaching)
Rebecca Gayle: PharmD (Quit her residency)
Nicholas Lee: Bakehouse Owner (Quit his major, quit sales and tech)
Kristen Care: Attorney (Quit her dream major, then quit her first career goal)
What about you? Do you have a time when quitting something made your life that much better?
If you enjoyed this post, you may also like, Collecting and Connecting – Two Years of Interviews or Where do ideas come from?