Wednesday, April 23, 2014

More Than a Feeling

I've been surprised by how much my decision to quit my job has felt like a failure on my part.

This is, frankly, rather silly. The pieces I unleashed when I took my professional life and shook it up and threw it into the air are still settling, but the early signs are that they will settle in a way that is rather eerily aligned with exactly what I've wanted to do for quite sometime. So, rationally, I cannot call this a failure.

I quit for a complex mix of reasons, and even now, almost a week after I did it, I can't really explain what made me do it on that exact day, in that exact way.

I can say that as I looked ahead to how we were going to make our summer logistics work out, when Pumpkin is in summer camp a 15 minute drive from our house instead of school a 5 minute walk from our house, I could see that we would not be able to make it work without more help. But we have the resources to hire more help, so I had started looking into nannies and mother's helpers and the like. Then, one day it struck me that I was going to be spending money to sacrifice a part of the day I actually like for a job that I knew I didn't really want to keep.

That seemed crazy. That IS crazy, particularly since I also have the resources to make a different choice. So I started a job search, and was diligently working to find my next job.

Until Friday, when suddenly, I decided not to do it that way. As I say, I still can't fully explain why.

As the pieces start to settle and I can see what my next phase might look like, it looks good to me. So why does it also feel like I've failed? Like I have somehow let the side down by admitting that no, this job just isn't working for me, for reasons related to my family and to my inability to flourish in the culture at this particular company?

Rationally, I know this is wrong, but that doesn't make the emotion less real. I am fascinating by what it might say about my cultural baggage about careers and families and how they interact, but I can't quite put my finger on what is going on in my own head.

Perhaps there is an implicit assumption that this one job is a representative of all jobs in my field, and if I can't make it work perhaps there really is an unresolvable conflict between career and family after all? Again, this is clearly nonsense. The bit that I can't make work is the commute plus the 40 hours. If the company hadn't moved or had agreed to my query about dropping to 32 hours per week, I might have chosen to continue to overlook the feeling that I don't really fit the culture, and not have resigned. If the company had evolved a different culture, I might have decided to go ahead and hire a nanny and not resigned.

The company created the conditions that made me decide to leave, not me, and yet the little voice in my head is telling me I should have tried X, or done Y, or blah blah blah. And some of its suggestions contain some good lessons for me to learn about addressing conflict more directly and earlier- but I suspect that ultimately, none of the X's and Y's would have changed the outcome.

I know this move is not a failure on my part. I am looking forward to the time when I feel that, too.


  1. Anonymous5:29 AM

    I know you know rationally you shouldn't feel like a failure, but it bears repeating. You should not feel like a failure.

    I was thinking about how hubby and friends felt quitting academia, and I think there was that feeling at first when the decision was initially made, but there is a long time in academia between deciding to quit and actually leaving the job, so plenty of daily reminders of why one is quitting. So eventually that feeling of failure turned to relief and mild euphoria. Give yourself time--maybe this is just a stage of something like grief.

    1. That's interesting! I hadn't thought about how this could be similar to what people feel like when they decide to leave academia, but I can see that now.

    2. Anonymous7:12 AM

      Academic jobs are just jobs!

      And often it's the *job* that people leave. (Or the boss...) It's just often more difficult to get another academic job either at all or without making some major sacrifices. All of the people I know who left academia really did leave the job. And eventually got new jobs outside of academia. And are happier.

      If they'd had jobs like mine, they probably would have stayed. But academic sacrifices aren't worth it for a bad job.

  2. I understand how you feel. That's the dark side of the leaning in mythology - if you decide to lean out, it feels like failure. It's a huge problem that plagues academics, as @Nicoleandmaggie say, particularly, even PhD students. You focused so hard on making it work that the realization that it wasn't working and wasn't going to work felt like a failure. It's also a huge energy deflation after a lot of effort. It might help to think of this feeling of failure as the immense exhaustion of letting all that effort go. I admire your decision to quit, and what it reveals of your strong sense of what is right for you. You'll feel it too in a couple of weeks. (It's also exacerbated I'm sure by still going to that job every day.)

    1. It is even sillier- because I'm not leaning out so much as deciding to lean in somewhere else! But I think you're right about the dark side of lean in- sometimes you can lean all you want and not make the progress you want, because you're leaning into a brick wall.

    2. Anonymous7:14 AM

      Re-affirming-- Leaving a bad job (match) is not leaning out!

    3. What I meant by talking about leaning in and leaning out is that it can be easy to get caught up in the mentality that success in Job X can happen only with leaning in, therefore deciding that the job isn't working (especially because of structural problems/ sexism as factors) can feel like giving up or leaning out or letting go.

    4. Yes, I agree with what you're saying. There is definitely this idea that if we're just strategic enough, we can succeed in any job, and that just isn't true. Some times you can't strategize around the problems.

    5. Anonymous5:15 AM

      Economist hat here: Sure, maybe if you're strategic enough you can succeed at any job... but WHY WOULD YOU WANT TO?

      That's why the concept of opportunity costs is so important. There are PLENTY of things a talented and educated person can be doing. There's no point in staying in the one where the marginal cost no longer hits the marginal benefit when there are plenty that either give a higher benefit or impose a lower cost (or both!).

  3. I know you know this, but it sure doesn't *look* like failure from here. It looks brave, gutsy, and self-directed. I hope it starts feeling that way soon!

    1. Anonymous6:53 AM

      Definitely doesn't look like failure from the outside - sounds like a rational decisive move after evaluating a lot of factors. The fact that you looked into 32 hours suggests you were trying to make things work.

      My experience was aborting a post-doc for industry, and I found once I had actually left and could focus on leaning in to the new opportunity, the narrative changed from failure to success - both in my mind and in my colleagues perception as hopefully that will switch over for you too once you've left your current workplace!

    2. Anonymous7:15 AM

      Honestly, my first thought was, "It's about time." My second thought was, "I bet she ends up with a much better match, whatever she does." My third thought was, "I hope she gets a better commute."

    3. EarthSciProf12:14 PM

      Definitely agree with caro and others about your decision being brave, gutsy, etc.

      Best of luck finding something that works better for you professionally and personally.

      On a different topic, I just emailed links to your terrific posts about job applications and interviewing to more students. Any time I talk to a student nearing graduation, I've followed up the conversation with links to your posts.

    4. Thanks, everyone! @EarthSciProf- soon you'll be able to point them to my posts AND and ebook. :)

  4. I like what @nicoleandmaggie said about this feeling you have is like a stage of grief. I think acknowledging the feeling, and the fact that it is not rationally true, is a huge step towards moving on from the old job.

    Having "known" you for many years, I also was thinking that the feeling of failure might be because making things work and showing that they can work have been a large part of your (online) identity. I truly believe that leaving a job that wasn't right for you (especially after trying to make things work) and figuring out how you are going to move forward is one of the BEST examples of how to make the work/life and family/job/self balance work in a different and very important way.

    Keep reminding yourself that you aren't a failure! I'm so happy for you, and I can't wait to see what you do next, whatever it may be!

    1. Amen to what @caramama just said, plus another big amen to this: "The company created the conditions that made me decide to leave, not me." Try to keep that in mind.

  5. Your situation is very similar to one that someone very close to me just went through--she quit her (well-paying, technically challenging) job because 1) there was a lot of unpleasant tension with her new boss and 2)it was hard to take care of her 12-year old son and work this job. It wasn't an unworkable situation--if her family really needed the money, or probably if there were fewer kid-related challenges, or if the interaction with the boss was more pleasant, she might not have quit.

    Now, a few months later, she is busier than ever with various contract work and probably not taking too much of a pay cut from what I can tell. And is enjoying the flexibility of setting her own hours and working from home.

    I'm also curious--have you said anything to your boss and coworkers anything about these "cultural" issues that have made the job no longer worth it for you? Do you intend to?

    Good luck in finding something better!

  6. I just ran across this quote and found it apropos:
    If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.
    -Lao Tzu

  7. Sincere thanks for the kind words and good wishes, everyone. Today was a very emotional day- I told my team and several other people at work. But I also got some really good advice from a trusted mentor, and another lead for contracting. I'm going to set up a contracting business, which is something I've wanted to do for awhile. I'll post more details once things are settled enough that I feel comfortable doing so.

  8. First, congrats on making such an important decision! I'm sure everything will work out and you'll find out the decision was totally right for you and your family.

    I know how you feel about it kind of feeling like a failure. I sometimes feel the same way about my decision to go back to school to get my K-12 teacher's degree. I wonder if I'm failing myself, if I should keep plugging along on my current career path. Afterall, going back to school is always seen as the biggest cop-out when you don't have anything else to do :( I need to remind myself that this wasn't a decision I made on a whim, or because I don't have a job to go back to right now...I made it because it's something I've wanted to do for 7 years and this happens to be really good timing.

    Anyway, I hope you feel at peace with your decision and good luck with what you do next!

  9. Quitting to go to another job feels like (and is considered to be) success. Quitting with nothing on the horizon? Our society thinks (and teaches us to think) that it's failure.

    But it's not. I worked for one company where, every time someone quit, for whatever reason, co-workers said, "Congratulations." It didn't matter why they were leaving. They were getting out of a toxic culture, and we were happy for them. (This was in a city that is highly regarded, but had limited options in ways you wouldn't necessarily anticipate.) If they came back to say hello, the first words anyone said were, "You look so much better!"

    One of my co-workers quit to wait tables and bag groceries, and she was happier doing that than continuing at the company. One of my co-workers quit to do nothing, and did just that, much more happily, while she figured out what she wanted the next phase of her career to be.

    I've stayed at my job over the past three years simply because I didn't find another one. I looked, as much as my limited schedule permitted, and had a few interviews, but wasn't able to find something else (ideally with a shorter commute).

    As it turns out, there were several waves of hirings and firings, all of which have been to my benefit over time. But there was no way to predict that outcome, so I wouldn't recommend just toughing it out if you don't have to.

    Oh, and the other piece of this is that change, even good change is stressful. Let it be. That's okay. When I left the company I described (and people were very congratulatory), I went to a job in a part of the country I preferred, with people who treated me with respect and friendship. I had a better apartment. I made--and took home--more money. It was great. And yet there still was stress that, because I didn't acknowledge it, emerged as an episode of abdominal cramps so bad that I had to lie down in a corridor in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

    Feel what you're feeling, and express it. All of it is normal and fine, and the stress will pass. Hopefully without crippling abdominal cramps in a major museum.

  10. Sarah (@SarahHCarl)8:02 AM

    Your feelings made me think about how, at various points in my life, both of my parents quit jobs they weren't happy in without another job to jump straight into, and how brave I always felt they were for doing that. I was quite young when my dad did it, but with my mom I was a teenager, and I remember having conversations with her while she was agonizing over what to do. She was in a pretty high-paying, senior job that she was good at, but the stress of that particular work environment was driving her crazy, and I could see the detrimental impact it was having - lost sleep, stress and general unhappiness. I was really happy when she decided to leave, even though it was a bit scary for the family, since she was the major breadwinner at the time. Eventually she co-founded a consulting company (sounds similar to your plans!), worked there for about a year as it got off the ground, then left again to go back into a more similar role to what she did previously in a different organization, where she was much happier!

    I guess the moral of those thoughts are that a.) it can be scary, but the gain in happiness from leaving a job that's making you miserable can make a huge difference in your life and that of your family, and b.) I'm really glad to have had my parents as role models, because they taught me that you don't have to follow a linear progression in your career, that you can keep building on the skills you have but using them in different circumstances, and sometimes that versatility can pay off even more! The latter lesson has been particularly good for me as I've struggled with the linear PhD student -> postdoc -> professor expectation and tried to make peace with that fact that I don't necessarily want to follow that path.

    So again, congratulations and good luck!

  11. Alexicographer8:13 AM

    I don't really have any words of wisdom to add to those above, but please count me among those thing of your decision as one that both reflects success and that sets a good example for the rest of us.

    1. Alexicographer8:14 AM

      er, among those THINKing, not among those thing. Sigh.

  12. Anonymous6:23 PM

    This is not a well formed thought but as I read your explanations of why you felt like a failure, I was reminded of how I've heard victims explain how if only they had done x or hadn't done y, the crime (sexual harassment, rape, theft, etc.) wouldn't have happened as if they were somehow to blame for someone else's actions. I realize that this isn't the same situation but perhaps the underlying cultural issues are related. It may be worth acknowledging the way we've been trained, particularly as women, to please people and do what we're supposed to. This goes without saying but you are a brave person to follow your heart and take a leap to find satisfaction in all aspects of your life.

  13. Zenmoo6:31 PM

    For all the wank that talking about corporate culture sometimes involves, it is incredibly important. The four companies/organizations I've worked at have all had quite different cultures (not that I recognised it as such at the time). Probably, for me - the best learning out of the exposure to different cultures is starting to recognise what sort of environment suits me. For example, I'm quite comfortable with a bottom line that a company has to make money as long as the company is ethical about it and treats employees as partners (without whom it is impossible to make money). I'm happiest where the values the organisation uses to make decisions and prioritize projects match my own. I can cope with endless bureaucracy and lots of meetings - because it reflects a cultural emphasis on consensus etc. etc. I think it is a success, not a failure - to recognise when a culture doesn't suit you and leave.


  14. The thing that stands out to me is that you asked for 32 hours and even with your history and tenure at your company *and* the fact that they moved the whole operation, they didn't agree to even try it. That tells me the problem is with their culture. You voted with your feet. Yay for that.


Sorry for the CAPTCHA, folks. The spammers were stealing too much of my time.