Stop ignoring what you already know

Photo by Johnson Wang on Unsplash

Here’s a depressing statistic: only 15% of people worldwide like their jobs. Another study found that 60% of Americans considered their jobs either “bad” or “mediocre,” and American workers actually posted some of the greatest job satisfaction among the countries surveyed. Needless to say, that’s pretty bad.

Before anyone starts on whether or not people deserve happiness or fulfillment at work, I should clarify that Gallup sets a very low bar in its survey:

Gallup defines engaged employees as those who are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace.

I don’t know what’s worse — the fact that a majority of us dislike what we spend a majority of our lives doing, or the fact that not many of us are shocked by these statistics.

At some point, we decided it was perfectly okay for most of us to be perfectly miserable. Suffering in an occupation you don’t particularly enjoy for people you don’t particularly like is often held up as a sign of character or perseverance or something else deeply American. As an immigrant, I would know. We tend to take that whole “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” thing several levels beyond the next.

We endure that boss who calls us at 10 pm to ream us out for a small formatting error in a presentation no one will remember in a week; we tolerate an endless parade of pointless tasks we’re not quite sure add any value (as chronicled marvelously by David Graeber); and most mornings, we dread getting out of bed. These are usually some of the most obvious signs it’s time to quit.

But when we’re not in an overtly abusive or hostile work situation, we often ignore the subtler but no less urgent signs. We decide that things are simply good enough. That’s one of the reasons why a majority of us continue to report a lack of satisfaction in the tasks we spend most of our waking hours doing.

We need to learn to quit more. Here are some of the more overlooked signs that you should at least think about it.

You’re no longer growing 🔗

Humans are biologically wired to be curious. One theory chalks this up to something called neoteny, which is the retention of childlike characteristics relative to other species. This is what supposedly gives humans our relatively large brains and the capacity for lifelong learning long after we have grown up.

It also means our oversized human brains have an annoying need to keep learning. This is why simply achieving goals, no matter how big, doesn’t make us happy. It’s perverse, but without suffering we can’t ever briefly achieve that transient state we call happiness.

When the environment you spend a majority of your waking hours in no longer challenges you, you’ve found yourself in the trap of complacency. It may be perfectly comfortable, but it is also perfectly stagnant. You can say almost with certainty what your professional life will look like a year from now and that thought terrifies you.

How do you recognize an environment that challenges you and forces you to grow? The most reliable sign I’ve found is being surrounded by people who are smarter than you. These are the people most willing to admit when they’re wrong and to say “I don’t know.”

The tough part is finding this environment. You don’t have to suffer dramatically, but you do have to endure enough that you grow and change. Change, after all, is the essence of being alive. We sense it on a cellular level. That’s why stagnation is the most powerful yet subtle sign that it may be time to quit your job.

You see the people who have “made it” and you don’t want their lives 🔗

A former boss once said to me —

If you see the destination and you don’t like it, then why are you still on the path?

He quit less than a year later. I still think about that phrase at least once a day.

When we’re in the traditional corporate grind, the evidence of our futures is all around us. We see the higher-ups: their cars, spouses, houses, lavish vacations, and even their second houses. Now to be clear if you want that then you’re probably in the right place.

But what if you look up and decide that the 40, 80, 95-hour workweeks aren’t worth any of it? What if you put a higher premium on your time and your sanity than you do the material rewards? I hear this often from a corporate lawyer friend in her third year, who looks at the partners who have “made it” and realizes that she doesn’t want her life to look anything like theirs.

And yet we grind on thinking that maybe we might do things differently once we too have made it. Honestly, this probably won’t happen.

Define your particular idea of success before you doggedly pursue the 80-hour workweek for things that may not actually be for you. Sometimes it turns out you actually don’t want it enough. That’s totally okay. Better you recognize it now rather than later.

You don’t have a price 🔗

Here’s another interesting statistic. According to one study, 89% of managers believe employees quit because they want to get paid more. In reality, only 11% of 20,000 surveyed employees leaving jobs cited pay as a significant reason for their departure.

The dissonance is stark, but it’s also a good reminder that after a certain level money isn’t actually everything. It’s okay to walk away. Plenty of others have done it before you and survived, maybe even thrived.

This ties into “made it” reason above. If you see the success stories in your field and you don’t want their lives, then there’s no amount of money that will make you want it. Sure there’s a crazy number we’d all sacrifice for, but the probability of that number weighed against the probability of misery and wasted years is almost never worth the trade-off.

If you know in your bones that there’s no number that makes those workweeks, complacency, and stagnation worth it, then it’s time to start looking for something else. At the end of the day, a low single-digits pay bump isn’t going to change anything.

Quitting isn’t just for losers 🔗

The shame of giving up runs deep in our culture. We’re told that if we just put our heads down like everyone else and work harder instead of complaining all the time, we could make it work. Things are hard for everyone after all. If something isn’t working out, then it must be you.

This attitude is probably more about the human need to maintain the illusion of control. We like feeling as though we have more power over the chaos of existence than we actually do. Unfortunately, life has a habit of reminding us just how foolish this is.

Remember that committing to something that doesn’t suit you always ends with some amount of regret, even if you grow to be decent at it. Ultimately we must accept that not everything is made for us, no matter how hard we try.

So quit like your life depends on it. Because it does.