Come the new year, we often vow to go on a diet, get our finances straightened out, learn a new language or take up a new hobby. This year, I recommend focusing on one very important resolution: Quit your job.
Right now, most people don’t quit their jobs until they have another one lined up. We say goodbye to one cubicle on Friday and say hello to a new one on Monday. We believe that quitting without a backup plan would be impossible and selfish and unwise, dooming our careers, our finances, our families, and quite possibly bringing about the apocalypse.
I certainly felt that way throughout a long career as a public radio news anchor. But having quit without a job offer in hand three years ago, I now believe that if more of us quit our jobs when we felt like the time had come, we’d be in a much better place.
We’d be making more money: most pay raises come during or after a job switch. We’d be happier: 70% of Americans say they are disengaged from their work. And we could crow that the economy is doing better—people don’t quit their jobs unless they’re feeling good about their employment prospects.
I want to urge everyone who’s ever dreamed of setting fire to expense reports or tossing a uniform in the dumpster to take a flying leap in the year ahead. Now let’s review what you need to do before you pull the ripcord and trust that you’ll land in the right place.
First and foremost, that financial overhaul you promised yourself this year? Do it first. Unfortunately, it’s true that if you don’t have enough money saved up, you cannot quit your job.
So decide what your worst-case scenario is, and how far down the road toward that worst-case scenario you are willing to go. What kind of income loss are you willing to accept, and for how long?
Do your homework by talking about this with the people who will be directly affected by this decision—your spouse, for example, as well as family members whom you currently support or who you might turn to for a loan in a rough patch. Money discussions are never fun, but in this case, they’ve got to happen.
That said, another risk here is that you might set the bar for financial comfort so high that you’ll never meet it. If you’re telling yourself, “I won’t quit unless and until I have to have five years of living expenses saved up”—good luck with that. Don’t sabotage yourself with goals that simply can’t be met.
That’s the practical side of preparing to quit. The theoretical side is more about psychological and social preparation—and I’d argue it’s the more difficult part.
Before you leave a job without knowing what you want to do next, you must prepare yourself for the idea that you are no longer conducting life the way the world tells you that you’re supposed to. People will probably wonder if there’s something wrong with you.
They won’t say it to your face—but you’ll feel it. You have to be ready for what that will do, at least in the short term, to your sense of value, confidence, and notion of your role in the world.
Even meeting someone new at a dinner party can throw you off. Their first question will probably be “Hey, what do you do?”
So come up with an answer to that infernal question in advance. What’s your elevator pitch as to why you’re making this career leap and how you’re managing it?
A couple options:
- “I’ve given myself a sabbatical from my long career as a lawyer/teacher/professional skydiver to figure out what I want to do with the rest of my life.”
- “I’m taking some time away from regular work to concentrate on my family and think about whether I want to keep doing this for the rest of my life.”
Note how that phrase “the rest of my life” pops up a lot. Figuring out what you want to do with it is a good reason to take time away from your job.
Career identity is very powerful, and you have to prepare yourself for the bad feelings that may arise about spending some time without one. If you go through this thought process before you quit, you’ll be way ahead in the psychological game.
Finally, when you do quit, give yourself the gift of time. You’re probably going to have to get through some really tough, agonizing personal growth before you can settle into a new career.
Especially at first, you’ll feel a constant pressure to be productive and be Doing Something to get a job. One of the women in my book talked about how when she decided to leave her job, she told herself, “Okay, I’m going to get up, go to the gym, and I’ll go to the library and bring my laptop, I’ll be there from 10:00 to 5:00, it’s just like a work day, I can job search from there and then I’ll feel like I’m really working.”
A friend heard about those plans and asked, “Why would you work a full day as if you’re working? You can only apply to so many jobs in a day. Why don’t you just work in the morning and give yourself the afternoon off to read a book or go to a museum, because you’ll never have this time again?”
The friend was right. You don’t want to be sitting on the couch eating bonbons and getting depressed, but take some time to enjoy life while you’re figuring out what comes next.
That said: Do be sure to network. Make lists of the things you loved about your last job and what you didn’t love. Figure out what your priorities are for a new workplace. But don’t panic and take the first offer you get just because you feel like you have to be productive.
And remember, while transitions can be stressful, they can also be a lot of fun. And they can give you a confidence you never had before.
That’s what happened to me. When I realized I could make it on my own and that I had value outside of the work I used to do, I became far more fearless and willing to say yes to things I wouldn’t otherwise have believed I could do.
I can say with certainty that three years ago, before taking my own leap, I never would have sold my house and a good chunk of my possessions and moved to Southeast Asia for an indeterminate period of time with two backpacks and no plan. Yet here I am today. Hello from Ho Chi Minh City!