When to Say “When” at Work
Four months ago, I left behind a 15-year career for a 9-month unpaid sabbatical in Europe.
The truth is that I loved my career and I worked with amazing clients. I did work that helped make people’s lives better and I made a nice living. What could possibly have gone wrong?
In order to perform a proper career autopsy, let’s back up the buggy.
I started with my former company in 2011. Initially, I was grateful for the opportunity and worked hard to get the ball rolling. Having worked for two previous firms, I was hopeful that I had found my career home. My intention was to be a long-timer, to get my 25-year pin, so to speak.
If a new job is a good fit, we start out in the honeymoon phase. We are happy and productive, learning new skills, and everything is sprinkled with fairy dust.
Ok, so the fairy dust may be an exaggeration. But even if things are less than perfect, there is enough trust in the bank to give it time to settle in. We have faith that things will smooth out as we learn the ropes. We are fresh and unwavering in our commitment.
After 2-3 years, I started to feel a vague sense of uneasiness that I didn’t quite fit in.
Those who were most successful in my role were Type A, confident, sales-oriented extroverts. I like people, but I am a more school-teacherly, detail-oriented thinker with an aesthetic sensitivity. I seek to give client recommendations based on what I perceive as right, which may or may not involve a sale.
After 4-5 years, I was getting bored, so I signed up to study for another industry designation. Other colleagues took on new projects or teamed up on marketing initiatives. We would grumble amongst ourselves at times, but for most, this was just blowing off steam.
But I was not just blowing off steam. My discomfort continued to deepen. I grew weary of the locker-room talk, the weekly performance rankings, and the arrogant, condescending manner in which some managers behaved.
Both industry-wide and company-specific issues escalated. The compliance and regulatory environment were becoming more onerous every year. This increased our paperwork and documentation requirements, which I did not enjoy. The company’s technology and back-office operations were antiquated and inefficient, which made it difficult to get anything done.
I wanted these issues to be addressed, but everyone appeared to be living in an ecosystem of acceptance.
Perhaps they were just being realistic. Leadership had bigger fish to fry than my petty little operational, technology, compliance, product, or service issues.
As time went on, my earnings increased…a lot! I chided myself that I should be grateful to have such a great gig. I had autonomy over my schedule, could work from home part of the time, and the company’s 401k contribution was 9%. Who does that anymore?!
In spite of the positives, I found myself spending increased time and effort trying to talk myself into being happy. I developed an increased awareness of what was wrong. I no longer felt that our products were competitively priced. I knew there were other (better) ways to help clients, but those options were not available at my firm. Yet I had a professional duty to recommend what I believed was in my clients’ best interest. I felt conflicted every single day at work.
Despite the internal conflict, I still wanted this to work. I rationalized that nowhere is perfect and that things would probably be the same – or worse – elsewhere.
Outside of work, I admitted my lack of personal and professional fulfillment. My resolve was strengthening that I could do better elsewhere or out on my own, but I was afraid. I was the breadwinner and had two kids to raise. Could I hang in there longer for the sake of my family?
Maybe this isn’t a work-problem at all and it’s just a midlife funk! I was working too many hours and needed to balance things out better. I considered therapy and/or medications to feel happier and less anxious. In the end, I hired a life coach to provide support for my transition out of where I was. That was the best decision for me.
By then, disillusionment had set in and I was harboring ill regard for the people, place, and environment. I longed to be part of a team and have meaningful workplace friendships. Yet my workplace felt so toxic that I trusted no one.
Disillusionment led to desperation and urgency. Get me out of here!
All previous attempts to rationalize, accept, mitigate, and overcome the frustrations in my work environment had failed. I had to save myself, my health, and my overall well-being. I had to leave.
As humans, we have a natural resistance to change. Even with mounting evidence that I needed to move on, I attempted to make it work. I tried to diagnose where I was on that emotional and experiential spectrum. I tried to course-correct, manage my own emotions and make peace with the situation.
In spite of some hard knocks, I still consider the time with my former company to have been a success. I acquired new skills and knowledge. I worked with some really special clients. And when it was time to go, I was courageous enough to: 1) Leave, and 2) Leave well.
If you find yourself at such a career crossroads, take a deep breath. Regardless of how unhappy, unfairly treated, or outraged you may feel at this moment, it is important to leave well if possible.
This isn’t easy to do. I still look back and wonder if I should have been more aggressive and set some folks straight. Instead, I expressed goodwill towards colleagues and gratitude for the growth and the opportunity.
For some, a job loss is by “guillotine”. Something bad happens and it ends fast.
The coroner’s report on my career autopsy reads like this: “Death by a thousand papercuts.”
It wasn’t just one cut for me. It started with smallish irritations that grew into big blood-spurting gushes. I refused to just ignore this and continue with business as usual. Instead, I did something very un-businesslike: I followed my heart!
I found a trusted few in whom I could confide and lean on for support. I stashed cash – lots of cash – in the bank. And that money gave me options. Deliberate, decisive action increased my confidence and self-respect and ultimately brought me to a place of freedom to pursue something better.
It took time to make the decision to leave, then to get my ducks in a row so I could.
A life coach and a good financial planner can be tremendous partners in this. The former can help with positivity, self-knowledge, and emotional support. The latter will help you determine how much is enough, and what will be financially required to course-correct if you take that leap. On both fronts, this knowledge is empowering.
Life is more than a number, though. It’s a life and is by its very nature…priceless!
If you are where I was, remember that you have the human super-power of choice. You are only one decision away from a choice that makes you come alive. Choose that!