The Risks of Staying Put

Last month Mandy Brown wrote about how she struggled to quit her job and this bit hit me like a sledgehammer: “I assumed that all the risk was in moving, that by definition staying put was the prudent option.” Same! For months I’ve been paralyzed with indecision about quitting my job. What happens if I have nothing else lined up afterwards? Shouldn’t I stay and wait until things get less stressful? Staying is the sensible thing to do, whilst quitting feels unreasonable or extreme.

“I could keep gathering information,” Mandy writes “...keep investigating the options, until a bright, clear, easy path opened before me. This is what I call the devil-you-know fallacy: the assumption that however bad your current circumstances are, they are at least familiar, and if you make a move, you could end up with a whole lot worse.”

I’m overwhelmed by this same fear: What if I’m being stubborn about all this work drama and what if it’s much worse elsewhere? Here’s the kicker from Mandy’s post though:

“...just because a situation is familiar doesn’t mean it’s the best you can do.”

That was the paralyzing thing for me, just like in the toxic romantic relationships I found myself stuck in years ago. It was the familiarity of that pain, stress, and sadness that I wanted to hold onto. There’s a certain kind of masochism when you stick around in a shitty job or a shitty relationship, there’s this belief that you don’t deserve any better than what you’ve got.

That is, until last week, when I finally did the thing and quit my job.

The job became so much bigger than just conflicts with folks: the stress became visible, tangible, until you could see it in my eyes. In a meeting last week someone asked if I was depressed and I was shocked that they had read through my brilliant act. I smiled, laughing it off as an un-caffeinated delirium but I knew they were right: I wasn’t sleeping, my appetite was boundless, I was breaking down in the middle of the day and I would spiral when I was out on a walk. Big droopy bags appeared beneath my eyes and my hair started to thin out whilst I gained 80 pounds over the past two years. I stopped talking to friends, I bailed on a bunch of people constantly. I kept getting sick—three times in a single month—and that was when I knew I’d hit the wall.

The pain outweighed the familiarity.

I stopped taking care of myself as the toxic, work-related daymares hijacked my attention whenever I was alone. Everywhere I went I was in a trance, forming arguments with people who only existed in Slack for me. The debates, the designs, the confrontation! Every time I closed my eyes I would start a stupid fight, until eventually a simple thing like an invite in my calendar became a tangible menace; a small needle, poking in the same sore spot as the last one.

I’m reminded of A Pain That I’m Used To, that absolute banger of a song by Depeche Mode all about a toxic relationship that hurts but it’s okay because the alternative—the unknown—feels so much worse.

On that note, Mandy writes:

I had spent months chewing on the various dangers and risks of each step I could take, and had not at all considered the dangers and risks of staying put.

I was thinking this way for months. But really there’s an «enormous» risk to staying put in an unhealthy relationship, whether that’s a professional or a sexy one. At some point I realized I was being turned into a thin mulch paste and that the risk to my health far outweighed whatever fear I had for the unknown out there. Each morning I felt weaker than the day before and I could feel my optimism fading. One day last week I woke up, looked in the mirror, and realized that I was an old man; a true, sour bastard.

So yeah, I’m scared right now. I fear living in one of the most expensive cities in the world without a job. I fear the economy buckling under my feet. I fear all the layoffs and the terrible jobs out there building a bunch of tech nothings.

But my god it’s better than the pain that I’m used to.

But but but but. There is this bigger fear, lurking under the surface. I fear that this is what my career will look like from here on out. I’ll get excited about something, work on it for three years until I end up confronting some unforgivable management decision, and then bail once I notice my health falling apart. A year later I’ll check in on the team and find that all my work was washed away with some reorg or some new team coming in. After a few more years I’ll look back and it was like I was never there at all.

I’m sort of a bad omen for the teams I work on. They get shitcanned or the team gets downsized or I get fired for being unreasonably reasonable. And I don’t want to work like that anymore. I want my life’s work to have some kind of meaning, some kind of longevity to it. I have no dreams of putting a dent in the universe but I do want to build something kind, something that I can point to in the future and, like a small boy, proudly shout: “That’s neat! And that’s me!”

Even if it’s a tiny thing.

After I gave my boss my two weeks’ notice, C and I went for a long walk around Lands End with a hodge podge of confusing feelings chasing behind me. But I knew I did the right thing. The sea air was toasted, the brief San Francisco summer returning for this lovely afternoon walk.

And I start to thinkin’: I have to remember that my health is more important than my job. And the pain that you’re used to is still a pain you should run away from.

A pain to be extracted. A pain to quit.