The Big Reason It Might Be Time to Quit Your Job
Tell me if this sounds familiar. You’re in a relationship, and at some point you’ve realized that it’s bad. You’ve had some good times, of course. But things have gotten tense. The good times get rarer, and you feel like you’re putting in more than you’re getting out. You keep hanging in there as the relationship gets worse and worse, until the only explanation you can give someone for not ending it is “Because it would be such a shame! We’ve been together for so long!”
“We have history” is perhaps the worst excuse for sticking around in any relationship. It feels rational, but it’s actually insane. And, of course, it’s a self-reinforcing cycle: The longer you stay in a relationship because you have history, the more history you create.
This is, unfortunately, why a lot of unhappy workers stay at jobs or in careers they hate.
It’s a classic pattern of abuse. And yet, when it comes to work—the relationship that consumes more of our time and energy than almost any other—we call this abuse “loyalty” or “perseverance.”
That’s unfortunate news for our well-being. Surveys indicate that our general happiness is highly correlated to our work happiness. And it’s bad for productivity, as dissatisfied workers achieve less. But perhaps worst of all, such irrationality has a tendency to metastasize until it infects companies at a macro level. The symptoms? All too common phrases like “Because that’s the way it is here” and “That’s just how it’s done.”
Almost 2 percent of workers quit their jobs every month. That means about a fifth of us quit per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and assuming that few people quit twice in one year (which is probably not the case).
According to a recent research study I conducted for the book Smartcuts, that’s about how many people feel like they could easily switch careers. The actual number is 23 percent.
Concerning, however, is that other 77 percent. Just over half of employed, college-educated American workers say they could pursue a different career, but it would be difficult. And nearly as many as say could switch careers believe they can’t do anything about the path they’re on, for one reason or another.
That’s a pessimistic outlook, especially for those who say they wouldn’t change their lives for fear of disappointing someone else. But the 10 percent who say, “It’s probably too late to do that” have the worst excuse of all: history.
At a larger scale, this is one of the reasons most businesses stop growing after a few years, and why big companies inevitably get disrupted by little companies: we humans are very good at sticking to things just because we’ve been sticking to them. But like a bad relationship, this strategy only allows us to dig ourselves and our companies into deeper holes.
When you look at the stats, you find that steadfastness is overrated. People who switch jobs every few years are rewarded with higher salaries. (This means we business owners need to do a better job at rewarding and retaining our employees, constantly feeding them small wins and a sense of ownership and progress.) Startups that stay one linear course are 2–3 times less likely to be successful as startups that are willing to pivot, or take one step sideways from their original path. Large companies that don’t reinvent themselves or their products become victims of the “innovator’s dilemma.” The youngest Fortune 500 CEOs tend to come in from other companies rather than up the line internally. And as I document in my book, the most terrible U.S. presidents tend to be the ones who spend the most time paying dues and being loyal to their parties. When Andrew Johnson got to the White House in 1865 after 30+ years in Congress, he nearly botched Reconstruction and ruined the country because he was unwilling to do things differently than he’d always done.
(As an aside: This is one of the reasons that I believe that professional sports fanaticism, while fun, breeds unhealthy habits if not properly kept in check. Rooting passionately for a team—often for an arbitrary reason like geographic region, even when players come and go—is based on the same kind of irrationality that keeps us in bad jobs and bad relationships. My friend who rooted for the Detroit Lions all through high school constantly complained about never winning, yet got into fistfights over his team. That is not healthy!)
The good news is that 40 percent of people are happy in their careers, and 45 percent of $100k+ earners in the U.S. work at careers outside of their field of college study. If nearly half of high-income workers can hold down a career outside of their field, it follows that it’s possible for the rest of us to switch tracks and be happy, too—even if we have history.
But no matter what we’re doing, every worker and every business ought to step back periodically and examine what it’s doing, and if it’s doing it deliberately or just because of history. And though change gets harder the more history we build, in the long run getting out of a bad relationship always ends up feeling good.Image by Piotr Marcinski