Even pre-pandemic, everyone at my government office was dropping like flies. Not from illness, though (these were happier times) — they were quitting. Some quit for better jobs, others quit to travel and in one case someone quit to run for office (they lost). Whatever the reasons, they were doing it — they were leaving their cushy, pensioned jobs to do something—anything—else.
A self-described employment coward, I always envied their chutzpah. They found it in themselves to quit the stable job they didn’t like for a chance at a life they loved. Brave, I thought, but too risky for me. Two years and a virus later, everyone and their mother seems to have sipped the Kool-Aid and is abandoning the 9-5 to do the thing on their vision board. As I watch this newest cohort of quitters become full-time YouTubers or finally start their organic dog food business in Mexico, I can’t help but think about all the reasons I should do the same. Just like my now-former colleagues, I too have moments of feeling unfulfilled. And I have a vision board too, goddamnit! But would quitting my job actually gives me the freedom I crave? Is a 24/7 commitment to self-employment, let’s say, the cure to my discontent? Or is romanticizing a life of entrepreneurship just a way to fast-track burnout with no one else to blame?
With these questions running through my brain, I chatted with Emily Key, a former executive at a publicly-traded tech company who, at one point, quit to start her own tech consultancy firm only to take a job at another tech firm once again. Turns out, we really are glamorizing entrepreneurship: “The entrepreneurial lie is that, yes, there’s flexibility, but you’re also going to be working all the time,” she says. While the Great Resignation is seeing many people make big life changes, Keys sees power in resisting the quitting urge. “The hype of work is an addiction. It’s like a friend telling you they’re going to quit smoking, but now they snack every day. By quitting, we are all tricking ourselves into thinking we’re not addicted to work when really we’re still very much addicted to work.” Turns out, the best thing to do when everyone else is running around might just be to sit still.
So sit still I will. Sure, my 9-5 is far from the most glamorous job in the world—in fact, most friends would describe my role as quite dry. But if I really think about it, quitting just isn’t for me. What am I really looking for from work? A job, for me, is just that. It is a thing I am employed to do that funds my needs and wants. A career is an extension of that, with a more defined trajectory and occasional satisfaction when goals are achieved. But for the sake of my own self-preservation (and as everyone else burns out around me), I’ve decided that my job would no longer be a place I seek out personal fulfillment.
It took me years to realize that the more I sought out the one role, company, or promotion to finally make me ‘happy’, the unhappier I became. “It took me a really long time to untangle my self-worth from work”, Key says, “because I was born and bred to think that’s what made me valuable. If I wasn’t productive, I would punish myself. I didn’t deserve fun. I didn’t deserve sleep. I didn’t deserve love or praise unless I was balls to the wall for work. And that’s just bull. It’s an absolute flick off the edge into a mental health-free fall.”
Like Key, I was caught up in the dream that capitalism’s fairy tales have sold us—the ones that trap us into spending our lives working by convincing us that success is defined by the level of joy one feels at work—and because my days were devoid of joy, I, in turn, considered myself a failure. But as soon as I started rejecting the concept of work being the key source of my happiness, I felt lighter. I felt a sense of freedom from the burden of constantly seeking love of work, and I grew more interested in finding joys beyond my 9-5, like freelance writing.
So, because I no longer look at what pays the bills as an activity that defines my value, the idea of quitting to pursue a dream is significantly less appealing. I worry that in the pursuit of a new kind of professional happiness, I would fall victim to the belief that productivity is the highest form of humanity. Even more dangerous, by making your dream your work, you have less space in your life to truly enjoy the escapist fantasy your dreams once gave you.
And frankly, when I looked around at all those who’ve recently quit, I couldn’t help but notice that nearly everyone who left their jobs had a safety net—they had an employed spouse, parents to support them, a well-paying job that allowed them to save enough to quit, or in some cases, all of the above. “I think the ‘Great Resignation’ is doing a lot of good things, Key argues, “like putting a lot of pressure on employers who haven’t prioritized wellness or overall compensation for their workers. I also think it’s limited to, in the grand scheme of things, a very small percentage of people in the workforce. And definitely those over a certain threshold of salary.” To her point, if I quit my job without these supports and dedicated my days to getting ahead for the sake of entrepreneurship alone, all I foresee is subjecting myself to feeling less than at my own hand. And that doesn’t feel like freedom at all.
If I’ve learned nothing else from the last two years of watching the world reimagine what it means to work, it’s that too many of us conflate who we are with what we do. That said, by no means do I feel that you shouldn’t do what you love. If you’ve found a job that meets your needs and pays what you deserve, congratulations! You have quite literally accomplished ‘the American dream’. But for those of us who don’t (or can’t) get paid to do what we love full time, I think it’s time that we reframe our approach to work. Sure, maybe you don’t love your job. But if that same job affords you that trip you loved, that new car for your parents or the work-life balance your ‘more successful’ friends struggle to achieve, what is it exactly that you are in search of? The reality is that you may be just like me—you may already have some of the freedoms you think quitting will enable, but your grass is greener mentality won’t let you see the forest for the trees.