The power of quitting: a smart move for your career and happiness

A large portion of the workforce is unhappy in their job (according to McKinsey the number is > 50% in the US). For various reasons their work doesn’t fulfill them and they end up miserable. This situation is awful for the individuals whose wellbeing suffers. It is also bad for the companies who don’t tap into their full productivity potential.  Nevertheless, many of these frustrated people continue working in their current role. 

They don’t quit and try to find a new challenge even though this seems – from the outside –  like the obvious remedy. Most people don’t do so. They seem to prefer riding it out.

I want to make the case for quitting today. Using personal experience I will explain the benefits of quitting and explore why people don’t do so. Let’s start with that. Why is it so hard to quit a job?

The Backlog is a bi-weekly newsletter about the undervalued and overlooked in modern product development. It covers product development, self organization, and productivity. I include methods, books, and write about my own experience. The target audience are Product Owners, Scrum Masters, Developers, and project leaders. The Backlog is about getting the most out of product development.
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Why do people not quit when they are unhappy?

Finding a new job is a hassle. It is uncomfortable, uncertain, and scary. Looking at the prospect of getting into the job market (again) is daunting. After all, the largest part of job hunting is people judging you. More often than not, that judgment will be negative.

Besides the general dread of entering the job market, three other factors play – in my mind – an outsized role:

  • Financial security
  • Societal expectations 
  • A feeling of owing the company 

Financial security

Financial security is probably the main cause for people staying with work that doesn’t satisfy them. They need the steady, predictable, and (presumed) safe income. From personal experience, that seems to be the number one reason (excuse?) to not quit. 

In 2019, I quit my well paying and secure job in the automotive industry at Bosch. Upon informing my colleagues, I cannot recount how many reactions I got along the lines of “I would love to do the same but I can’t. I have to pay off my house.” Two observations here.

First, most people don’t actually need the money to survive. They need it to maintain a standard of living and/or to pay off debts. I am tempted to ask if the presumed safe income invites entering commitments that end up reducing the number of viable options for career decisions.

(I realize that there are people that are through no fault of their own in difficult situations and for whom the monthly paycheck is absolutely necessary. The calculation here is obviously much different. I would argue that the vast majority of unhappy employees don’t fall into that camp.)

Second, the “safe and steady” income isn’t always that safe and steady. After all, the people working at Lehman Brothers before 2008 or the 50.000 people laid off at Meta, Alphabet, Amazon, and Microsoft in 2022 also thought they had a secure income.  

Nassim Taleb explains it in his great book Antifragile. Jobs with steady and safe income cover over the volatility of life and are susceptible to large, unforeseen shocks. Many people who have worked all their life at one company are very good at working for that company because they can navigate the organization and processes well. They will have more difficulty adapting to a new environment than someone who is used to changing different ways of working due to having quit before or working in the gig economy.

It is worth considering trading volatility in income in the short term for the long term capability to adapt to bigger shocks in life. (Side note: salary increase by switching companies is much higher than raises through internal promotions.)

Societal expectations

Many people find themselves in jobs that, on paper, seem ideal. They often pay well, have certain levels of prestige, and offer countless perks. These external markers of achievement are deeply ingrained in our collective consciousness, and they can exert immense pressure on individuals to conform to these ideals.

This pressure to conform to societal norms can be overpowering. It creates an internal conflict between what individuals think they should be doing and what truly brings them fulfillment (hello midlife crisis). Most don’t even know what the latter may be (guilty 🙋‍♂️).

Moreover, society often promotes the idea of a linear career path. We’re led to believe that success means steadily climbing the corporate ladder in one field. However, this notion doesn’t account for the dynamic nature of our interests and passions, or the unpredictable circumstances that life can throw our way.

The reality is that career paths are rarely straightforward. It’s perfectly normal and okay to change jobs or fields multiple times throughout one’s career. I think this has become more accepted in recent years. Yet, there’s still often a stigma attached to quitting or career changes. People may fear being perceived as indecisive or unreliable.

Breaking free from the constraints of societal expectations may raise some eyebrows but can lead to a more fulfilling and authentic career journey.

A feeling of owing the company 

In my view the worst reason to not quit is because you think you owe something to a company. You don’t! 

Sure, the company may have paid for that special training, made sure you had the best equipment, or given you free lunches. Most companies don’t do this because of the good of their heart. They do this because they think the investment is worth the production you give them.

Consider the experience of a person I know very well who resigned to start her own business. She had and still has strong relationships with her colleagues and bosses.The company was always generous with handing out perks like vacations for meeting sales targets. Due to industry norms, after resigning, she was barred from working but was still entitled to her salary for the remaining two months of her contract.

When she visited the office to bid farewell and took a drink, the company accused her of “stealing” and tried to terminate her contract immediately to avoid paying her due salary. The decision was made by the same people she used to socialize with outside work. It wasn’t personal; it was just business. The company eventually realized that it had no real claim and they avoided any nasty legal battles

This story underscores that business is business. Companies will prioritize their interests, so it’s perfectly acceptable for you to be a bit selfish in your career decisions. You don’t owe the company!

Being able to push through adversity is a great quality to have

I am not trying to advocate for quitting as soon as something isn’t 100% to your liking. It’s impossible to find a job where every aspect is perfect. In my view, it’s also really hard to evaluate a situation after only a few months.

So, there absolutely is value to persisting through difficult situations. It is an important experience that builds character. You learn a lot about yourself in those situations and will come out of them more resilient. Also, the grass is not always greener on the other side. At some point, though, it doesn’t make sense to push further. 

Unfortunately, there is no formula that tells you when exactly that point has come. 

If you are dreading going to work every morning, that point has probably come. If you realize that your work in no way fits the life you want to be living, that point has probably come. If you are feeling significant effects of your work on your mental and physical health, that point has definitely come.

Sometimes, if you are uncertain, it makes sense to wait before making a decision. Things change. Unless it’s really horrible, I don’t think I would make a decision before at least a year has passed.    

What happens when you quit and start a new job

Having laid out some reasons for unhappy employees staying put I want to make the case for quitting. First of all, it feels good. Handing in your resignation can lift a huge burden off your shoulders. 

Second, you quickly learn that life goes on. If you end up getting a “less prestigious” job, you might get some raised eyebrows in the beginning. If that new job pays less, you might find that you didn’t really need all the money before. 

Afterwards, you might realize that there are other benefits as well. I see three that stand out to me.

  • Increasing technical knowledge
  • Broadening the horizon
  • Learning about personal needs and wants

Increasing technical knowledge

When you quit and start a new job, you are forced to adapt to a new environment, a new culture, and a new set of expectations. You have to learn new technologies, products, or ways of working. You have to deal with new problems and situations that require you to come up with different solutions than you were used to.

The exposure to new things will help you gain experience with new technology, new problems, and new tools. It will also help increase your confidence. Therefore, quitting and starting a new job can be a great way to increase your technical knowledge and skills (which btw will make you more valuable and marketable in the labor market.)

Broadening the horizon

Switching companies undoubtedly means that you will need to become more flexible. You will need to adapt to new systems, tools, and people. This leaving of the comfort zone – while painful in the short term – is extremely valuable in and outside of work. 

Learning that there is more than one way of working or solving a problem may lead to you to question other things you thought were fact in life. It means challenging your assumptions, your beliefs, and your biases. Similarly to living in a foreign country for a longer period of time (I highly recommend that to anyone) this broadens your horizon of what is possible.

This expanding worldview may change your perspective on how work is done. You learn to embrace the new. You can also discover new aspects of yourself, such as your strengths, your passions, your values, and your goals.

Learning about personal needs and wants

Related, and this may be the most important benefit of quitting: learning about yourself, discovering what makes you happy, fulfilled, and motivated. Staying put and trying to climb the corporate ladder, you may lose sight of your personal needs and wants. You may conform to the expectations and norms of the organization, without questioning if they match your own.

Quitting forces you to do exactly that. It forces you to reflect on what you really want out of work and how you want to live your life (at least in the short/mid term). This is not an easy thing to do. You may need to confront some harsh realities and you may find out some unexpected things about yourself. I can certainly attest to that.

Nevertheless, it will be liberating and rewarding in the end. The clarity will lead to decisions that better reflect your true self and your true goals. It means aligning your work with your life, and not the other way around. The experience is an invaluable component of character growth. 

A career is a journey

Imagine a bird in a cage. It has food, water, and shelter – everything it needs to survive. But it’s not free to fly and explore. Similarly, people in unsatisfying jobs have financial security and prestige but lack the freedom to pursue what truly makes me happy.

Looking back, that is exactly how I felt earlier in my career. Due to my own journey, I am very passionate about this topic. Quitting wasn’t easy. The way to get there forced me to reflect on what I really wanted. It was a transformative experience. 

Afterwards, life went on. I got paid less and people didn’t recognize the company I worked for. But I was happier.

Don’t be the bird, open the cage and fly.

Coverphoto by D Jonez on Unsplash