Quitting Corporate America

ROAR I'M BIG

That One Time I Quit My Job

2014

Introduction

When I get to sharing my quitting story, it seems people are interested in different aspects of the process. There was the manager guy who engaged me more in a conversation about my study of (and general, infantile stance towards) capitalism and economic/financial construct who made some good points about his views on having a career versus having a job. There’s the fellow corporate employee who is going through a similar thought process and is struggling with a lingering feeling of mediocrity in the workplace (read: mediocrity in life, as the work you do happens to be the same as the life you’re living). There are the jealous and defensive, the inspired and supportive. One thing seems to be common, though – everyone agrees that quitting takes courage. It didn’t dawn on me before this pattern of responses just how much courage it did take to embark on this journey. Because it was very scary.

Before the story, a note on my approach to overcoming fear:

Key for me is verbally committing to an outcome. With anything important I do in life I’ve got to do it big (all the meaningful change I’ve made is precipitated by some kind of personal “explosion”) and I can’t start until I’m ready. Once it’s go-time, I tell as many people as possible what it is I’m doing so I can’t turn back, for fear of embarrassment and failure on the follow-through. In other words, I set wheels in motion that would take too much effort to stop and then I hop on board for the ride. I don’t do this arbitrarily, however. By all means I utilize all my strategic skills to make the most opportunity for myself as I possibly can. That is, leave as many doors and windows open as possible.

Allow me to illustrate.

I had felt unsatisfied at my corporate job since the first day. Really. I remember going to new employee orientation and waiting in line to sign papers and receive my employee ID (barcode), visions of George Orwell’s 1984 in my mind, thinking “what the hell am I doing here?” I felt like a bull lining up for slaughter. Thus begins the my years of entry-level learning, grinning and bearing, moneymaking, and melancholy professional dissatisfaction. Three years, two jobs, eight managers in I kept going, knowing that I’d ultimately leave but also not making that decision.

The golden handcuffs a large corporation can offer (pay, benefits, flexibility, retirement, health care, respectable job, status, achieving the western idea of success!) can be very compelling, especially when you’ve got no professional skills to speak of and an expensive degree that needs using. What I’ve noticed happens, however, is that people tend to stick to things long after the value of the experience has worn off. Not me. I finally hit the wall, lit the fuse, and waited for the explosion.

A particular job change was the final straw, a complete misalignment of my function in the office and the value I feel I actually bring the world. A well-timed misalignment I felt was worth a fight for. I understand employees sometimes have to do things they’d rather not do for the good of the business in exchange for money, and that’s the problem. I guess I am not an employee.

I am tired of feeling like I am selling my soul for a paycheck.

I am tired of using my mindshare on corporate problems.

I am tired of dedicating my time, energy, and creativity to the bottom line at a company that feels increasingly misaligned with my point of view.

under a bridge in alki

Chapter 1 – Harnessing Anger

Exiting bigbigcompany was a sort of blind, personal fight without a clearly defined win and lose. On one hand, chances of my beating this huge corporation were absolute zero. On the other hand, I felt like I was fighting for my life.

In short, a job change was dictated to me that was disconnected from the value I believe I brought to the company. In my eyes, I received a de facto demotion agnostic of my performance and skill set and was, more or less, simply disrespected. The fact that I was counting as a replaceable cog – a mechanical bit of flesh to be plugged into the “needs of the business” – and not as an individual human being, became very clear.  It was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and anyway, it really pissed me off.

I harnessed the anger, which might not be the healthiest way to propel yourself out of something, but it worked so I don’t regret it. With as much professionalism I could muster I crossed my arms and said no. I came up with a few alternatives towards a win-win solution, none of which were accepted. I was taking everything personally at this point and I felt as if “they” were trying to break me. Who the hell “they” were, I do not know. There is some kind of being that exists beyond the collection of individuals that comprise a large company. A culture, a value system, a monster, a machine. Whatever, I’ll call it “they.”

Anyway, here I am three years into my career, refusing to do what I’m told.

Oh my god what did I just do?! I pre-quit! I have to follow through!

I either get my way or I have to quit.

There is no other option.

Shit.

So, knowing I wasn’t going back to my previous job, I proceeded to conduct informational interviews with various leaders in the company to find out about their focus and the types of jobs available in their organizations. Maybe I could find another home within the company. I could keep up the momentum in my business career and my salary and find some professional satisfaction without too much change.

I wanted to find something where I got to concentrate on people, operate in the bird’s eye view space, and think. I wanted to learn from senior thinkers at the company and develop specific professional skills. Through the informational interviewing process, it became obvious to me that throughout the company was a strict, structured, stair-step set of rules that must be followed to one day faraway get to a place where I could learn what I wanted to learn.

“I have talent, use it now!”

I don’t mean my talent being a college graduate and knowing how to get whatever-the-hell done. I mean the talent I was born with and that differentiates me from others. I’m a waste just being plugged in. I’d go so far to say that most of us are.

What I realized was that the only path to get what I wanted at bigbig was to spend another 4-5 years developing in their way and by their rules and the results of that weren’t even guaranteed. Although, that wasn’t the only thing I realized in my conversations with these leaders. I began to develop an idea about another problem bigbig was having in beating the innovator’s dilemma.

Great…well, I say I’m a thinker so I better bring a thought.

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Chapter 2 – The Thought

The problem overcoming the innovator’s dilemma lies in valuing millennial talent.

Millennials – the generation raised during the Internet age.

Millennials are inherently fluent in technology . Many graduated college around the “Great Recession” and were raised to believe they could be anything they wanted to be then realized that the economy did not quite agree with that promise. They are often quite comfortable living at home with their parents longer than previously expected, or would consider moving back home a viable alternative to working a job they hate.

Can be seen as lazy, deserving, entitled, lacking ambition, and all for good reason. Can also be described as idealistic, effective, ingenious, open-minded, game-changing.

Whether you like us or hate us (and I am one), we are the future. There’s no getting away from it. We aren’t going to suddenly begin acting and thinking like our parents, and we aren’t going to find a way to raise our brood outside of environmental catastrophe, technology, and a seriously changing world. However, we will run the world. I mean, that’s the way time works.

Here’s the deal. Bigbig, like many large corporations, is in the process of “changing course.” It’s been around and successful for quite a while, but the bread and butter of the world isn’t necessarily mapped to products Bigbig has historically provided. Bear with me.

Change (technical, environmental, social…) seems to be happening at increasingly accelerated rates, something like an exponential curve. We are at a point on this curve where change is moving blindingly fast and it is very difficult for a business to be ready for and monetize new change when it comes. And then it changes once more even more rapidly than before and BOOM, the money-seeker hits this monetization problem again. And again and again and again, faster all the while. I’m not claiming to study this or be an expert in any way at all, but hear me out.

Say we’ve been on the increasingly steep part of this curve for 15 years or so. Think back to 1999 – dial up, message boards, palm pilots. Now think to today – wireless high speed Internet, to-the-second social media updates, smart phones. Such huge technological growth, such rapid change.

Who has grown up in the past 15 years? Millennials. Who is going to understand that rapidity? Millennials. To whom is lightening-fast change inherent? Millennials. It’s the young folks that work for you.

And these recently graduated 20-something aged workers are being forced through the corporate gauntlet where they either quit because it’s soul-sucking or succumb to the paradigm laid out before them as necessary for success in their company and their relatively new careers.

Bigbig (and I assume many other large corporations), this is far from an exhaustive list of what you are guilty of:

1. Valuing historic company culture over change

Yes, the culture that was created in the beginning is what got you here, but times have changed. There are new markets, new global considerations, new concerns and collective goals, new workers…a whole new world. Change is uncertain, change is ambiguous, but change is also the only constant. Old boxes fall apart. New boxes constrain creativity. No boxes. Embrace change.

2. Financial manipulation

Isn’t it interesting how highly corporate employees are paid compared to others in the local, small economy of the cities and towns the corporations exist within? Have you noticed the way pay raises, stock grants, health benefits, and vacation time (to name a few) increase at staggered intervals that leave the employee perpetually just a few cycles away from more wealth?

3. Hypocrisy – saying you want one thing and doing another

I can’t tell you how many times I heard “it’s so good to see new blood around here!” during my time at Bigbig. “We’ve been doing things one way for so long we need change. You’ll change things!” The Corporate Gods create a new Corporate Vision that is hard to disagree with. But words can be empty, especially muddled in buzzwords and marketing intent. Whether it’s a problem in the execution or because the drive for change does not actually exist, the words mean nothing and the actions I see around me seem counter to the change you say you want. I don’t claim that creating change in a huge beast is quick, easy or even possible. I’m just saying words and actions took too long to align for me to keep believing them.

4. Creating the problem you are trying to solve

It is “change” you want, “change” you need, but the system as it exists serves to extinguish change. You are hiring new blood, mostly Millennials (who I believe are the change) and not allowing them to lead without going through years of corporate creative sterilization. It seems employee creativity and ideas have to go through some sort of weird corporatization process where wording and style are all standardized in order to “effectively influence the decision makers.” Most pure pieces of the change energy are assimilated into the broken system. And with it, mind you, the actual creative energies of the idea and person in the first place.

You know, it’s like building habits. Neurons that fire together wire together. The brain naturally travels the paths of least resistance. If I come into your company with creative brain pathways but then spend a considerable amount of my time doing things your way to be heard, the 40-60 hours a week I’m spending remapping my neural pathways to be successful at work are also remapping the pathways I take home. That’s dangerous. I don’t just leave the corporate way of thinking at the office, I bring it home to the way I manage and think my way through my life, my problems, my family, my hobbies. I have, in essence, been remapped into the monster/machine. And I bring that with me onward.

———

Now you see, number four up there is a big big problem and the primary issue in overcoming the innovator’s dilemma through valuing Millennial talent. The creativity, new ideas, and change necessary to continue to provide innovative, interesting products in an increasingly shifting world can be found in allowing, valuing, and supporting truly new thought. In allowing, valuing, and supporting the young folks you hire. Allow for unbranded, personal creativity. Support change.

Note: This whole diatribe stems from my personal experience, which I don’t presume is the same as everyone else’s. There is plenty of room to find personal satisfaction and a very happy, healthy home in a corporate environment. I have many close friends who have. The happy, healthy home, however, was something that eluded my search and resulted in the new life I am living, and prefer. 

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Chapter 3 – The Divorce

First, transparent background on my privileged life. My parents generously made it their responsibility to financially support me through college, including all room and board, tuition, books, healthcare, etc. My brother set a fine example being uncomfortable taking advantage of their money and it didn’t take me long to follow in his footsteps. I’ve had a part time job since I was 16 and only wiled away one semester freshman year before finding a gig in college. 100% of what I made was spending money, so outside of apartment, food, and tuition I started covering the tab.  Yes, I have been spoiled, and I am so very very appreciative of the financial stress and burden I never once had to bear because of it.

Fast forward to graduation, with a resume to be proud of and ripe to land a great job in corporate finance. Insert Bigbigcompany, the perfect replacement financial teat to suckle, and, at the time, exactly where I thought I wanted to be after college. Within no time I relocated across the country and was earning a nice sized salary for a woman of my young age.

I had more than enough to cover everything I needed and quickly found a crowd of other young, hard-working business types to gallivant around town with, spending money without much regard on my part.

Luckily, even as spoiled as I have been, I was raised in a frugal household and had been instilled with an understanding of importance of saving money. Not necessarily for anything in particular, but put money away. Put money away in the bank, plan responsibly for retirement, and do not spend all of the money you earn.

Above I mention that from Day 1 at Bigbig I knew I was at the wrong place, and although my life satisfaction ebbed and flowed for various reasons from that point, I did find solace in the money that I made and spent. If I hate my job, I might as well enjoy after work and not worry about a $50 dinner on a random Monday night. I got to the point where it was difficult to answer the question “what do you want for your birthday?” because if I wanted it, I would have already bought it. I was completely and totally free of any type of budget, and with that free from the huge amount of financial stress most families in America are living with.

In a word, I was rich.

With wealth comes a sense of security. I knew I was insulated from a whole world of crises many people face daily. No matter what bits and pieces of my life felt like they were falling apart around me, I found safety in money. In having it, saving it, and spending it. Of knowing it would just keep growing if I just kept working.

This safety net sewn in cash worked really well up until the fatal job change when I refused to play by the rules and decided to quit.

Shit.

Oh god oh god oh god the money will stop. Quitting means the money will stop. Quitting means I can’t go out with my friends as much. Quitting means I have to move to a cheaper place. Quitting means I have to figure out Obamacare. Quitting means the end to my feeling of security. Quitting means whatever else I wanted to spend my savings on I can’t spend it on anymore because I have to spend it on bills. Quitting means paying attention to bills! Quitting means I have to sit down and make a budget! Quitting means I have to live on a budget! OH GOD!

Before you throw your mouse of your monitor, I know how ridiculous this may sound. I am a spoiled girl whose biggest life change up to this point is not just living on a smaller budget, but living on any budget at all. This truth is something I’ve struggled with but something I accept. I cannot lie, I have been very privileged and very lucky and not everyone is in as neat and comfortable shoes as I am to make the decisions I have made. In fact, some people don’t decide and prepare to quit they just flat get laid off.  But this is my story, and life is relative. Every damn thing in life is relative. And cutting something like $2k out of my monthly spending was going to mean huge freaking change and I was once again terrified. All change has a component of fear.

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Chapter 4 – New Life

Looking at my total liquid savings, I finally worked through a reasonable budget that made sense to get me through an entire year off.

A year, geez, what do you need a year for?

 

Don’t you know that it looks way better to a potential employer if you already have a job when you interview? Don’t you know if you have a lapse in over three months on your resume it reflects on you poorly? What new job do you want? Are you going back to school? Stick it out at Bigbig and you’ll get where you want to be. Stop being lazy and put in a few more years. You need at least five for the experience to really count. You’re making a rash decision. You can’t just quit with no plans and make it work.

Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah…

 

Out of genuine concern and love from friends and family, I got a lot of shit for making this decision. I remember multiple times screaming (either out loud or in my head) “Do you know me at all? Do you think I make irrational decisions? Do you think I didn’t think this through? I am, like, the most risk-averse person you know! I know I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m dying here. I’ve lost myself!” 

———

Ultimately, I have decided to buy myself a year off to

  1. Save my life, and then
  2. Live it exactly the way I want

And hopefully sustain myself, make a point, and change the way things work for the rest of you, too.

———

Portland has been called the place where young people go to retire. I’m not sure if I would of arrived at the quitting decision if I wasn’t in an environment so accepting of the idea of living outside the standard rules of society. We have a thriving trade economy and a lot of young people who aren’t feeling the corporate path. We have local businesses and locals who care enough to support them. Fundamentally, we’ve got a lot of inspiration for little ole Quinn.

If there are all these people out here who don’t have to go to an “normal job”, then why do I? 

Somehow these people are getting by on salaries not even half of what I make and they seem satisfied. Happy even. Happier than me.

A friend once told me a story about how her loved ones questioned her decision, right out of high school, to move to Portland and just live life for a while. She got the same reactions I was getting. Her response to the concern:

“Are you telling me this hasn’t been done before? Are you telling me there hasn’t been someone in a worse-off situation than I am who has not made this work?”

It’s true – if “they” can do it, so can I, and so can you. Be inspired. Make moves.

Hey, hey! Here’s a year later evolution of lots of these early thoughts. 

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