May 23, 2024

surviving the lion’s den

a city sunset
photo caption: dusk in a city. the sky is a gradient from blue-gray to light orange to dusky yellow. short buildings are in silhouette with lights on inside. the end of the day is obviously close, but there’s still some light left.

The year 2021 is a great time to quit your job. The Atlantic recently wrote about the Great Resignation we’re in. I quit my job earlier this year, along with thousands of people across the workforce. And there are people who have not quit but instead gone on strike. Quitting isn’t for everyone. My first essay of note here advised people to quit their job every few years, yet the idea still makes me feel queasy at times. At the start the pandemic, I felt like the crisis was the worst time to quit my job. Two years later, people en masse are realizing that no employer should have this kind of power over us.

With all that said, quitting one’s job is not easy for everyone. Why would a person stay? Everyone needs an income to live, to support a family, even to pay bills. Besides money, a person usually has professional considerations that keep them in place. Many industries are insular: once you learn the business and make contacts, it’s hard to start over. Starting over often means taking a pay or title cut. And despite any issues they might have, some people just like the work. Or they’re motivated by the noble goals of their organization (I’ll get into that one later).

Say you’ve decided that you can’t leave, not yet. How can you buy yourself some time? How can you know when buying time won’t work? For all these suggestions, the choice will always be yours. It’s up to you how long these solutions will last you. It’s different for everyone. Some solutions won’t work, and others may work so well you decide not to leave.

prolonging the inevitable

when you can work around the problem. Some jobs get especially hard in a cycle. Is this frustration a phase? Is it temporary? If you can hold on for a while, will things get better? In my experience, no one change at work has reversed my fortune in a place with an avalanche of issues. Can you find a way around the obstacles you’re facing?

when you have capital to spend for change. Are you supported in your role by people in power? Do people respect you? Can you use your connections to make your stay more comfortable? Can you use the last of your energy to bring about some needed change? It depends on what would make your workplace better. You may spend all the goodwill you have and still end up with nothing.

when you have bigger priorities. How does this job or company fit into your career goals? Sometimes it helps to think about where you want this stepping stone to take you. If you play a role in a major project or program, it’s nice to leave after a major accomplishment. When you’re interviewing for a new job, it’s nice to share stories that have a clear beginning, middle, and end. It’s okay to leave a project or grant early if they could go on for years. Set a goal or milestone that you can feel good about making a conclusion for your time there.

Some people have personal goals that need continuous employment. If you’re applying for a home loan or need to prove your credit worthiness, it might not be the right time to quit. Know what the job is worth to you and what isn’t worth your time anymore.

lion’s teeth

No matter how good the job is, there are some things that will never be worth it. Sometimes capitalism is a game of endurance. How long are you willing to stay? This is ultimately a personal decision. Whatever you decide, it’s okay to change your mind if things get worse or you start to see things in a new light. I can think of two red flags that should tell you to get out now, not soon.

when you are being abused. No job, none, should make you feel like shit. No manager (no matter how good or bad) should yell, throw things, or get violent. No paycheck is worth enduring that.

when bad norms start to feel normal. Stewing in a toxic workplace can start to feel normal over time. This can lead to traits that will feel out of place at a future organization. It’s hard but not impossible to unlearn these habits. It’s not worth it.

changing careers

I’ve worked in a lot of industries! Restaurants and food service, state government, public health, healthcare, food banking, and more. It’s not impossible to jump between industries. What helped me was thinking about what motivates me and how I want to be useful.

The fourth reason a person might stay in a job that’s hurting them is the mission. Jobs in the public sector, government and non-profits rely on the mission to attract staff. They often reject claims of low wages or toxic workplaces by saying that they serve a public good. It’s so easy to say we’re doing good work, but are we? Is the mission really worth the harm these companies cause?

The non-profit industrial complex is real. Donor-funded organizations often downplay real solutions for the benefit of their benefactors. Public sector work is also political. It functions like any other exploitable system. Companies do not need to be white-, straight-, or male-led to cause harm.

We need to replace and dismantle these systems. But we can’t all try to destroy or reform these systems from within. Some of us need to jump ship so they can build the things the rest of us can jump to later. People in power often treat their employees like rats: replaceable or insignificant pests. If we’re rats, we may as well escape the sinking ship first.

You’ll know when it’s the right time to go.

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

i own and operate a consulting practice, Future Emergent.

say hello: josh[at]