I reckon quitting is awesome and totally underrated. After talking to lots of people about it, here’s why.
We Live In A World Of Potential And Possibility
We make thousands of choices every day. They might be trivial or profound choices: about what to eat, or about who to marry. But there is a tiny window, in the split second before you say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, where all of the benefits of all the choices are there for the taking, like some kind of mystical, ephemeral Schrödinger’s cat.
Then, after we’ve made a choice, the window is closed, and it’s impossible to know what the benefits of a different choice might have been. That is the state in which many of us live our work lives. We choose to take a job. Then we stay in that job. And we have no idea where the other choices might have taken us.
It’s All About Opportunity Costs
If you know a little bit about economics, or have read/listened to Freakonomics, you probably know about the concept of opportunity cost. As you’re reading this article, I want you to keep this idea in mind.
The opportunity cost is:
The potential benefit that is ‘given up’ as you seek an alternative course of action.
So, given two mutually exclusive alternatives. The opportunity cost is the benefit that you would have had from taking the choice that you didn’t end up taking. Food menus are a simple example of opportunity cost in action.
In a restaurant I have to choose one thing on the menu. Unless I’m wildly hungry, I’m only going to get one dish. They are mutually exclusive alternatives.
That means when I choose one dish I won’t get any of the other dishes. By being forced to make a choice, I miss out on the benefits of the other menu items. That is the opportunity cost…unless I’m in a group of people who are into sharing. Then we can beat economics and have the best of all worlds ?
(Most) Jobs Destroy Potential
For most people, jobs are the equivalent of having the same meal at the same restaurant for several decades. They’re tied into that initial choice and stuck with little variety and predictable flavours.
Here I’m talking about the majority of jobs in the majority of organisations. The ones that don’t exist to explore the potential of their employees, or harness their creativity, or actively work to support their self-management. I’m not talking about those awesome, rare companies. I’m talking about normal companies.
When I talk to people who have jobs at normal companies, I tend to ask them how fulfilled they are. Generally they’re not super happy. Not unhappy. But a bit meh.
I think this is a perfect example of the disbenefits of having and holding a job. People tend to become a bit meh about it.
And that makes me sad.
Because humans (especially those of us in the privileged position of being relatively wealthy, healthy, and powerful) are brimming with potential, and these jobs quash that potential in favour of predictability, routine, bureaucracy, and stability.
I believe that lots of people are trapped, and their biggest barrier is a failure to see the opportunity costs of their choice to stay in a job.
To elucidate this point, here are…
Three Stories About Opportunity Costs
Escaping From The Island
I used to be on salary at an awesome company called Hyper Island. It’s definitely a company that supports growth and intrapreneurialism. But after two years working there I felt my sense of freedom and potential waning.
I could imagine the benefits that I’d given up by making the choice to go on salary. The costs were too high and I was missing out on lots of opportunities. So one day I decided to quit.
In the intervening 4 years I’ve continued to work with Hyper Island pretty much non-stop: developing their online courses that now serve c.1,000 participants /year; writing 1/3 of the tools for their toolbox; and lots lots more stuff.
All the while building my new company, and helping lots of other companies, and producing plays, and travelling the world, and walking my new dog.
Suddenly, after I quit, the possibility in the world opened up.
Escaping From The Undercurrent
Once upon a time there was a company called Undercurrent. They were based in NYC and were the coolest kids on the agency scene. A strategic consulting and advisory firm, they were all super smart and did good work with big companies. People wanted to work for them and they grew pretty steadily for their 8-year existence.
Then one day a company called Quirky bought them, and things went downhill. Within a couple of months both companies were dead, and all of the smart people were jobless and brimming with unrealised potential.
What happened over the next couple of months was amazing to watch as an outsider. Suddenly the former Undercurrent employees were forced to make a new choice, as they had lost the benefits afforded to them by their previous choice. We saw new companies springing up all over the place, each with their own different take and evolution on the work that Undercurrent was doing.
The hidden opportunity costs that had previously been trapped inside Undercurrent, were now free to manifest and explore their potential. Here are a few of the new companies that we’ve had the joy to meet:
- Median ? are an experience design studio at the intersection of instructional design, performance, and systems psychology.
- August ? build movements that transform how the world organizes, leads, and works.
- Parabol, Inc. ? makes meeting software for remote teams.
- NOBL ? helps leaders make change. They train organizations to embrace new attitudes and adopt new behaviors, creating new market opportunities and cultural conditions.
- The Ready ? is an org design and transformation partner that helps organizations change the way you work.
Pretty awesome stuff.
Escaping From Escape
Back to my story. Cut to a few years after Hyper Island. I’d been helping Escape Studios develop some new degree programmes for VFX. I loved the work and the team was great. This wasn’t a full time job, but a rolling contract. I felt like I was locked in. To the extent that, even after me and Ellie moved to Berlin, I decided to fly back to London every week to keep the job going.
I was scared of losing that regular income. Scared that I wouldn’t find other work. Scared of not having something around that made me feel useful.
In 2016–17 I took 58 flights, spent hundreds of hours and thousands of pounds on travelling back and forth between London and Berlin. All because I was addicted to that regular income, and I couldn’t see the opportunities in the alternative choices that were available to me.
Tons of opportunities presented themselves, all because I quit the thing that was unwittingly costing me all that time and potential.
That Thing You’re Thinking About Quitting: QUIT IT!
A few weeks ago, all in the same week, 5 unconnected people mentioned to me that they were thinking of quitting their jobs. I encouraged them to do it. To be smart and have a plan, but to definitely do it.
I’m not sure if they did yet. Because it’s a scary thing. The world is unpredictable and leaving a stable job makes it even more so.
But think about what you might be missing out on if you don’t quit. What are the million potential awesome things that might happen if you didn’t spend 10hrs/day getting to work, being at work, and getting home. How else might you spend all that time and energy?
It might be getting a better job. It might be making your own job.
Whatever it is, it’s time to say ‘no’ more strategically. It’s time to follow your gut when you’re not as happy as you might be. It’s time to say ‘yes’ more to opportunities and side projects. It’s time to make that website you always say you want to make. It’s time to quit your job if you’re not super happy.