Building Your Wings on the Way Down: When Quitting is the Only Option

Feel free to listen to the audio recording: [audio:|titles=When Quitting is the Only Option by Nikita T. Mitchell]

On March 16th I put in the second two weeks’ notice I’ve ever written in my life.

I shared the news with my managers with all the confidence I could muster, but deep down I was terrified. This time wasn’t anything like the first. There was no excitement about new beginnings or a culture of transitioning jobs - as analysts often do within their first three years in consulting.

This time was quite different, especially considering that I didn’t have another job lined up.

I’m not impulsive person, and the decision was not easy. After all, just a year prior to that day I’d left a relatively stable, intellectually stimulating and door-opening career at a top consulting firm in order to jump start another career in the nonprofit sector.

Yet, there I was… walking away from it without knowing what I would do next. When I accepted the position I had made a commitment to myself, to my fellowship program and to my organization, and I was about to break it. It was not something I took lightly.

“Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off. Build your wings on the way down.” – Ray Bradbury

Very few people knew about my situation. Close friends and a handful of loved ones, however, were well aware of the extreme levels of stress I’d been under for several months, so much that there were a few times during those final days I’d even felt physically sick.

Up to that point I’d spent months working with my career coach to navigate my situation and taking on the bulk of the responsibility for it, believing that if I just tried harder, did better, and worked harder things would improve. So I put 200% of myself into my own development – primarily focusing on my communication and project management skills. Despite my best efforts each week things continued to collapse around me.

It was devastating.

I struggled with whether I needed to walk away even though I wanted desperately to accomplish what I’d set out to achieve and to ensure the success of my project prior to leaving at the end of my fellowship.

But there came a point when I knew I’d have to wave my white flag. I did it at the exact one-year mark of my start date, a couple months sooner than I’d originally planned on discussing my post-fellowship plans with my manager.

My only regret is not doing it sooner. But I was scared of what quitting would say about me. How would it affect my job search? What would MBA programs think when I applied in the fall? Who would write my recommendations and provide my references?

Growing up I always heard, “Quitters never win, and winners never quit.” But nobody ever told me that all quitting is not created equal.

A couple of years ago I read this post on the Eat Your Career Blog in the Bad Career Advice series about being told to never quit:

I understand the sentiment behind this piece of advice and clearly, its intent is to push you past your own perceived limits. While its heart is in the right place, I believe the advice to “never give up” also ignores the blatant reality of life and instills the idea that quitting for any reason is an unacceptable act of defeat.

She goes on to say:

All too often, people blame themselves for giving up. It’s seen as a sign of failure. Instead, quitting (at times) can and should be viewed as an empowering act of triumph. There’s honor in recognizing that one course has reached its conclusion, just as there’s strength in allowing another to begin.

She had given me a whole new perspective, as I’d never thought about quitting in this light. As a result I found myself rereading that post several times during those final months. I was building the courage to make the decision, which I knew would not be an easy pill to swallow for anyone involved – my fellowship director’s and parents’ reactions being my biggest concerns.

In hindsight my concerns were, at its core, about shame. I was afraid of the disappointment others might feel about my decision. I was afraid of internalizing a belief that I was a failure because I had failed to fully accomplish what I’d set out to do. I was even afraid of how my former colleagues in consulting would perceive my decision to walk away from something I had been so excited about.

Ultimately none of that mattered, though.

I’d grown tremendously through my experience during that year, but my ultimate test came in knowing when to walk away. It’s one I’m confident I’ll forever look back on and say that I passed.