25 July 2013

19 – Quitting Doesn’t Mean You Suck

I’ve just started a new job. I’m pretty excited. It’s a fairly labour-intensive position that requires a sharp mind at all times. I like both. It’s a win-win situation. 

The company is just establishing itself in Halifax, so I’ll be helping to build it up from the ground. Bearing witness to the creation is going to be a pretty cool thing.

I’m glad to be in this position. Starting over is nice. In many ways I started starting over several months ago. That’s the last time I quit something. It’s also the last time I felt like I sucked. And I’ve learned that it doesn’t have to be that way at all.

I don’t really like going on about myself. But I can’t write this essay without telling something of my story. Consider this the closest thing to an autobiography that I’ll ever write.

I’ve done everything by the book for most of my life. I got straight A’s all the way through school. I never made trouble for anyone. I won scholarships and studied my ass off to graduate from university on the Deans’ List. I worked my ass off in retail and a bakery to finance that education. I began studying to become a history professor in 2005. It seemed a linear career path that would translate into a safe and comfy professor’s job within several years. I followed ‘The Plan’ to a tee until that point, and I saw no reason to stop.

Let’s fast forward to the fall of 2010. One morning I got up to continue slogging away at my PhD thesis. After staring at a blank screen for several minutes I crawled back into my bed, threw the blanket up over my head, and struggled to breathe through the convulsions of a self-induced anxiety attack.

I felt depressed, panicked and miserable. The pursuit of academia had mentally, emotionally and creatively bled me white. I was broke and drowning in debt. Worst of all, I was too embarrassed and ashamed to talk to family and friends about myself and my situation. I felt defeated, useless, and utterly alone.

I mustered just enough courage to quit the PhD in early 2011. It was a great weight off my shoulders. I started a new job selling insurance in a contact centre. It felt exciting and refreshing to work a ‘real job’ after several years inside the university bubble. I believed that I could excel in a normal sales job as well as anyone else. I felt like I was getting ‘The Plan’ back on track.

I wasn’t. My initial excitement waned. The job became monotonous. Trying to sell insurance policy upgrades without pissing customers off while staring at a computer screen triggered regular and severe headaches. My performance went into a tailspin. I stared mindlessly at the TV most nights and weekends paying just enough attention to drive dark thoughts of work from my mind. I lost the drive I’d had to exercise regularly and eat well. Interest rates cancelled out my monthly efforts to dent the principle on my maxed out credit cards. I withdrew further into myself and kept contact with friends and family to a bare minimum. I felt defeated, useless, utterly alone, incompetent and untalented.

During a weekend off in early November I forced myself to disconnect from everything, breathe and take a hard look at myself in the mirror. I thought, paced, and wrote things out on paper. I concluded that I’d actually compounded the issues that had plagued me since quitting the PhD.  I struggled to understand why following ‘The Plan’ hadn’t worked for me. Then I asked myself a simple question: what was the point of staying loyal to ‘The Plan’ if it had reduced me to hiding like a scared toddler?

That Sunday was Remembrance Day. It was the day I hit rock bottom. It was also the day I started feeling happy again.

I went to work the following Monday and had a candid meeting with my supervisor and our human resources representative. They granted me the rest of that day and Tuesday off to think about what I wanted to do. I returned on Wednesday morning for the start of my shift, had a brief meeting with my supervisor, and told him that I quit.
  
I need to be very clear here. I haven’t ‘achieved success’ since then. I haven’t made it to ‘The Promised Land’ or ‘The Other Side.’ For the record, I’m also not a ‘Bennett Brauer impersonator.’ I’m adrift in the same stormy waters as you. I’m plotting a course for calmer seas. Quitting the PhD and job that made me hate myself was just the start of my long, slow ‘Fuck It.’

I’ve quit a number of other things as well. I quit convincing myself that I didn’t have enough time to exercise. I quit eating excessive amounts of junk food. I quit telling myself I should write and just started writing. I quit being a slave to the debt that had been suffocating me for several years. And I’ve gradually quit feeling ashamed of myself.

Here’s the thing that banks, corporations, educational institutions, and governments don’t want you to know. Failing to complete something doesn’t always mean you suck. Quitting doesn’t always mean you’re lazy. And trying to ‘see it through’ while your soul withers and rots is just fucking stupid. The ‘quitting = laziness and incompetence’ fallacy is designed to keep us obedient, apathetic, and afraid to do more with ourselves and our lives. And it’s absolute Bullshit. Yes, with a capital B.

Many would still see me as a quitter and a failure. And I agree entirely. And it’s great:  I’m free to focus on the things I really want to do. I’m in excellent physical condition again. I eat well and clean. I’ve completed the first draft of my first novel, have written a good chunk of the second, and am slowly getting this blog off the ground. I filed for bankruptcy and am no longer a slave to debt. And I’m finally working a job that I enjoy. There’s no greater opportunity for rebuilding your life’s masterpiece than providing yourself with a clean slate.

In a letter written eleven years ago, a truly insightful and epic friend told me that:

sometimes we put ourselves in dark places to see what we couldn’t in the light.

Few things compare with the desolate and smothering dark of hitting rock bottom. But once I hit rock bottom I did see what I couldn’t in the light. I saw that there was only way to go: back up.

Don’t feel obliged to see something through just because you feel like that’s what you’re supposed to do. Starting over after you quit is fine. Trying to finish because you’re afraid to quit is not. It’s all about identifying your point of diminishing returns.

Quitting isn’t the end of the world. Sometimes it can be the dawn of a future you truly want. And it’s hard not to draw hope from a sunrise.

In a previous essay I suggested that nobody gets better by taking the easy road. No one will ever convince me otherwise. Or, as Canadian rocker Sam Roberts put it:

There’s no road that ain’t a hard road to travel on.

I’ve stopped trying to figure out what the point of ‘The Plan’ that I’d devised was. It doesn’t matter anymore because I’ve gained a clearer vision of what I need in my life and how to get there. And I’m gaining the freedom to dance to my own tune along the way. Because when it’s all said and done, the only way to get anywhere is to go for it.

12 comments:

  1. Could not have come at a better time, my friend. Building a great respect for you, and should I find myself in Halifax, I'd like to buy you a beer. Great work and I admire the openness!!!

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  2. Thanks Jason, I appreciate it. And I like beer!

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  3. Great read. Your message is so true!

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  4. Excellent post! It never makes sense to keep doing something you were not meant to do. You need to listen to your heart. Living simply is the best path for all of us. Hope you will visit my blog sometime. You might like "Simple Living Is Better for Everyone: http://www.ahhthesimplelife.com/why-simple-living-is-better-for-everyone/

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    1. Hi Carol. Thanks so much for your kind words. I agree: keeping things as simple as possible is the way to go. Oh, and I'd already had you're blog bookmarked. Now I need to get my ass over there and have a read! Cheers!

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  5. Thanks for sharing your story.
    " The ‘quitting = laziness and incompetence’ fallacy is designed to keep us obedient, apathetic, and afraid to do more with ourselves and our lives. "
    I also work in academia, and followed the righteous path. I think that this fallacy helps some people feel that there is meaning in their unhappiness. It is harder to come to the truth that there are many paths.

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    1. Hello Meri. I think you're right. I think the important thing is to determine whether it's worthwhile to carry on or just best to stop and start something new. And yeah, when you're deep inside some industries it can be very difficult to envision something beyond it. But we can. Cheers!

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  6. I just read this, Bob, and it's wonderful! I hope I had the same courage that you have in quitting your job.

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    1. Thank you Raymund. I was pretty scared when I did what I did. I think you need to be to find courage. Cheers!

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The House Newf is from a rugged and beautiful island on the eastern edge of Canada called Newfoundland. He was first identified by a potter with a naturalist's flair, and he does in fact live in a house under the watchful eye of a cat that seems bewildered by the universe at large. That house is in Halifax, Nova Scotia and that's where the House Newf writes fiction and essays on things that add value to his life that may add some value to yours. You can contact him at bobharding80@gmail.com, follow him on Twitter @theHouseNewf, on Instagram @thehousenewf, and like him on Facebook. The House Newf is a unique specimen. Every home should have one.