Leaving Google; Notes from Outside the Comfort Zone

A ship is safe in harbor, but that is not what ships are for.

- Grace Hopper

In the middle of last year I left a senior position at Google to grow my previously-small psychotherapy practice to full time. I had been working at Google and concurrently seeing clients on the side for 10+ years — the last four years as a licensed therapist and before that as an intern. Juggling these two roles over the course of many years usually felt like a good mix — keeping the stability and reward of my tech role while also maintaining my interest in psychotherapy and helping clients.

When I decided to walk away from Google a number of months ago I got a variety of responses from friends and colleagues. Some folks (including a few therapists) cocked their head a bit and asked why I would leave a senior gig at Google — a place many are trying to join — to do something so hard and less secure or lucrative. Other friends expressed admiration for the leap I’ve taken — perhaps imaging themselves doing the same some day when they are fed up with their current jobs.

I can relate to both of these perspectives — the apparent craziness of leaving a safe job and also admiration for those who are willing to take risks to find something new and energizing. My decision to leave Google was made harder by the reality that working there was actually pretty great. Most people know about the prime perks of free food, on-site massages and excellent benefits. There is a reason (actually, many) Google has been named a “Top Place to Work” year after year. I had a lot of autonomy and flexibility, a talented and supportive boss and a sharp and fun group of colleagues working to solve an endless array of challenging problems. There were frustrations there — as with any company big or small — but I liked Google’s attempts to avoid becoming too bureaucratic or soul-less and admired the moon-shot approach to solving problems and the creative culture that has supported wellness programs like the mindfulness-based Search Inside Yourself.

So why did I leave?

I left Google because I was in too much of a personal comfort zone and felt I needed to challenge myself in specific ways to continue growing as a person. For some people staying at a place long-term is the hard thing to do but for me it is leaving something that is secure and safe. While I don’t have a desire to put myself in harm’s way — SF is an expensive city and building a full private practice is hard work — I also knew when I was considering leaving that to pursue my own personal growth I had to venture out and trust that I would emerge and grow through the experience. I knew that — for me — leaving a safe place brought with it the urge to look back (an internal voice echoes: how safe and comfy you’d be if you stayed! Think of the free meals…the benefits…the stock…). I knew that I would have to wrestle with these uncomfortable thoughts on the path to having a fuller self emerge — a self that is a more adept clinician, can better market myself and can take pride in what I’ve built.

I often talk with my clients about how we can find ourselves in a place with love relationships and other parts of life that has reached a safe equilibrium that is more about over-protecting ourselves against perceived threats than about risking reaching our full potential. Usually these conversations with clients emerge when that safe, over-protected place is no longer working and is getting in the way of that person (or that couple’s) growth. A first step in moving forward is understanding the specific fear that keeps us there. As we take the next steps to move from those over-protected spaces it is critical to have support in place to provide resiliency for the journey. When I decided to leave Google I had a number of pillars of support set up, which included:

  • Saving enough money to survive the period of growing my business
  • Eliciting the emotional support of my friends and family as I take on this life change
  • Continuing to meet regularly with my own therapist to process this growth experience
  • Paying attention to areas like nutrition, fitness and sleep to make sure I am my healthiest self
  • Deepening my meditation practice to enhance my self-understanding and resiliency during this time of change

Aligning these pillars of support have been critical in enhancing my resiliency and keeping me present in a growth zone somewhere between over-protected comfort and debilitating anxiety (in Buddhist circles this is referred to as equanimity) as I do this work.

I’ve found in this adventure that I have a greater capacity to help others who are trying to do hard things to grow as people. Eleanor Roosevelt is credited with coining the maxim “Do one thing every day that scares you.” When I decided to set sail from the safe confines of Google it was a scary thing that day and there have been many scary growing opportunities since. It has also been enlivening and I feel honored to help others along the same path.

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Suggested Exercise: When considering a big move or growth in a specific area, cultivate and write down a list of your pillars of support (therapy, friends, finances, mindfulness practice, etc). Having these tools and relationships in place will help enhance your resiliency as you try to work on hard things. As you feel pulled back into old, less-healthy ways of being — your fear-based equilibrium — consult your written list and utilize the supportive resources you’ve cultivated to help you keep moving toward your goal. Remind yourself that you’ve planned well and lined up what is needed to grow — now is the time to take advantage of all of the work you’ve done in support of yourself!