Why I Left My Dream Job as a Product Manager at Twitter

Yehong Zhu
Oct 30 · 6 min read
Posing with Jack & the APMs, Twitter HQ.

Shortly after graduation, I joined Twitter as an associate product manager in their third cohort. I was part of a program that trains newly recruited talent in the rarefied art of product management. They told us that 8,000 people applied for 7-8 roles. And judging by the influx of people messaging me non-stop about it on LinkedIn, it’s a highly coveted position.

Since I’ve left Twitter, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about my motivations for leaving, as well as what I’m doing next. To my great surprise, I have often heard the word brave being used to describe me. “Since when am I brave?” I asked my good friend Emily. “Who walks away from a high-paying, prestigious job?” she retorted. “Nobody. That’s brave.”

So, why did I leave Twitter?

1. I wanted time to think of my next move.

For as long as I can remember, I have filled every second of my spare time with work. From high school through college, I have worked or interned every summer, every winter, and nearly every semester as a full-time student. I’ve come to realize that in the working world, you never really stop working until you retire, usually at the tender age of 60 or 70 years old. By the time the rat race stops — so do you.

Look, I’m as much of a workaholic as the next gal. But even I have to raise my eyebrows at the particular whimsies of late-stage capitalism.

Why is it that we as a society have designed our lives in this way? Does this model maximize creativity, productivity, happiness, general output, or our youth? Does it allow us to reflect on our paths, set our own courses, or truly understand where we’re going? Actually, wasn’t it John Maynard Keynes who predicted in 1930 that technological innovations would eventually lead to a 15-hour workweek? (We’ve got the technological innovations, but our workweeks show no sign of slowing down anytime soon.)

But all challenges to the status quo aside — leaving aside the question of whether or not life is too short to follow a pre-ordained path — let’s assume that I, like most Americans, am going to spend an average of 90,000 hours working in my lifetime, and I’m going to do it all in a strictly linear fashion. Given that my work will occupy the vast majority of my waking life — what is it exactly that I’m working towards? Am I making progress on my hopes and dreams? Am I making the most out of my time on this earth? If there’s one thing that I should have ironclad conviction around — shouldn’t it be this?

To answer these questions with clarity and to dream up new realities for myself, I’ve realized that what I need more than anything else right now is time. Time to reflect upon my life until now, time to spend with the people that I love, time to dream again in the places that inspire me. And perhaps even time to take some risks.

Which brings me to my next point…

2. I wanted space to be creative again, somewhere away from corporate influences or the groupthink of the valley.

One of the sad realizations I’ve had lately is that since moving to San Francisco, I’ve stopped writing. Outside of product briefs and emails, I’ve literally gone cold turkey on a cornerstone habit of artistic creation I’ve had for many years. I don’t know why this is — it’s definitely unintentional, and I doubt it’s something I could even articulate to myself. But I saw it as a symptom of something much bigger than a temporary bout of writer’s block.

Deep down, I’m worried that if I stop writing, I’ll stop creating new narratives for myself, stop making new things, stop having insights, and stop thinking big. In fact, I’m worried that I’ll stop thinking altogether.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Working for Twitter is a sweet job — in another era, it’s the kind of place that I could see myself working at for decades. (Like the career men of the 50’s, but with MacBooks instead of attachés.) Seriously. Spend enough time in HQ surrounded by free food and airy décor, and you can’t picture yourself doing anything else ever again.

But that was exactly the problem. I felt like I was losing my edge.

That’s because working at a big company is inherently comfortable — the kind of comfort that I haven’t earned with my blood, sweat, and tears. You have the good fortune to build upon smart people’s ideas, ideas that you believe in and that will hopefully influence billions of people. But iterating is fundamentally different from creation, and its urgency is greatly minimized. Having worked on my own projects and initiatives in the past, nothing quite slaps you across the face like the looming threat of imminent demise.

In my life I have sat and stared at quite a few blank Word docs, torn out my hair trying to find the right way to solve a problem, and worked on projects where it seemed like everything in the world could go wrong before the slightest thing went right. I’ve done things I wasn’t sure I was capable of doing until it was done. “Do whatever it takes” may not be the best mindset for health and happiness — it’s rarely the most sustainable model — and it’s definitely not for everyone. But there is some deep, primal satisfaction in bringing something out of universe that couldn’t have existed without you.

I miss that feeling of creativity and relentlessness, that drive to subsume yourself completely into something you love. It’s a tough high to chase at a corporation, however hard one might try.

3. Finally — I know I’m going to get another job.

No, this is not the death of my career.

One of the nice things about spending your life building safety nets is that you have the privilege of testing them out every once in a while. And if it turns out that your safety nets can’t catch you when you need them, then maybe they weren’t worth that much to begin with.

As confidently as I can say this now, it took me a while to convince myself that I could ever be employed again. Looking back, I was clearly embedded in the kind of scarcity mentality so prevalent in zero-sum games, and so obviously rooted in fear. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was an evolutionary benefit to risk-aversion, which perhaps explains why it’s so tremendously difficult to rip this kind of programming from your psyche, and why forgoing an established career path triggered so many mental red flags for me at first.

But one of the things that gives me hope is that I’ve done a lot of things that have gotten me this far. I know I can do a hell of a lot more if I just stay true to myself and follow my intuition — it’s never led me astray. I’ve also become a big fan of cultivating an abundance mentality lately, and it’s done wonders for my self-esteem. (One example of abundance mentality is that since leaving Twitter, I’ve already gotten 3–4 job offers without explicitly looking for new opportunities.)

Looking at the bigger picture, I would like to take this time to incubate my entrepreneurial ambitions. My hope is that taking small risks like leaving my job in the short-term will allow me to pave my path towards much bigger risks in the long-term. Meanwhile, I’ve done everything I could to de-risk the environment around me. I’ve forged strong relationships with the people that I love, saved up enough to sustain me for at least a couple of months, and moved abroad to cultivate focus and decrease my personal burn rate.

What’s next for me? Sky’s the limit. Now that I know just enough to be dangerous, I’m excited to be writing the next chapter of my life.

If you’re interested in working with me or collaborating on a project, shoot me a message at yehongzhu@alumni.harvard.edu.

~

For more of my writing, follow me on Twitter, Quora, or Medium. Curious about my adventures abroad? Subscribe to my newsletter, “Letters from Lisbon.”

Yehong Zhu

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Eternal Optimist | yehongzhu.com

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