During the Last Recession, I Quit My Job. Should I Do It Again?
When the last recession kicked off, I was lucky enough to have a job. And not just a job. A job in the highly competitive media industry.
It seemed like a dream. I had always wanted to be a reporter. To be earning a salary (even a mediocre one) in the industry in my 20s, when so many others were struggling to find work or being laid off, was an incredible privilege.
I was grateful.
But I wasn’t happy.
I didn’t like the city that I had moved to for the job. I kept going to parties where people asked what I did for a living before they asked my name, and where they were faster to offer a business card than they were a drink. If my role wasn’t seen as useful to them, they’d turn around and start a conversation with someone else. I made some friends, but had a hard time creating a community.
After the first few months, I fell out of love with my job, too. I had become a reporter because I wanted to hear, and tell, people’s stories. As the media industry nosedived along with the economy, I found myself doing that less and less. I was asked, more and more, to write pieces based on online research or other articles. I did fewer and fewer interviews in person. After all, every expense mattered — even a bus ride.
I started to think about leaving. But every time I did, I was hit by a wave of guilt. Who was I to walk away from a paid job in this economy? In the media industry? So early in my career?
And how could I be so ungrateful to a company that had, all things considered, treated me well?
Meanwhile, one round after another of job cuts were hitting our staff. As one of the cheapest employees, my job was relatively safe. But as each colleague packed up their office, many dismissed after decades of service, I felt an increasing tide of anger and sadness. Then my own boss got the chop.
I realized then that my guilt was misplaced. My company was not a person. It didn’t have feelings. It didn’t feel guilt about making decisions that were best for its future. I shouldn’t feel guilt, either.
So I quit.
It wasn’t that easy, of course. For one thing, I had to worry about how to make ends meet. I didn’t have a trust fund or even much in the way of savings.
But bigger than my financial worry were the other emotions. I still did feel guilt. Not to mention uncertainty, anxiety, and fear. My family all but disowned me. They thought I was being irrational—and, to even consider such a move, spoiled and selfish and overprivileged, too. They believed that this decision was going to ruin my life and my career.
They might have been right about some of that: perhaps it was irrational spoiled and selfish and overprivileged. But they were wrong about one thing.
Quitting didn’t ruin my life, or my career. Instead, it gave both back to me.
I said earlier that I’d always wanted to be a writer and a journalist. But that wasn’t the full story. I had always dreamed of writing for travel magazines. Specifically, I wanted to write juicy, long features. The types of stories that had color and texture and anecdote. I didn’t just like talking to people to find stories; I also liked collecting the little details and images that you can only get by being out in the world and weaving them into a story.
It’s not hard to see how news reporting, especially news reporting from a desk, wasn’t quite right for me.
Of course, your first job is never going to be a perfect fit. But the career advice that usually follows that logic — the idea that if you stick it out anyway, your next job will be closer to your dream job — was faulty. At least for what I wanted to do.
Sticking my job out wouldn’t get me closer to where I wanted to go. In journalism, news reporting and travel writing are as different as being a cardiac surgeon versus an anaesthesiologist. Sure, some of the basic skills might be the same. But if you want to switch from surgery to anaesthesiology, you have to change your life. In concrete terms, the editor of Travel & Leisure wasn’t likely to assign me a story because I had written a news report about a car crash.
Not only that, but there was no job that would get me on the path to where I wanted to go. Even working at a travel magazine — which my family pleaded with me to consider — didn’t really make sense. As far as I understood it, it meant working behind a desk, fact-checking or assistant editing, until, one day, working my way up to being an editor of a section. Then maybe I could take the occasional trip and write about it. That wasn’t where I wanted to be in 20 years, either.
I understood that the fun, as I defined it, came from being a freelance writer: someone who went out and found their own stories and wrote them for different clients. And that the work came easiest, especially for the travel industry, when you could move to the place you wanted to write about.
One month after the scariest conversation of my life — telling my new editor I was leaving — I packed up and moved abroad.
To be able to do any of this was a huge privilege. While I had very little savings, I had the privilege of not having any debt. While I had less experience than the seasoned freelancers I would compete against, I had the privilege of being young, energetic and excited to jump in. And while I didn’t have close relatives or a network in the country I was moving to, I didn’t have a family to support, either.
I also had passport — or paperwork — privilege. I was able to figure out how to turn a student visa, obtained through taking language courses, into being able to apply for citizenship, acquired thanks to my heritage. That was the ultimate stroke of luck, and it had nothing to do with me. (Gracias, Abuelo!).
Without those privileges, I may have never been in the position to change my life. With them, I made the leap.
It was still difficult. (See above on: lack of savings, lack of network, angry family…) But it was worth it. I planned to try it out for a year. Somehow, I put enough work together to get by. I got my first big break at one publication, then another. One year passed, then two, then three. I stayed.
Over time, I built up a portfolio for myself. Instead of always having to pitch, editors started reaching out to me when they had an assignment in mind — the holy grail of freelancing. My new country became home. I thought about leaving, just for something different, but didn’t think I’d ever turn away from freelancing. I was one of those rare writers who enjoyed it too much. I often felt the thrill of knowing I was in exactly the right place, doing exactly the thing that I loved most, in exactly the way that made me happy.
I was grateful. And I was happy.
Back to the beginning
And then an opportunity came up. It was back home. It was at a company I liked. It was temporary. I was looking for a change. I made the move.
That opportunity turned into others. I forgot my commitment to freelancing and freedom and working for myself. I took a full-time position. I worked my way up the career ladder. The paychecks got bigger. I started to wonder how I’d ever hustled so hard to convince other people to give me work.
Several years later, I’m at a steady job, with a bigger salary than I had as a reporter… plus more responsibility and more stress.
I’m old enough to know, now, that happiness comes from many parts of my life. Most of all, it comes from myself. A job alone doesn’t have the power to make me unhappy. Only I have that power.
At the same time, I’m also old enough to know that a job can be the wrong fit — even if it’s comfortable and safe and rewarding. Even if you’re good at it. Even if you love the people you work with. Even if you really enjoy parts of it.
It can be the wrong fit because of the work itself, or because of the place it ties you to, or because of the path it puts (or keeps) you on, or because of the passions and interests that it keeps you away from.
That doesn’t make it a bad job. It can be a great job. A job other people would love. A job that you love, sometimes. But it might not be the job for you. At least not forever.
I heard a friend once call it the “velvet rut”. It feels good because it’s comfortable. You even like it. It’s still a rut.
Here’s the even trickier part: not only is it so comfortable you don’t always see that it’s a rut, but the more you nestle into it, the more it seems to fit you. “This isn’t so bad,” you think. “Sure, I don’t feel lit up by my 9–5, but who does? Besides, I have bills to pay.”
Really, though, the danger is that you’re changing yourself to fit that rut.
A new move?
Do I have the same passion and energy and excitement that I used to? Probably not. Is that partly because I’ve been dampening it down for the last few years, telling myself I don’t have to feel those things, because what I do now makes me happy “enough”? Maybe. Does that lack now mean it’s even harder for me to decide to leave to truly pursue my passion, full-time? 100%.
Meanwhile, a recession is blooming (again). The media industry is in tatters (again). I’m lucky to have a job (again).
I’m grateful. I’m not sure if I’m happy.
In my 20s, I had the courage to walk away from something I knew was partly, but not completely, a fit. I refused to “settle”—even though I couldn’t be sure what was on the other side.
I don’t know if I have the same courage now. It’s also hard not to let my old feelings — that I am selfish, spoiled, and overprivileged for even considering it — resurface.
But as I’ve gotten older, something I’ve become more aware of is this: life is short. The years fly by. To get the most out of this one lifetime, we need to make the scary choices that move us towards our values and our happiness, as much as is within our power.
And I want my years, and my life, to be an adventure that, as much as I can, I shape myself — not a rut that’s shaped by other people’s expectations, my own insecurities or, even, by a recession. No matter how velvety, how comfortable, that rut may feel.