Opting Out of Climbing the Career Ladder

It was five weeks ago when my boss and I were sitting in a coffee shop and I told him I wanted to transition out of my position. The words kind of slipped out. I was mentally exhausted and tired. While certainly there were parts of my job – and people too – that I enjoyed, there wasn’t a day that passed where I didn’t think, “This isn’t what I want to do.”

Last Friday was my last day of work.

I wasn’t planning to quit, really. It seemed right to suck it up and keep going. It seemed responsible. But I told Ryan constantly that I wanted to leave. Many times I told him this was the day I was going to go in and do the deed. And many times I came home and told him, “Well, it was okay today. It wasn’t so bad.”

The job was a good one and I sort of fell into it, and not at all intentionally. I was making a lot of money consulting. I didn’t particularly enjoy consulting; clients are often just as messy as employers, but the money is better. And that was something. But I also craved the security of a job, or so I thought.

What I really wanted was to opt out.

I wanted permission to get off the career ladder. To step down, instead of up. I wanted to stop competing – with myself, with everyone, with society. I am leaving to do my own thing and to build my own business, but also decidedly to take a break.

Most people don’t have that luxury, I understand. We are bound by lifestyles and responsibilities seemingly outside of our control. And I view this period in my life as a last chance, or rather an opportunity, for that reason. Ryan and I are engaged, and soon we will be married and have kids and a house and many other things that don’t make it impossible, but certainly make it loads more difficult to try something different.

It seems weird that someone who has written about careers, practically her whole life since college, should then decide to opt out of her career. Perhaps those with the highest hopes have the largest illusions. I thought work was going to be great. There’s nothing more that I wanted than to work with a team toward a larger goal. I didn’t expect the constant power struggles. I didn’t expect the lack of meaning. I certainly didn’t expect complete and utter burnout.

Work has largely been a disappointment to entire generations, so I’ll take some comfort that it’s not just me. Seventy-two percent of American workers are either not engaged or are actively disengaged at their jobs, reports the Harvard Business Review. Those that aren’t engaged are “essentially checked out. They’re sleepwalking through their workday putting time – but not energy or passion – into their work.” And those that are actively disengaged are doing what they can to make life hell for everyone else.

The recession particularly screwed Generation Y, and the change we sought in the workplace just didn’t come. An open office isn’t a sign of advancement, for instance – it’s just an employer hopping onto another bandwagon after another. While seventy percent of workers sit in open-office plans, no one really likes it. Workers in open-plan offices get sick more often (due to a lack of privacy and stress), are irritated by noises from conversations and machines, and are less productive due to reduced motivation and decreased job satisfaction.

There is no real thought or inquiry that goes into what composes a great work experience. While I have no desire to sit in a cubicle for eight hours a day, I have even less desire to sit on display in front of twenty other people for eight hours a day.

Frankly, I don’t want to sit for eight hours in any capacity. I want to be outside. I want to lie down at 3 pm and read a book. I want to meditate. I want to go for a run at 10:30 am. I want to build something. I want to meet friends. Since when do we believe that being in one spot for our whole lives is meaningful? The Internet is a poor substitute for life.

I worry about our economy when our brightest minds sit all day. Maybe I am not opting out of my career, but opting out of every convention that we currently impose onto work. I saw Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg speak in Washington, DC and read her bestseller Lean In within just a few hours. Almost every page is marked up. The will to lead is certainly within me, but not like this. Not like it’s been in nearly every job I’ve held since my first paycheck.

While I have quit jobs before, it was always to climb the next rung. This time was an intentional and measured decision about my life, the first of its kind in awhile, and the first of what I hope is many. Too many times I have walked into doors that have been opened for me. Luck, some would say. Although I try not to attribute success to luck; success has come because I work hard, network and connect with the right people, and show up to the communities I’m involved with. In the past five weeks alone, I’ve turned down two jobs. I know how to make money. I know how to have jobs. I can see the path of a successful career ahead of me. But what I want is entirely different.

This time, I want to be present. I expect the rest will come. I don’t expect all roses; I know life is hard. I don’t believe in the pursuit of happiness without the pursuit of sadness. But I won’t be checked out anymore. I refuse to just go through the motions. I choose to lean in – but on my terms.

I think this is what they call, peace.