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How do you know when it is time to quit … your job, your client, your firm, your relationship, your diet — or even your dream? While many of us grew up to the tune of “quitters never win and winners never quit,” we know that’s not exactly true. And the media is full of inspiring tales of quitters who’ve came out on top, including this recent podcast on the upside of quitting from the Freakonomics perspective.
But how do you know for sure? (And why isn’t there an app for this?) BlogTyrant recently offered a thoughtful post aimed at helping his blogger followers answer the question, How Do You Know When You Are Cooked? It got me thinking of some other signs that it’s time to give in and get out.
1. Your “job” is disappearing. This might seem like an easy one. If you’ve concentrated all your work in a particular legal specialty or regulatory field and the work in that area of law begins to diminish, you need to find a new focus. Clearly. But you’d be surprised how long it can take to figure this out. And how easy it is to rationalize staying put. So your office is a little smaller than before—at least you still have an office, right? As long as the money still comes in—albeit not as quickly as it used to—and as long as your ego is still stroked by the people who know you are the one to ask about that arcane area of law, you’re good. Right? Wrong. It won’t last.
2. You feel like a rock star. In 1998, Barbara Walters interviewed Jon Bon Jovi about what led him into acting and taking a sabbatical from performing live with his band. “I had done four albums back to back to back, we lived on the road for 250 show tours at a clip, and we got burned out on it because all the romance was gone…. It became a machine. We were supporting 100 people … but they were booking and booking us, and no one was giving us a break to stop.” So are you feeling pushed to perform beyond your breaking point? Working more hours than seems humanly possible just to support other people’s hours? Maybe scrambling to increase your billables to make payments on that summer house or boat—the one you rarely have time to enjoy? Only you can know for sure, but if pleasing others is your sole reason for getting up in the morning and it no longer makes you happy, it may be time to rethink your work-life model. What did Bon Jovi do? “I fired them. I went home and took a breath … and did a lot of things to start to develop the second chapter of my life.”
3. You are working for—or with—the “worst person in the world.” We’re not just talking horrible bosses. You could find yourself in a toxic group or clique, too. You may even have hired the most horrible person yourself, only to find he or she irrevocably changes the dynamic of your firm or group. It happens. These worst people have a knack for self-preservation, for sucking in the weak and sucking up power. At a certain point you may recognize that you can neither change them nor defeat them. Well, when all else fails—and in the interests of your own self-preservation—the best thing may be to leave for higher ground, behaving impeccably and taking a good recommendation in hand as you go.
4. It really is making you sick. While it’s tempting to blame stress-related health issues on a weak constitution, seriously? Sometimes it’s better to walk away from the things that cause the stress. Because if you find yourself uncontrollably enraged after certain client calls, or self-medicating a bit too frequently, you better believe you aren’t fooling anyone—or helping anyone. Recognize the signs of depression and burnout. Get some help and remove yourself from the situation as best you can. Delegate. Fire that client. Just say no. Will others think you’re weak? Maybe. But they may see you as a smart role model, one who recognizes that good health is more important than keeping up appearances.
5. You’ve crossed the line, or almost crossed it. In “Broadcast News,” Holly Hunter tells William Hurt’s news anchor character “You totally crossed the line between what is ethical and what is garbage!” (Seems quaint now.) “It’s hard not to cross it,” he says. “They keep moving the little sucker, don’t they?” Ain’t that the truth. But when you find yourself in a culture where the work ethic awakens that little “uh-oh” voice inside, it may be time to move on. You may not be facing a malpractice or a whistleblower situation, but if the ethics of your workplace make you uncomfortable, you probably aren’t going to be happy there for long. Besides, if you have noticed transgressions, it is quite likely others have as well. Why risk your reputation? On the other hand, if this is your firm, it sounds like high time to upend things and set them right again.
This is a question I ask myself (and my sons), all the time, encouraging the most outlandish and frightening possibilities. It makes it easy to sort the real fears from the bogus ones. And then just deal with them. So, just for a moment, entertain the notion that quitting may actually be what you need. This is pretty tough for those of us who believe our highest accomplishment is to dig in our heels come what may. But ask, and you may have your answer.
Attorney at Work’s Joan Feldman is an editor and writer who has created, steered and contributed to myriad practice management, trade and association publications, including ABA Law Practice magazine, where she was Managing Editor for a dozen years. Follow her @JoanHFeldman.
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