Today was my last day as a senior editor at a major publishing company, a little over five years after starting in this particular job and fifteen years into a career I once thought I wanted more than anything else.
As it turns out, what I really want more than anything else is to be happy.
When I was fifteen, I tried to quit my summer job at a local surf & turf restaurant. My prickly, crazy-eyed manager was always hitting on my boyfriend, who also worked there. The owner was a squirrelly Jehovah’s Witness who made me uncomfortable every time he showed up on site. I was tired of sloshing pepperoncini into the salad bar every day for a bunch of ungrateful Canadian tourists who never tipped. (Sorry, Canadians, but this was an epidemic in Southern Maine beach towns in the mid-nineties.) It was the tail end of the season and my boyfriend convinced me we should both just quit and enjoy our Labor Day weekend — far from the reeking bus bins and the scallop-scented fry batter that clung like barnacles to our Gap khakis.
Look, I was young and in love and this was the first time I had ever even considered railing against The Man. It was terrifying but also, liberating! I would march into my boss’s office, untie my dirty green apron, and announce that he could take his chewed-up Bic pen and cross me off the schedule. Permanently.
I plotted, I schemed, I rehearsed my quitting speech. I mustered my cojones.
When our four-minute conversation was over I was near tears and shaking with what my thirty-six-year-old self recognizes as panic, but at the time felt like imminent death. To add insult to injury, my mother was waiting in the parking lot to pick me up from my shift. Heaving my cojones wordlessly into her minivan, I couldn’t bring myself to tell her right away that I’d quit. Somehow I instinctively felt like it had been the wrong thing to do — even though my boss was a jackass and even though my manager was totally inappropriate and even though I really hated smelling like the bottom of a Fryolator every day when I got home.
The next morning, my parents were waiting for me on the couch. My boss had called to inform them of my “rash” decision and asked them to intervene, saying I was too important to the successful operation of the restaurant to lose at this critical juncture. Lots of Canadians, it seemed, would be clamoring for the soggy, overpriced lobster rolls that only I could serve them.
Let me be clear: this is like saying that a single fifteen-year-old in the Zhengzhou factory is critical to Apple making its quarterly numbers.
I knew, my parents knew, and my boss knew that my presence or absence was not likely to alter the fate of his glorified-Applebee’s establishment during the dog days of August. I think he was just pissed off, suddenly down not one, but two able-bodied minimum wage employees, and he knew that he could ruin the paltry remains of my summer by pulling “parent rank.” And given my anxiety-laced speech the night before, he probably also suspected that he’d be outing me before I’d had a chance to let mom and dad know I was not the future valedictorian they thought they’d raised, but rather a sniveling little quitter.
They calmly told me I had to suck it up and go back. I cried and fumbled to assert myself. This was so unfair! They held firm. I had made a commitment to this job, they said, and we do not just renege on our commitments when the going gets tough. Or fishy.
I didn’t have a solid argument. I wasn’t leaving for a better gig or more money. I wasn’t building a career in food service that necessitated a move up the ladder to Mike’s Clam Shack. I wasn’t moving to New Hampshire, nor had I been diagnosed with a severe shellfish allergy. I just wasn’t happy, and I didn’t want to show up. Another. Single. God. Damn. Day.
But of course I went back, apron strings between my legs. Neither my life nor my summer was ruined (though I did break up with my newly unemployed boyfriend), but that incident drilled something into me that’s been impossible to shake until very recently: the idea that happiness should not take precedence over some amorphous sense of commitment.
Now, I’m not talking about happiness over responsible decision-making. This was a summer job, earning pin money — it’s not like I was walking out on the source of my entire family’s grocery bill or jeopardizing my college fund. Two dollars and forty cents an hour, plus tips from non-Canadians, was not going to send me to Harvard. I’m talking about feeling like it was “wrong” to quit this job for no other reason than because I was unhappy. I felt awful while I was doing it, and not greatly relieved when it was done. And when I got called out by my parents and had to go back, those feelings were reinforced. I was the bad guy in this scenario, and I never wanted to feel like that again.
I’ve had a number of jobs since then that I wanted to quit. Like at the bookstore where I was routinely derided by my manager for “being a know-it-all” (also known as “having read the books I was recommending to the customers”). But I had signed on to work through the fall rush — students at the nearby college bought their textbooks from this shop — and I kept my commitment, even when I got a career-track offer to work for a prestigious literary agent. I pulled sixteen-hour weekends at the store while starting my new gig as an agent’s assistant during the week.
Nearly a year into that job and I was developing emphysema from being confined to a townhouse all day with a two pack-a-day smoker who also turned out to be verbally abusive, probably alcoholic, and very, very cheap. Did I want to quit? Almost every day. But did I responsibly seek out a new job and then magnanimously offer my soon-to-be-ex boss a full month’s notice — during the holidays — before leaving? Yes to that, too.
(And still, when I showed up a couple months later to pay my respects at her mother’s wake, she introduced me to the gathered crowd as, “My assistant who abandoned me when my mother was dying,” ensuring that even after doing everything above board, I now felt retroactively bad about quitting.)
Today, as a fifteen-year veteran of the publishing industry, I can say that I have left jobs for better jobs and to claw my way up the corporate ladder, but I never, ever quit anything again just for the sake of happiness.
I quit my job today.
I quit because I felt trapped.
I quit because life is getting shorter every day.
I quit because I fucking hate riding the subway twice a day during commuting hours.
But mostly I quit because I was really, really unhappy.
Look, it wasn’t all bad. I had a supportive boss and smart colleagues and the freedom to work on truly excellent books; but over time I realized that the business of publishing wasn’t perfectly conducive to the business of “me remaining sane.”
Are people disappointed in me? Well, I’ve accumulated many sleepless nights, intermittent bouts of nausea, and a lovely pink rash worrying about precisely this issue. But I’ve determined that those who are, will ultimately carry on just fine without me. I mean, I like to think I’m a pretty valuable asset, but it’s not as though I abandoned my post as the only doctor in town during a smallpox outbreak.
Okay, but did I have a competing offer, you ask? Nope.
Did I win the lottery? Sadly, also nope.
I just wanted to be happier, and in order to achieve that, I had to become someone I’ve always looked down on: a quitter.
Yes, I have some savings, and a husband who does well, and I have a plan for the next phase of my working life. I’m not trying to peddle the notion that everyone should walk out on his or her job without giving it careful consideration from many angles. But, it’s like how we always ask little kids: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and the answer we expect is something like: “A doctor.” “A hairdresser.” “A pilot.” “A ballerina.”
Maybe the answer we should be looking for is much more simple, and universal.
Twenty-two years into my working life, from two dollars-an-hour to a six-figure salary, I finally came to the realization that my happiness is contingent upon a number of things, including spending more time with my husband, avoiding a soul-crushing commute, not working traditional 9–5 hours, and being my own boss. And I realized that it was eminently possible for me to have all of these things — not some, but ALL — if I left my current job.
But still, there was this little voice in the back of my head that said, You can’t just…just…QUIT. Can you?
Well, as it turns out, you can.
And I did.
And I’m pretty happy about it.
Sarah Knight is a freelance editor and writer at sarahknightbooks.com. She was once in People magazine wearing a giant dog costume with a bunch of drag queens. True story.