I once quit a new job after a single day. For years afterward, I told nobody.
Then, I shared the details and the whole thing went viral.
I’ve been nervous about sharing this story. You know what I’ve learned?
A lot of us have quit big things — often in the face of all kinds of pressure to toe the line and do the expected thing.
Sometimes, it’s a mistake.
Often, it’s the start of something amazing.
But far more often, people stick around long after the “quit-by date” has passed.
Tell me about it
I’ll summarize the details of my story below, but you can read more in a longer version I wrote last year. Since I hit publish on that story, I’ve heard probably every other day from somebody looking for advice on quitting — either via LinkedIn or email.
Next thing I knew, CBS Sunday Morning called, and I was sitting under the lights, onsite at Inc.’s headquarters in Manhattan, bearing my soul about one of the hardest professional decisions I’ve ever made.
It’s one thing to say quitting was a hard decision, but another to think back to that dark day, when I desperately wanted to get up and leave, but I didn’t know how things would turn out if I did.
That’s the real story.
There’s nothing worse than …
It was 2009, and at the height of the Great Recession. I was living in Washington, writing a book, but nervous about the economy and craving a steady paycheck.
I’d been a journalist and a writer, but I also had a law degree, although I hadn’t actually practiced law in a while. Then, I saw an ad for “lawyers wanted” at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
I’m a military veteran, too, so I thought, why not apply? I took an hour or so and filled out the forms — but never heard back.
This annoyed me, big time. Someone once said: There’s nothing worse than not getting a job you really didn’t want that much anyway. So I reapplied.
It was kind of prideful, I admit. But, this time, I did a full-court press: asked friends for help, wrote a long cover letter, turned on the charm in the interview.
Next thing I knew, I had an offer and a start date.
I quickly realized this had been a big, big mistake. If I had to pick a key moment, it was right in the middle of new-employee orientation.
All of the speakers picked up on a running joke — introducing themselves and calculating how much time they had left until retirement, down to the day.
“I’m Jane Smith. I have 11 years, four months, and 22 days until retirement. I’m here to talk about information security.”
Just writing that doesn’t really do it justice. It was a terrible, sad, oppressive atmosphere, in a dim auditorium deep in the bowels of a government building. Everyone seemed so down on their situation and resigned to their fates for working there.
I felt really bad for them — but worse for myself. Later, I settled into my shared office, almost devoid of natural light. The desk was covered with a huge stack of files. When I took a coffee break, a senior employee made a point of saying I’d taken 10 minutes longer than we were allowed.
The next day I showed up at 7 a.m.
“As bad as I feel about quitting,” I told my new boss, “if I don’t do this now, we’ll probably be having this conversation in six months.”
I added: “Could I get a mulligan?” meaning go back in time as if I’d never accepted the job–not even accepting pay for the one day I’d spent in the office.
What happened next
They say comedy equals tragedy plus time. During the CBS interview, reporter Tony Dokoupil looked at the notes I’d taken on the back of the orientation agenda.
“Trying so hard not to cry,” it read. I’d forgotten about that.
But that’s where I was at the moment: torn between feeling like I had to stay — who quits a job after one day? — and knowing that the idea of me working there was a terrible fit.
As for what happened afterward, well, out of pure necessity I started a ghostwriting and consulting business.
It took a little while, but a few years later I could look back and know I’d written a lot of books. It was also very lucrative — far more money than I would have made in the government job.
One of those books then led to my current writing career, including writing for Inc. and even the daily newsletter I now publish at Understandably.com. I wound up working at a New York digital media startup for four years.
Most important, walking away from this job in Washington meant that when I got together with my future wife a few years later, I had nothing tying me to D.C. I could just pack up everything and move to New York. We’re married now and have a daughter.
When I told Dokoupil all that during one of the outtakes from the interview, he said: So your whole life was based on a quit?
He was right.
Quitting was hard. But the “joy of quitting” is greater than I could have imagined.
A version of this article earlier appeared on Inc.com.