Amid all the recent buzz over quiet quitting, the other, more literal type of quitting continues apace. Some 4.2 million people in the US voluntarily left their jobs in July, accounting for 2.7% of the workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
This movement isn’t just costly for employers. In recent months, multiple surveys have pointed to dissatisfaction and regret among many people who resigned recently, for reasons ranging from difficulty finding employment to disappointment with the reality of a new job. To understand how someone seeking a change in their professional life might find one in a lower-risk way than tendering their resignation, we reached out to Insider reporter Shana Lebowitz Gaynor, author of the recently published Don’t Call It Quits: Turn the Job You Have Into the Job You Love.
A caveat: Some jobs are simply bad, full stop. “I’m definitely not the anti-quitting spokeswoman,” Gaynor says. “If you feel like you’re working in an environment that’s toxic or harmful to your mental health or discriminatory, leaving the company could be best for you,” assuming leaving is a viable option. But for those whose employers provide a baseline of dignity and a decent wage, an intentional mindset shift can help morph an unsatisfying job into one with more redeeming qualities.
Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation:
What made you decide to write this book?
I've been a careers reporter at Insider for a while now, so I've covered careers and career development and workplace dynamics. I noticed several years ago now—this was pre pandemic—that every time I wrote an article about what to do if you hate your job, how to make a career change, how to change your job,if you hate your job, anything in that vein, there was much more engagement on those types of posts than on your standard bread-and-butter jobs and workplace coverage. So that suggested to me that a lot of people did in fact hate their jobs and were interested in leaving.
But I also started to wonder, after years of publishing these kinds of articles, if maybe I was doing people a disservice in making quitting seem really glamorous and appealing. I wondered perhaps there were other options I could give readers in this situation that wouldn't involve making huge life and career overhauls, but would still allow them to improve the quality of their work experience
What would be a good reason to quit? What about a bad reason?
I'm not sure I have such a straightforward answer. The cop-out answer is that there are no good or bad reasons to quit. Well, if you feel like you're working in an environment that's toxic or harmful to your mental health or discriminatory, leaving the company could be best for you, and of course it's on the company to make some changes on their end. Even if you don't work in a toxic environment, if you have a better opportunity out there that’s within your reach and you feel like this is going to make for a better life and career, you should definitely take it. I’m definitely not the anti-quitting spokeswoman.
I won't categorize it as bad reason, but one might say you quit prematurely if you've never tried talking to your manager, you've never tried adjusting some of your projects or making any small change to your workday, even if that's as simple as adding a lunch with a coworker you really enjoy talking to. If you've never tried doing any of these things and you just one day decide you are quitting your job as a banker to be a dance instructor, maybe that will work out fine. But I think that perhaps it’s premature.
Why is quitting seen as something glamorous?
Quitting is glamorous because it holds the promise of a life and career and a day-to-day experience that is very different from what we have now. You show up or show up virtually to work every day, you log in, you do your assignments, you chat with your boss—there's this idea that if you quit, you won't have to do any of that. Maybe you’ll run your own business and answer to no one but yourself. Maybe you’ll be working outdoors instead of at a desk. That’s so tantalizing, It seems so freeing. Also the idea that you can stick it to the man who's been holding you back for however long.
I was chatting with a friend who’s a writer, and he works on the narratives behind video games, so he thinks a lot about storytelling and the implications of that. He had mentioned, if you're a person who is miserable and feels stuck at work, that's a really good story to tell: ‘I was miserable, then one day I decided I can't take this anymore and I'm quitting. I got a new job and I feel great now, and no one's holding me back.’ On the other hand, if you have a story like, ‘I hate my job, but I'm still there,’ that's a terrible story, or it seems that way.
So I looked into this and I found some research on the intersection between narrative storytelling and and psychological outcomes. I got in touch with some of the researchers who have pioneered this body of work, and they told me that when we talk to other people, we crave the happy ending and the redemptive narrative, so to speak, where people release themselves from some kind of challenge or trauma and now things are going great. Or they learned something from this challenge that made their life or career better going forward. In some cases, people are able to tell those stories because that's actually what happened to them. But in many, many cases, that's not how the story actually went for the person.
All this to say is that we feel a kind of social pressure to triumph and be our own hero in the end. And, given that that doesn't always happen. I think we would do ourselves a favor to be a little kinder to ourselves and to our friends that we're talking to, and offer them more grace in the kinds of career stories they can tell.
Could someone who’s unhappy in their job find more satisfaction by mentally reframing their story as a redemption narrative, or by letting go of the need to have one?
In the short term, maybe they would get greater satisfaction from trying to see their story as a redemptive narrative. Trying to think like, ‘Yesterday my presentation was really hard and didn't go well, but now I know what to do for all my future presentations. Everything's going to go well after this.’ But I do think that in the long term, if you let go of the need to have that kind of story and just let things unfold as they do and accept that, that is kind of freeing and will be more satisfying in the long run.
Has the Great Resignation exacerbated this need to have that kind of story arc?
It has, if only because we see other friends and colleagues giving up their jobs and careers and pursuing something they're passionate about. The Great Resignation is not across the global or US workforce. It's a minority of people who have switched jobs and quit jobs, but they get a lot of media attention. And it can be hard to see that when you feel like you're not able or willing to make a change.
How has the pandemic changed the way that we think about finding meaning in our work?
What meaningful work is has many definitions. I feel the most fitting definition is one that came from a career coach I have worked with, and I have profiled in the book, Rebecca Fraser. She always says meaningful work is about feeling like you're making an impact on other people. And a lot of research bears this out: When people feel like they are positively affecting other people's lives, they feel happier at work.
There's a lot out there about how people started searching for meaning in earnest during the pandemic, or with a greater sense of urgency. I suspect that that's because when we're not tethered physically to our offices, you can see what's going on in your home life, you can see your family, you can see what's going on in your neighborhood, your community. You see beyond your job to see other ways that you might be able to contribute to the world and make an impact. And then, of course, the pandemic has been tragic in many ways. People have lost so much of their lives and the ability to be with their family. I suspect that motivated a lot of people to take stock of what exists in their life and career so far in terms of meaning.
As workplaces become more flexible in when and where work gets done, how does that affect people's ability to shape their jobs?
In the era of remote and hybrid work, an indirect effect on people's job satisfaction has come from the way performance is managed. Since people are out of their boss' line of sight when they're working remotely, bosses necessarily have to rely more heavily on the actual results that their employees are producing. That’s a wonderful development because that means that you people have a lot of flexibility, not just in terms of the hours they work, but in terms of the tasks they do.
So if you know that your boss is measuring your performance based on your results, maybe you can largely focus on the stuff that produces the results they want and sort of let everything else fall by the wayside. And obviously that won't work in every job. But in some jobs, it will.
In the book, you wrote about how to be more satisfied or engaged in your job when you have a bad relationship with your manager. Could you speak to some of the strategies?
There’s that saying: ‘People don't quit jobs, they quit bosses.’ Your relationship with your manager has a huge impact on your day-to-day work experience. I've had some really terrific bosses in my career and some bosses who—I don't know that they were bad in general, but, but they didn't contribute positively to my work experience at that organization.
So in terms of strategies for navigating that—it’s kind of a band-aid solution, but sometimes band-aids are fine for the interim—if you're someone who doesn't have to be in the office, sitting next to your boss, talking to your boss all day, then don't do that. Maybe your boss is still the one who reviews your work, and you have to communicate with them on some level, but in lieu of those interactions with them that you're eliminating, maybe you chat more with colleagues whose company you enjoy and whose work you admire. That can balance things out.
There's also the possibility of trying to switch managers. Not possible at every time and every job, but internal mobility is becoming more common. A lot of employers are more open to allowing high performers especially to move internally, move teams, move managers.
I'll give you one more tactic: Pay attention to what triggers your boss. What gets them in a bad mood? What makes them view you negatively? Is it that you turn something in late, or you ramble in a presentation, or you're not prioritizing your assignments properly? If that's what sets them off, then for your own sake—forget about theirs, but for your own—don't do those things. Very simple, short-term strategies, but hopefully helpful.
In frustrating situations like that one, is there a helpful way to vent or complain?
Susan David is a Harvard medical school psychologist who wrote about this in her book, Emotional Agility. She doesn't use this language, but productive complaining: You can use the words and the sentiments that are coming out of your own mouth as a vehicle for introspection. To use one of David's examples, if you find yourself saying, ‘I find this job so boring, the tasks are not stimulating at all, I'm miserable,’ well, I'm sorry to hear you're miserable, but maybe that also suggests that creativity and intellectual engagement are things that really matter to you at work.
Now knowing that those things are important to you and they're missing in your current role, how can you either shape your current role to give you more of those things, that creativity and stimulation, or look for another role that does give you those things that are missing?
To continue with this example, what specific strategies would you recommend for somebody who is looking for ways to infuse more creativity into their role?
I interviewed Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit, a few years ago, and he said that the advice he gives to other writers is to think about three other ways you could write the story you're writing now. [Ed. note: Charles Duhigg is an investor in Charter.] He didn't give this example, but maybe you write it as a fairytale, maybe you write it as an investigation, or maybe you write it as a first-person essay. That was so striking to me. Even if you don't end up writing those three versions, if you think about how you could write your story in those three other ways, suddenly you get all these other ideas about what the story means and how to construct it and how to make it compelling for readers.
So that's an editorial-specific example, but I do think it can apply more broadly. If you're in sales, is there another deviation from the script that you use that maybe would help you sell more of the product? Or if you're in consulting, and there’s one solution you use for every client in this particular situation, is there something slightly different that might also work, even if it just spices up your workday? Little things like that make an impact.
As organizations may be cutting back on learning and development budgets in the current economic climate, what are some ways that employees can create their own learning and development opportunities?
The obvious thing to say here is LinkedIn learning and Skillshare and Coursera and all these platforms. A lot of them have classes and programs that are consistently free, or they run these like promotional things. Those are great, but I confess I've almost never done that stuff. Pre-pandemic I took one in-person creative nonfiction writing class, and that was great, but that was the only professional-development thing I've ever done in my life.
So, how do you create your own? This particular piece of wisdom comes from the social psychologist Ron Friedman, who said if you can pinpoint one thing you'd like to get better at, one skill you'd like to develop, or one area you'd like to strengthen in terms of your professional skills, pick that one thing and see if every day you can do one little thing to try to try to make progress on that goal. I think this example came from him: Let's say you heard a speaker or another colleague give a presentation at your workplace, and you're like, ‘Wow. I wish I could have that kind of public-speaking skill and give a presentation like that.’ So maybe today it's, ‘Okay, I'm going to watch the video recording of that person speaking, and I'm going to jot down a few things that they did well that I'd like to emulate.’ it’s kind of a little thing—you're not taking an instructor-led class—but it's a way to make that learning and development opportunity for yourself, and fold it right into the rhythms of your workday. The more granular, the better. Not that you'll see changes faster, but it's easier to measure those changes. Instead of trying to be a better leader, try to do a better job leading the 9 am meeting. That’s an easier target.
How should we square the focus on smaller, more granular moments with research suggesting that engagement and satisfaction are driven largely by loftier-feeling things like having a sense of purpose and finding meaning in your work?
That’s something I thought a lot about while I was writing this book. I actually think those two ideas are easily reconcilable. Purpose and meaning are big lofty concepts, but you can derive a lot of purpose from a small interaction or, or a seemingly small experience. I’ll use an example from an editorial context because that is what I know, but if you're an editor and you work with a writer and help that person develop their story and it comes out really great, and first they felt like they were struggling but now they they're so jazzed about it and they're so proud of their work—that's a wonderful thing. Even if this was like an hour of your day or a single story out of the many stories you work on every week, that's something to feel really good about and to feel really proud of.
So when we talk about purpose and meaning, how do we drill down as small as possible? Maybe it's even smaller than that. Maybe it's the 10-minute conversation you had with that reporter where you helped them clarify what they were trying to say in the story. That's really gratifying, and perhaps even more meaningful than ‘My job is saving the world.’ Which is great too, but that's sort of big.
With the growing employee pressure on companies to take a stand on social issues, how would you advise someone to consider that alignment or lack thereof with their own values in deciding whether to quit a job?
If their publicly displayed values don't match yours, I'd like to say yes, you should leave and look for a new job or a new organization where you feel more empowered to be authentically yourself, and more supported by, by an institution that feels the way you do. I also think it's not always possible or always easy to do that. If your job pays the bills, or it's a tough labor market and you’re going to have a hard time finding another job that's equally stable and lucrative, then you might have to stick it out.
And in that case, remember that, yes, you are technically employed by this large institution, and maybe their social or political stance is not what yours is. But the actual workday experiences you have might not involve talking to the CEO about why they don't support this political issue. It's more like doing this assignment and chatting with this coworker and like sending this email. And so if you can try to find meaning and purpose and satisfaction in those things, it might temporarily at least obscure that.
You wrote about the counterintuitive idea that expecting less of your job can make it more fulfilling. How does that work?
It's much easier said than done, but a lot of people, particularly knowledge workers in cities and large metropolitan hubs, and I count myself among them, have this idea that our jobs or our careers are our identities, and how we perform at our job defines how we perform in life. And the experiences we have at work kind of color our life experiences. We feel so attached to that. It's very hard to sever yourself even a little bit from that.
In the book, I analogize expecting less of your job to expecting less of your relationship, which is an idea that came from a psychologist at Northwestern, Eli Finkel. He has this book,The All or Nothing Marriage, and he advocates for expecting less of your marriage and your spouse in some cases. Pick one or two things. Your spouse doesn’t have to be your soul mate, your intellectual conversation partner, your tennis buddy, and also your best friend and the person who reads over all your work projects. Maybe they can be one or two of those things, but it's unlikely that they can meet all of those demands all the time.
So in terms of your job, maybe your job is not your passion and your calling, and also the place where you make friends, and also where you define your self-worth, and also where you spend all your time and make all your money. Maybe it can be one or two or even three of those things. But if you look outside your job for sources that will fulfill those other buckets, you're probably going to be happier in a shorter time.
How can you go about figuring out which buckets to prioritize at your job and which ones to offload?
One way to do it is to think about which expectations are coming from you. If your employer demands that you are working or you're in the office 10 hours a day, that's not good, but that's coming from your employer. In that way, your job is the place where you spend all your time. But if you’re the person who is worried about making sure you answer every email in a prompt fashion, even if your boss doesn't care about that or it's not really affecting your work outcomes or performance, then maybe that's a place where you can offload some of your mental energy.
Take stock at the end of the workday, even if it's just for a few minutes. Let's say you feel disappointed. Why do you feel disappointed? What didn't work do for you today? ‘I didn't feel good about myself today at work. My boss didn't give me a lot of praise. My coworkers didn't include me in this meeting,’ or whatever the case may be. But maybe it’s also, ‘My, my spouse said I looked great today’ or ‘I made a really good dinner today.’ Identify it mentally, as opposed to just letting those things fall away and fixating so heavily on the lack of appreciation piece at work.
What are some of your favorite tactics for shaping a less-than-stellar job into a better one?
I wrote about some research co-authored by Patricia Chen, who was at the National University of Singapore. She and her co-authors wrote about a strategic mindset, which basically means asking yourself, ‘If I'm in a rut at work, what are some ways I can get myself out of this rut?’ In one of the experiments, they talked to a bunch of college students, and they were able to come up with all of these strategies for doing better in school and feeling better about school even if they didn't love their major. The point is, you might not even need to read this book. Maybe you don't need a career coach. You don't need your boss to help you. You can just think of a few ideas yourself to help you get unstuck. You're smarter and more influential than you think.
My goal with this book and all the reporting that I do in this vein is to remind people that they have agency. Sometimes feeling more satisfied at work is a matter of exercising that agency so you feel like you are an independent agent—it's not up to your boss, and it's not up to the economy, and it's not up to the whims of the world where you end up and, and how you end up feeling about your career.