How Deciding to Quit Made Me a Braver (and Better) Employee

Let’s get one thing straight: I wasn’t ever a bad employee. I worked hard, kept my head down and always hit my deadlines. But if you’d been working alongside me about two years ago, you might have picked up on an abrupt (if subtle) attitude shift. Perhaps you would have noticed that I was more upbeat, or that I’d become more assertive in meetings. Maybe you’d have realized that I started raising my hand more often to take on bigger projects. Or maybe you simply would have developed an (accurate) hunch that I was spending significantly less business hours scrolling through Twitter. The reason for my shiny new go-getter attitude wasn’t that I’d developed a newfound passion for my job as a marketing manager at a tech company overnight. Quite the opposite, actually. 

I’d decided that, sooner rather than later, I was out of there.

The primary driver of my decision was simple geography. My boyfriend and I had originally moved to Boulder, CO so he could pursue a Master's degree. Now with his program drawing to a close, I was ready to try out a new state — and a new job to go with it.

The prospect of striking out on our next adventure left me simultaneously clear-eyed and drunk with possibility. Surveying my office, I felt the prick of nostalgia that only surfaces when you’re more than ready to move on. I’ll miss the snacks, I thought serenely in the kitchen one day as I helped myself to a handful of trail mix. But not too much.

Like so many of the best-laid plans, however, ours went (temporarily) awry, and we ended up staying in Boulder for six months longer than we’d anticipated. But believe it or not, those were the most productive six months of my career. Here are four things that changed, and what you can learn from them, too.

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1. Honesty became my only policy

Not long after I began planning to quit, my manager beat me to the punch and announced that she’d given her notice.

Before I knew it, the director of marketing to whom I’d reported was out and a chief marketing officer (CMO) was in. With decades of experience, the new CMO swept in on a wave of indecipherable acronyms, impossibly chic outfits and towering expectations. Needless to say, the entire department was terrified of her. 

That is to say, everyone except me. After all, I reasoned, why should I fear someone I’ll hardly spend any time working for?

I took this blasé attitude with me into our introductory one-on-one meeting and was blunt in a way I’d never been before. I listed off the specific duties I had that I felt were a waste of time (without worrying that I wouldn’t look like a team player); I told her what I was good at (without worrying I’d sound arrogant); I told her where I thought our department’s strategy was failing (without worrying about sounding disloyal). I even told her that the fact that she’d fired someone not long after she arrived had left people worried about their own job security, because I figured someone should. 

As our meeting came to an end, she set down her pen and gave me an appraising look. I could almost read the words, Who does this chick think she is?, flashing across her forehead. But a week later, she called me in for another meeting and, to my immense surprise, offered me a raise. 

The takeaway: Don’t underestimate how rarely those in high places get an unvarnished view of the truth — or how much the most effective leaders value those who provide it. When you speak with higher-ups, spend less time trying to guess what they want to hear and more time considering what they ought to hear. Your goal shouldn’t be to throw shade or air your grievances, of course, but to share your unique perspective. Your insight matters!

2. My project plans got more ambitious

Strategic planning can feel like a balancing act when you sit at the bottom of the team hierarchy. As people brainstorm the next quarter's big initiatives, it’s hard not to spend your time thinking about the fact that, nine times out of ten, you’ll be the one on the hook for the grunt work. 

In the past, I’d been guilty of playing some defence during planning sessions to ensure I didn’t get signed up for more work than I could handle. But my new, short-term-thinking self was more than happy to throw all my grand visions on the table. I proposed every pie-in-the-sky idea that crossed my mind without fearing what the execution might look like. It felt scandalous, like writing bad checks; making empty promises I had no intention of figuring out how to keep. 

But when the bills came due, I discovered I was capable of doing everything I promised. And when I did get in over my head, I felt justified asking for help.

The takeaway: Don’t sell yourself short. Voice your ideas and don’t be afraid to take on the projects that interest you. Odds are, you can do bigger things than you think you can. The bigger projects you take on, the more you’ll prove yourself and earn more autonomy over your work. And remember that if you end up facing burnout, you’re well within your rights to ask for help. Your resume will thank you! 

notes pinned to a board Photo by Patrick Perkins from Unsplash

3. I got assertive about my professional goals

Until I decided to quit, I was vague when talking to my coworkers about my long-term goals. I worried that if I brought up future plans that deviated too far from my current role, people would assume I wasn’t committed to my job and would be less likely to offer me promotions or additional responsibilities. 

But, inspired by the fact that I was no longer trying to climb this particular ladder, I decided to get real with my manager: My long-term goal wasn’t to be in her shoes, I admitted. It was to write; specifically, to write books. It almost felt stupid to say it out loud.

But my ambitions, it transpired, were more aligned with those of my company than I could possibly have imagined. As luck would have it, my company’s CEO had been wanting to write a book for ages, but, until now, hadn’t found anyone upon whom to foist the legwork. Was co-authoring a business book what I’d always dreamed of? No. Was it a pretty decent step in the right direction? Heck yes.

The takeaway: You’re more valuable to your employer if you spend your time doing what you love. So help them help you! You can be honest about your long-term objectives without giving anyone the impression that you aren’t fully committed to your current job. You never know where your interests and theirs may overlap, or whether there may be opportunities to adjust your responsibilities—or even move between departments—to find a role more aligned to your interests.

Two women looking at laptop Photo by mentatdgt from Pexels

4. I became a tough negotiator

Gone are the days when employees were expected to spend their entire careers at a single company. In fact, the number of companies people work for within five years of graduation has nearly doubled in the last 20 years, according to LinkedIn. Your employer knows you won’t be there forever, which means a healthy company’s immediate priority should be to keep you for as long as possible. 

I put this notion to the test when my boyfriend and I finally decided that, rather than move to any one city, we’d spend the next year or so traveling the country and working remotely. I was pretty sure I would definitely have to quit now, but I figured it couldn’t help to check whether they’d be willing to support my new nomadic lifestyle. 

Expecting that the meeting would be good for little more than than negotiation practice, I marched in and told my boss:

  • That I wanted to work remotely from a variety of timezones
  • To account for the travel, I’d need to reduce my hours to 30 per week
  • But, because I had been taking on more responsibility, I believed my salary should stay the same

Never in a million years would I have made a request so audacious before. (Heck, I’d never even asked for a raise!) But if the alternative was having to find a new job, what did I have to lose?

To my surprise, they agreed to every last one of my terms.

The takeaway: Don’t ask, don’t get. Your employer wants to keep you around, and it’s expensive to replace you! Knowing your worth and asking for what you want shouldn’t rub anyone the wrong way. If anything, it reinforces the fact that you’re serious about your job and prompts those in management to take a closer look at how much you’ve grown.

The moment I decided to quit my job, I transformed from a timid employee who stayed in line to an assertive, high-performing member of the team. Moves that at one time would have seemed reckless turned out to be the perfect recipe for moving my career forward and making me more valuable to my company.

Especially in your 20s, it can be easy to feel like having a job is a privilege. But it’s important to remember that you’re there for a reason, and that your employer owes you something, too. When your intentions are good, speaking your mind can earn trust, dreaming big can pay off, sharing your plans can help you grow, and valuing yourself can earn you what you deserve. 

In the end, I did eventually quit. But in the six months I spent with the belief that I was on the brink of walking out, I was able to tackle projects that let me flex my skills and helped inspire me to pursue what I loved. You certainly don’t need to plan a dramatic exit to become braver at work. But if it helps, save a letter of resignation in your drafts and go get ’em.