Quitting just got good for you. Yes, really
Career, family, friendships… the pressure to make every aspect of our lives appear flawless has never been greater. But when recovering perfectionist Charlotte Philby decided to fold her successful start-up and walk away from 'having it all', she realised that quitting is a game-changer
Two days before I folded the digital business I’d spent two years slogging my guts out to build, I hosted an event on women and work. A sparkling panel of guests spoke passionately about jobs, start-ups, and the highs and lows of growing a meaningful career at a time when security is a thing of the past and salaries are at a standstill. The event was part of a series we’d announced in the national press, and we had big brands clamouring to be part of it. With offers flooding in for collaborations and sponsorships, you could say business was booming. So when I announced the closure of my online magazine,Motherland, via social media on the Monday, the response was one of horrified bemusement. Was this a joke? Was I OK? Was Ireallyquitting? What in God’s name had gone wrong? But the truth was, I had never felt so relieved. Quitting felt good.
As with all stories, there are two versions: one long, one short. The short version of mine is that after a near miss with a potential investor who tried to drastically change the terms of our partnership at the eleventh hour, I was forced, without warning, to let go of the staff I’d recently appointed on the basis of the investment. Even now, this still makes me feel physically sick. But on reflection, it also feels like a narrow escape. Because while there is sadness and a stinging loss of face in admitting defeat, the truth is my life just wasn’t sustainable. In a bid to forge a career while earning enough to keep a roof over my family’s head, I – like so many of us – had found myself on a treadmill of long days and sleepless nights. Quitting wasn’t an option, and it was making me miserable. Two years after I had left my full-time job in a corporate environment to set up on my own (in the belief that I was taking more control of my life), I had to walk away. After all, 90 per cent of start-ups ‘fail’, according toForbesmagazine. The reality of running a business was a real shocker.
So there I was, one concerned husband, three kids under five, no proper childcare and utterly burned out. Often, I was so tired and anxious that I wept at regular intervals, snapped at the sound of my kids’ voices and dreaded texts from friends. On a base level, I knew something had to give. Yet every time I heard my doubts, they were swiftly drowned out – in part by my own fear that if I ever said no, all further opportunities would vanish, or I was giving in. I have to admit I was also motivated by the cries of ‘superwoman!’ from the sidelines, as well-meaning friends and clients saw me juggling wildly (with apparent success) and asked, ‘How do you do it?’ The real question, I think, should have been ‘Why?’
Yes, there was a sense of panic about our financial future, which remains today. But the liberation I felt when I finally had the courage to ask myself what I really wanted from life (answer: to work, spend time with my friends and husband and enjoy my kids, and be able to pay bills without crying all the time) was transformative. It’s a question that’s increasingly on the lips of a generation of over-stressed millennial women, in response to the pressure to be constantly ‘digitally on’ while the gender pay-gap refuses to shrink, expectations from employers and clients rise, and rents soar. ‘Working hard used to be the norm – boastable, even,’ says chartered clinical psychologist Dr Jessamy Hibberd. ‘But I’ve noticed a shift. Women are starting to recognise that killing yourself for the sake of it simply isn’t a good enough reason.’ In her bookDrop The Ball: Achieving More By Doing Less, Tiffany Dufu makes the case for quitting – not as a sign of defeat, but as a step towards greater fulfilment in every aspect of your life. Once a poster child for the do-it-all generation, Dufu is a launch team member of Lean In and chief leadership officer at Levo, the fastest-growing millennial professional network. After realising she could no longer do everything she needed to do, she says she’s learned to embrace imperfection, re-evaluate her expectations of herself and shrink her to-do list to achieve a rich, rewarding life.
Similarly, two years ago, Aliya Young, 35, walked away from a lucrative role as head of business affairs for a company that finances films and TV shows. After training as a lawyer, it was a job she had strived for. ‘But in reality, it was too many hours, too much stress and constant pressure,’ she says. ‘I couldn’t switch off and didn’t have enough time for myself and those I was close to. I became more interested in the idea of working for myself. I wanted to change how I lived before I had children and became dependent on a high salary.’ Now working as a freelance consultant, Young says she doesn’t have the same financial security, but has much less stress and works far fewer hours, and feels more fulfilled as a result.
Quitting or ‘letting go doesn’t mean giving up completely,’ explains Phanella Mayall Fine, an executive coach, development consultant, and co-founder of the Step Up Club, which helps women move ahead in their careers. Rather, it’s about redefining our approach ‘We know women have more complex career trajectories and a broader, more nuanced definition of success than most men,’ she explains. ‘We place value on achievement, pursuing a passion, receiving respect and making a difference. Burnout, anxiety and lack of a personal life used to be accepted by-products of a successful career, but that’s changing. We’re under more pressure than ever, and lots of us are saying, “I can’t do this any more”.’
And burnout isn’t reserved for those at the top of their game. Lara Denton moved from Doncaster to London two years ago to build a career in marketing. At 27, she has found herself stuck in a rut, working as a nanny by day and in a bar at night to cover the rent. She never has enough time, or energy, to forge a path to where she’d like to be. ‘I don’t want to admit defeat and move back home, where there isn’t much work anyway,’ she says. ‘But I’m in a catch-22 situation. Some days I want to cry.
Video: Quit social media | Dr. Cal Newport | TEDxTysons
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