This is what keeps employers up at night. Instead of quitting nicely, an employee stops working but keeps taking a paycheck. The company is paying them and getting nothing in return until someone notices they’re not producing. Then, the work for the company begins. Weigh whether they can be rehabilitated profitably, come up with lawsuit-proof grounds for firing, find a replacement. Fire them. Yuck.
And then the employee will whine on social media about how corporate America doesn’t care about them. Dude, you stole from them.
What kind of monster would do that? Most of us.
This is how it works. An employee comes in, bright and optimistic. They believe they’re going to make money for the company. The company believes in them. Then, they make a mistake. Trust is shaken. Autonomy decreases. Confidence erodes. Maybe the trust was never really there. Maybe the company just needed a body, stat. Maybe the employee is anxious and unconfident, and overstated their skills because they were desperate for the job, and now they live in terror of being found out. Eventually, every question asked, every report given, every conversation just further convinces the employee that management doesn’t like or trust them. Which makes it hard for the employee to like and trust themselves.
I know because it happened to me.
My second job out of college was my dream job. It was everything I could have ever wanted. Well, the position wasn’t really what I wanted. But I idolized the company. I just knew that after I proved myself I could start doing what I loved, writing, for them. I figured I’d start doing it on the side at first. Then more and more.
But almost as soon as I started, I came down with imposter syndrome. This place was a huge deal to me. I knew I didn’t belong there. I was a hayseed from Alabama in this fancy, renowned place in Washington, D.C. working with the smartest people I’d ever met. People who graduated from Harvard and Yale. I knew exactly one person who graduated from Harvard in Alabama. These were people who were famous for being smart and competent.
I didn’t know that I was dealing with something common and understandable. Especially for women. What I thought at the time was that I’d overstated my skills and abilities to get hired, and now everyone could see that and they were disappointed in me. I began work nervous and intimidated. And the fact that every time I asked a question or for help from my boss and co-workers, I’d get chided for not knowing how to do it already or not doing it myself. Fear turned into shame.
But when I say, “It happened to me,” I mean, “I did this.”
I turn 30 Monday and what’s taken me until about last week to figure out is that it’s not about skills. It’s not about talent. It’s not about intelligence. None of those things actually really matters. Or, to put it more mildly, I had enough of all of those things to succeed at that job.
It’s about hard work. It’s about trying things, finding out what worked, and doubling down on that. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Of course I didn’t know how to do that job when I showed up for work. Just like I didn’t know how to do my first job when I showed up. But with my first job, I knew it was okay that I didn’t know. With this one, I felt like I needed to already be an expert before I began.
I could have learned if I had followed the formula. I could have succeeded.
Now, I definitely think that in a real way, I had lost the faith of my boss and colleagues well before I was fired. I think they did expect me to know more than I did and were upset that I didn’t. I was ignored. And when I asked for attention, it was negative. I was fired before I was fired.
But, I also quit before I quit. I started working on a new side project during work hours. I started submitting stories, even though I wasn’t meeting my objectives.
Here’s what I wish I’d done
I wish I’d believed that just because I didn’t know how to do what they wanted me to do, I could learn. I wish I’d taken inventory of the value I could create for the company with the skills and knowledge I had then and then gone hard after it. I wish I’d taken some risk, any risk, really. As long as it were legal and ethical. Because then at least I would have learned something from the outcome that I could take to my next job. And there’s always the possibility that it would work and then I could get better at it and then, eventually, I’m a net positive.
I wish I’d gotten fired for trying something crazy that didn’t work out instead of quitting before I quit. Because the outcome is the same. I’m never going to work for that company again. But I could have walked away having learned more than to not let performance anxiety and imposter syndrome paralyze me.
So if you’ve quit before you quit, or are considering it. Don’t. Get fired.
As bad as quitting before you quit is for employers, it’s so much worse for employees. That fear hanging over your head, the shame.
Try something. Anything. Even something risky. Especially something risky. Because you need a big win or to get fired.
Run an experiment whose results you can measure.
Try things that you can tell whether they worked. If you think your boss expects you to fail you are going to interpret all their input as negative. And, hell, it might be. Work so subjective that failure or success depends on your boss’s interpretation is a problem in and of itself. It’s also inefficient to need your boss’s involvement for every ounce of actionable feedback. You know what success looks like. You can figure this out.
Try something because you don’t need to know what you’re doing. All you need to do is learn. And you are not too stupid to learn. No one is. Even people who have undergone traumatic brain injury and have been judged to have no ability to form new memories have shown the ability to learn subconsciously. Try things, discover what worked, double down on it. Try things, discover what worked, double down on it. Try things…
I got fired in the best way possible. I knew around when it was coming, so I’d been saving up. But I still hoped for the best. I hoped my boss would sit me down and we’d create a new plan for utilizing my talents to benefit an organization I still loved.
I’ll never forget that phone call. I went into the stairwell for some privacy. I didn’t start crying until the boss told me that he knew I was talented, and that I’d do great things. Somewhere else. It was so heartbreakingly bittersweet to finally be recognized as I was getting rejected.
That was two years ago. After I got fired I created a successful web show, guest starred in my friend’s web show, was interviewed on a national news network. Twice. Got published in some big online magazines. Got other people published in bigger online magazines. Got quoted in a New York Times Magazine cover story. And spoke at SXSWi.
And you know what I’ve learned? My dreams were too small, and along with them my risks.
What I’ve learned is that the people at the company that fired me weren’t famous for being smart and competent. They were famous for doing big things. They tried things, discovered what worked, and doubled down on it. Only the things they tried were big. They were hard. They were risky. Some of them started with smaller experiments and worked up. Some of them went straight for the big stuff. But all of them worked their damn asses off running experiments and measuring results and running new experiments.
This can be you. This can be me. This can be anyone.
If you’re thinking about quitting, or have quit already, you’re at the perfect spot to take a big risk. The worst that will happen already has. Don’t quit. Never quit.