Why Talented People Quit

What you can learn from Senator Evan Bayh’s decision not to seek re-election

Since I quit my full-time job in late 2008, I’ve found myself in many ad hoc conversations about the pros and cons of quitting, very few them initiated by me. I’m still amazed by the number of people whose brains are bubbling with a strong desire to quit — and who, at times, need to let it burst out for someone willing to lend an ear. Not surprisingly, dissatisfaction of one sort or another is usually at the root of an urge to quit. I’m most intrigued by the folks who are exceptionally good at their jobs but are still dissatisfied enough to want to bolt.

Talented people tend to be bothered by an inability to effect change, at least in a tangible enough way that their day-to-day jobs feel rewarding. The nature of the desired reward varies considerably, from making a real difference within the walls of the organization to witnessing the greater social influence of the work. Whatever the scope of their mission, many of these quit-minded people have a clear vision and good leadership skills but find themselves confronted with institutional obstacles, often in the workplace culture, that can’t be surmounted within a reasonable time frame. So the personal choice becomes: Get out now, or run the risk of languishing so long that I end up internalizing and reinforcing the culture.

A scenario like that recently played out in the U.S. Senate with Evan Bayh’s announcement that he would not seek re-election. Bayh is a former two-term governor of Indiana whose leadership skills are obvious to anyone who has followed his career and, by all accounts, to those who know him personally. Yet in the face of now much-discussed institutional and cultural obstacles in the Senate, Bayh says he found himself unable to make enough of a daily difference in people’s lives to justify another six-year term. Whatever your view of Bayh’s politics, the authenticity of his statements on this point, both written and in interviews, is clear. You can hear it plainly in his recent conversation with Charlie Rose (start at minute 16).

Despite the peculiarities of the U.S. Senate, Bayh’s personal dilemma seems remarkably universal to me. Institutional progress is necessarily slow, but sometimes too slow for talented people to withstand. A particular high performer might have the skills to lead change but hasn’t yet reached a leadership position, as Bayh (in only his second Senate term) has not. And leading without authority, though possible in the right context, has very real limits. Probably too many limits for someone who’s already governed a state, or even for someone who has previously led effectively on a much smaller scale. For many talented would-be quitters, there’s comfort to be found in Bayh’s example.

The senator’s situation also offers a useful reminder about the best way, if you do decide to leave an institution, to make your decision known — namely, with grace, equanimity, and an eye toward the future. That doesn’t necessarily mean having another job lined up (Bayh doesn’t at this juncture, and I didn’t when I quit). But it does mean appreciating the continuity between one chapter of your life and the next, as I’ve discussed in “How to Quit Your Job with Style” and other posts. Feeling centered in that way makes the grace part easier. Of course, even with a bright future in sight, the temptation to grandstand can still be strong — witness Sarah Palin’s resignation from the governorship of Alaska. In short, if you find you can’t explain your decision to other people without sounding confused, beleaguered, or vengeful, you may not be ready to take the plunge.

That all said, there’s no credible rulebook for how to quit the right way. You’ll find information out there that masquerades as “research,” even with the names of revered institutions attached to it. But besides reflecting honestly on your own situation (that’s the vital piece), the best you can probably do is to read about and observe others who have thought critically about their own dilemmas. Tips can be a tyranny, as I (a sometimes tip writer) have admitted. It’s the indirect stuff — what you glean intuitively from the space between the lines of explicit advice — that offers the best guidance. In that respect, Evan Bayh’s account is just one point of departure. Listen to his story, between the words, and give yourself a chance to brew before you bubble over.

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About Steven DeMaio
Steven DeMaio teaches English and math at the Community Learning Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Somerville Center for Adult Learning Experiences in Somerville, Massachusetts. He also works as a freelance editor and writer. This is a continuation of his blog that ran for 10 months in 2009 on HBR.org.

3 Responses to Why Talented People Quit

  1. Margaret says:

    I have been reading your blog since it was on the Harvard site. Every post has such wisdom. I would never have thought to look to a U.S. senator to help me think through the issue of quitting. But there is much to be learned from Evan Bayh. He even seems presidential.

  2. Rita says:

    What a pleasure to read this blog every week. I think we have lost a good leader in Evan Bayh. I’d like to think I’m more like him than Sarah Palin.

  3. taramoreno says:

    Thank you for posting this. I quit my job last week with nothing lined up. You articulated perfectly what inspired me to leave my job-company culture & institutional obstacles.

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