Quitting a Job: An Act of . . . Poetry?

I’ve heard people say that quitting a job is having the courage to admit that work is not the most important thing in life. For some, that’s true — quitting can be about placing value on things other than earning a living or, more to the point, other than earning respect for earning a living in a certain way. In short, they resolve not to give work more of their time and energy than it truly deserves. It’s a perfectly legitimate point of view, and it leads many to make decisions that improve their lives greatly. These practical choices are acts of necessity.

For other people, the need to quit a job emerges from a deeply held belief that work really matters — matters too much to be done in the ways that the institutions they inhabit at the moment demand. They find it hard to watch the potential of human labor — especially their own — strangled by narrow aims that don’t amount to much in the end. These folks, who are often the most talented, don’t merely redefine their priorities and slot work in the proper place. They seek to redefine work itself and to restructure their “working selves,” not just their work schedules, accordingly. Their decisions are acts of conviction.

Whatever the reason someone quits, quitting is indeed an act. Even the most level-headed, drama-free exit from a job (the best kind) puts a person in a contemplative zone, not so much as the decision is being made but in the aftermath — in that curious, breathless void that only big transitions expose. It’s then, just as the lungs begin to fill anew, that it’s most valuable to give yourself the room to speak. That speech can take many forms, not all of them verbal. But I believe it’s important to articulate something while you’re in that space, to loosen the ties around the neck, some of which you may not even have felt before the untying. There’s something about the gesture — about the expressive act itself — that allows you to stretch and grow more fully than you would have otherwise.

For me, that act was writing a blog post about my decision to quit, and then the subsequent serial blog that, by twist of fortune, ensued on hbr.org and now resides here. A much more compelling act on the subject is an evocative poem by the late Robin Blaser, called simply “Quitting a Job.” You can watch and listen to him read it at an event in late 2008, just six months before his death and, strangely, just one week after I decided to quit, by clicking here (start at 17:50).

It’s in witnessing acts like Blaser’s that, I believe, you can begin to discover the poetry of your own act — to hear in your mind’s ear, and then articulate, the voice of what’s possible so that, as Blaser writes so pointedly, “You won’t die strangled.”

Thanks to Cheryl Clark Vermeulen, who introduced me to Blaser’s poem.

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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.

4 Responses to Quitting a Job: An Act of . . . Poetry?

  1. Josette says:

    Steve, this piece is very moving and wonderful. Thanks for writing and linking to the poetry reading. It’s reminded me of things I need to do.

  2. Isabelle says:

    I am contemplating quitting and am suffering from the pendulum swing of hopeful expectation and crushing doubt. Your post makes me think I am really making the right decision. Thanks!

  3. Michelle says:

    This touched me and did a great job of capturing my sentiments! I have just given my notice at work (drama free) 3 weeks ago and I’m preparing for a thrilling ride. Thrilling because I’m excited by the possibilities and scared to death. The breathless void spoke to me because I keep describing my act as jumping off a cliff!I will be moving to a cabin in the Rockies for a month to savor my transition and articulate that something. Thanks for the validation and inspiration.

  4. operarose says:

    Thank you for this post. I quit about a month and a half ago to freelance and still coming to terms with my decision. So much about my new lifestyle is both better than I imagined, and worse (at least, everything feels so much more uncertain than having a regular 9 to 5 job!) Each day is definitely an adventure. It’s comforting to know I’m not alone in this boat and very nice to find some inspiration like this post.

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