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.

Are You Waiting to Be Laid Off?

Back in June, when I was writing a blog for Harvard Business, I was thinking a lot about folks (including my former colleagues) who were waiting to hear whether they’d “get the axe” at work. Eight months earlier, I had quit my full-time job to pursue some long-neglected passions, but most people I knew were still plugging away in full-time positions that they needed to keep. For some of them, the almost-certain prospect of layoffs had been looming for what seemed like an eternity. So I submitted a blog post that attempted to give a voice to people forced to play this all-too-familiar waiting game.

The post was a little unconventional because, well, it featured an original poem of mine. I do write a fair amount of poetry, but this was something of a parody of my own style, even though I thought it kind of fit the bill. Not surprisingly, my editor didn’t go for it, as it was off-brand for the website. Not to mention that Harvard Business was gearing up to announce its own layoffs as June (and the end of the fiscal year) wound down, and the timing would have been a bit too perfect.

Now, with the calendar year winding down and some people (perhaps not as many) still awaiting news about layoffs, I offer up that odd little poem from June. It is what it is. Happy new year.

 

Lay Me Off

As the end of your fiscal year

approaches, your hands are nearing

my neck, your knife in reach

of my knees.  Because I cannot walk

on my own, I am stiff

for the sound of your severance —

crisp for the snap

of executive fingers.  A clean break

 

will not crack me — my skull

has already quit this corporation.

 

Let me go now, I urge you.  But please

do not thank me for my labor, give lip

to my service.  Platitudes fall

flatter than a pink slip,

slice rougher than any across-the-board

decision.  You have slowly taken

my years, but — please —

lay off my ears.