Leave your job smartly

Published Nov. 10, 2012

How do you know when it's time to leave your job?

There's no quick answer to that. Most have daydreamed about quitting a job, but following through is a big step. You don't just run out on a marriage or a friendship, and those things don't even pay you to stick around. (Except in very odd situations.)

So if you're beginning to think it's time to move on, make sure the job is the problem.

"A solid 50 percent of the people who hire me because they want to change jobs or change careers realize after talking to me that they don't actually need to change jobs," said Penelope Trunk, a career coach and founder of "Most people who feel unfulfilled are actually unfulfilled personally."

As a species, we are not particularly good at introspection, and few things are scarier than admitting that certain elements of our lives are screwed up. A job is an easy fall guy.

"It's much more socially acceptable to say, 'I'm unhappy with my job' instead of saying, 'I've got major personal problems' or 'I'm in therapy,' " Trunk said. "People think changing jobs is scary, but among the things adults have to do that are scary, changing jobs is like a cakewalk. Coming to terms with who you are is way scarier."

Trunk also runs into people whose careers don't line up with their expectations. They may be doing what they're meant to do, but the pay isn't what they feel it should be or they think the job doesn't provide enough recognition.

There's a personality test called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which some use to evaluate how an individual might match up with various occupations. Trunk said she believes some people struggle because they're trying to work in jobs outside their personality type. Others might have a job that's a perfect personality fit, but it lacks sufficient compensation or prestige.

"You can't do a job that's outside your personality type; it will drive you crazy," Trunk said. "But a lot of the job-changing that happens is people being upset about what their type is — they just don't realize that."

I share Trunk's thoughts on this because it makes sense to do thorough internal detective work before condemning a job.

But once you've established that the job is the problem, it's time to leave. Just don't expect to go quickly. Knowing that you need an escape plan puts you firmly in control, and your next move should be carefully planned.

I started my working life as a chemical engineer and figured out after six months that it was the wrong field for me. I loved writing and was frustrated, ready to pounce at the first opportunity.

Then I got some good advice from, of all people, my parents: Don't make a quick move, they said; make a smart move.

Follow trends affecting the local economy

Follow trends affecting the local economy

Subscribe to our free Business by the Bay newsletter

We’ll break down the latest business and consumer news and insights you need to know every Wednesday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

I kept my job but started talking to people who write for a living, spent time outside regular work hours at a newspaper. It took more than a year, but I learned the best path was to return to school, get a graduate degree in journalism and enter the field at a level that wouldn't bankrupt me.

I bided my time until I had established what to do and cleared a sensible path to that career. It worked.

"I think it's wise to investigate the field that you're looking at going into so you can really understand what the day-to-day activity is going to be for you," said Anthony Rienzi, an FBI agent and co-author of the book Missed Ops: When Opportunity Knocks, Know What Not to Do. "Figure out what you enjoy doing and figure out how you can get paid for it. Volunteer, whether it's on the weekends or in the mornings. Switch your work hours around if you can. It's always easier to look for something when you have something because you're not forced to make a decision."

Look at what people you know have done with their careers, with an eye to their mistakes. In the book, Rienzi writes about how military tacticians often learn more from studying defeats than victories and suggests that people be similarly observant: "Analyzing the mistakes of other people can give you a Ph.D. in the tactics of a successful life. Observe the mistakes of friends and family members and examine what they did wrong in each unique circumstance."

And remember, when you settle down and find yourself a nice job, treat it right. Because in all honesty, we're probably not the easiest people to live with either.