Life post-quitting + taking up the mantle again
I was recently accused of being a Mission hipster. No, I replied. I’ve just been going through a few changes.
Around 1 year + 5 months ago, I ended a full time, full benefits, three-year job. A great job, and sometimes it was more than a just a job, but it became a desk and deadlines. But I got adventurous values… or at least the 5-year-old me hoped the 27-year-old me would have adventurous values. So I quit. Didn’t take the office fish with me. Didn’t flip out. Didn’t have another gig lined up. I just quit.
If you’re curious, this is how gainful unemployment feels:
I wake up at the crack of 8:15 am because I am still a proud morning person. Check my phone for email. Check Facebook. Check Twitter. Check Reddit. I wonder what day of the week it is. They all run together now. When I hear my former colleagues thank god it’s Friday, I hear another language.
The boxes around the weekdays were the first to decompose. I laid to rest a 7-day regimen designed to steamroll my energy into the end of Friday and into the two days that I owned and the two weeks I carefully carved months in advance.
But today I think I’ll mosey on down to the N Line at 10:43 am and still make it to wherever I’m going on time. Any time. I feel like a savvy traveler avoiding peak season at some luxury resort. And I get the entire orange-colored bench to myself. No cold sufferers or standing commuters knocking my shoulder as the train swerves around a corner.
“Office life isn’t for me. It wasn’t the people; it was the environment. Florescent lights, sitting all day. Not for me,” a comrade on the train says to her annoyed desk-bound friend. One of those people with their hearts in a safe deposit, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. The train swerves again into the Carl and Cole tunnel. No one bumps into me.
I trained for 16 years in school to sit at a desk all day. You have no reason to sit at a desk all day. No one has that much email. But we all need to look busy. And if it’s not the water cooler you’re wasting time at it’s Reddit or tumblr or YouTube. So you sit, minutes between your next meeting stretching out into hours between budget recons rolling into days until the next deadline. You sit. And you try to find a more ergonomic arrangement when your wrists start to seize up like a sphincter. Your lower back, oh your lower back, your lower back feels betrayed. It’s become a crippled, gnarled bastard body part.
You tear yet another relevant Dilbert comic from the desktop calendar and pin it to the cubicle wall as a badge that loudly proclaims, “I won’t work this week’s forty hours without a fight! I won’t be another drone! I won’t push the rock up the hill just to see it roll down again over and over and over!”
You begin to fetishize your ancestors’ life of working in the fields for their daily bread. How they moved – often times standing up! – to mend their meager possessions. How happy they must have been. Standing around. Moving their limbs. You dream of making your own bread, mending your own
meager expensive yet cheaply made possessions. Living “authentically” and in the DIY spirit of the punk bands whose CDs you once found in the used bin at Wherehouse Music. Yeah, that life.
So I quit and earned my freedom to jog 3 miles through Golden Gate Park every morning (late morning!), to cook bothersome dishes seen on the Food Network (at 2 pm on a Monday!), to see a movie at the Kabuki (on a Wednesday after lunch!), and to stare at art made by my fellow bon vivants while browsing the de Young (hopefully not on the first Tuesday of the month!). I traveled home to see family for extended stays. I lunched and read at Java Beach Cafe for hours on end. I baked bread and mended.
And had no one to talk to.
I’m not a church goer, and my volunteering work doesn’t take up 40 hours a week, and I didn’t have enough money to buy my way out of boredom (no one, not no one, does forever). I had no full-time community any more. No more complicated problems to solve. Nothing to lead.
I went back to work one project at a time as a consultant. I learned new skills in classes. But with these came a different community each month, and I wandered from one lesson and opportunity to another while missing that one thing only a full-time, regular job succeeds in providing me: A set team working to accomplish shared goals.
A smart, fun team with inside jokes your HR department pretends not to overhear. A team you grumble with. That one sales guy who’s a fucking dick, but he saved your ass in that last meeting so I guess he’s okay. Stealing away for long lunches in South Park on a rare sunny day and feeling you’re “getting away” with something. Chatting about [local sports team] with your favorite vendor over the phone. Big, reach goals you smash apart because you take pride in hard work and happy customers.
And one of my favorites: Beating your competition / talking smack with your team about how hard you’re beating your competition. I’m competitive, which is sort of like how you’re competitive, but more so and far better than you.
I missed it. I missed the team, the hard, longterm goals, the day after day work that gradually moved you toward the finish line only to start over again next quarter. I imagined Sisyphus happy and envied him.
I found myself looking back at a 40-hour life the way you might stalk an ex-boyfriend on Facebook*. Should I have stayed? What could we have built together? What the fuck, they replaced me with a brunette?!
But then the bad memories. Remember all those times they made you feel worthless? Like how the CEO had no idea what your name was after 3 years of working for him? Heh, yeah, there were the 9 months where you went through 4 different bosses (really) and at one point you were a direct report to 5 different people. And you couldn’t test an idea because it died in a 10-person committee? Oh, gosh, what about the lack of empowerment or wondering where your bright future had gone to? That sucked a lot… remember?
All most of us want from those 40 hours is enough pride to keep our chins up. We want to go home proud that we were able to pay bills this month and feed our families. We want to tell our peers when we run into them at parties and reunions that we’re having a good life, and our parents that we’re making something of ourselves. But when we’re told by our 40 hours that we don’t matter, that our paychecks will never be enough to afford the American Dream let alone the American Debt, that our education wasn’t enough and our dreams absurd, we quit. Even if we’re still trudging through the office door every morning, we’ve quit. When we’re chewed out by our overworked manager who’s been chewed out by their overworked manager who’s been chewed out by a manager none of us thinks should even have a job, we quit. We resent the 40 hours, the people, the work and our livelihood becomes “just a paycheck.”
I quit because I snapped. Not as dramatically as it sounds, I assure you. I sat on a bench outside the Ferry Building one day, looking out at the water and listening to needy seagulls bother me for pieces of my sandwich while a musician played and sang Moondance (I think… close enough if not). A rare blue sky day and an otherwise delightful lunch hour. But it didn’t need to be. I mean, it didn’t need to be a lunch hour. A sanctioned, set-aside, agreed-upon, negotiated hour. I could have had that moment all day any day. Well, and eventually run out of money and become homeless, but still. That choice was mine. It was the first time I realized deep in my heart that it was a choice.
I quit a week later. I quit a good job with good pay… and I was fine.
I reread what I’ve written a hundred times and each time it sounds simultaneously genuine and ungrateful, and I’m certainly not ungrateful. I’m privileged, almost always happy, and, so far, freakishly lucky. And thankful. It’s just… realizing the path I had set upon was one fabricated 5 year plan after another gave me pause, and the structures I’d built in my mind turned out to be, well, in my mind. (Apologies for indulging in solipsism.) If I did well in high school, I’d get into a good college, and then a good job, and then a good life forever. Pre-snapping, I felt crippling anxiety at the thought of diverging from that path for even 6 months, and frankly, such anxiety served me well. Great college, great jobs, money in the bank. I traveled from point A to B to C perfectly as planned.
But I still wanted that gap year others took, and those adventures I promised myself years ago to seek – tomb raiding and whatnot. Friends and family of mine sauntered from A to J to H and finally to C while leading interesting, successful, genuine lives. Pre-snapping, I couldn’t imagine that. I wanted to, and I couldn’t.
Up-and-quitting and finding out that I was going to be okay post-quitting was the most freeing experience I’ve yet encountered. Close competitors to this feeling: smoking weed for the first time and confirming those anti-drug commercials are full of shit; ending a relationship that’s lingered in limbo way, way too long; asking and receiving forgiveness for an old transgression; eating one of those exotic sausages stuffed with mango or whatever.
Knowing that I’d be okay meant I was ready to come back. Ready to work 40 hours? Yes, of course, and more depending on what’s needed. Work with a full-time team with difficult goals and competitors? Fuck yea, I live for that shit!
I had the rare chance to quit and reexamine and reaffirm that – in general – I love moving from A to B to C with the help of fabricated 5 year plans. I love it more now that I know I’ll be fine if things don’t go according to my perfectly outlined plan. For all that, I’m humbled and grateful.
…Of course, it also helps that I have a standing desk at work now. Damn, wish I’d thought of that sooner.
*This is a universally terrible idea for your ego.