Why giving up your job could be your best career move ever!
21:00 GMT, 7 October 2012
07:02 GMT, 8 October 2012
A week after leaving the magazine I’d edited for two years, I was phoned by a former colleague bringing what she felt certain was wonderful news.
The top job on a well-respected title was vacant – I should apply, she insisted. ‘It’s perfect for you,’ she said. ‘With your experience, you’re bound to get it.’
I hesitated, then admitted I’d already been approached. I told her that I wouldn’t be going for that editorship, or any other.
Leaving it all behind: Sharon Parsons says she's never looked back since ending her career as an editor
There was a stunned silence on the other end of the phone. ‘But you can’t just quit,’ she argued.
Couldn’t I I’d been in magazines all my working life and had always relished the creativity, innovation and buzz. Over the years I’d been promoted, edited a clutch of titles, and enjoyed the rewards. Only a few months previously, I’d been shortlisted for a prestigious award.
But having just celebrated my 50th birthday, something in me had changed. I wasn’t only exhausted and disillusioned: I felt permanently stressed and creatively squeezed dry.
It wasn’t just that particular job. It was my whole career as an editor that I found myself questioning. It shocked me to realise that, quite simply, I didn’t want to do it any more.
Yet leaving behind my hard-won achievements proved far from easy. In today’s competitive, fast-paced society, we’re conditioned to believe that people who give up have somehow failed. Onwards and upwards are the only permissible options.
It took a great deal of soul-searching to convince myself that quitting can be the right thing to do — and it was only after I’d come to that lonely and rather shame-faced conclusion that it began to dawn on me that I was part of a growing trend.
I recently wrote a magazine article about learning to love my inner ‘quitter’, and have been overwhelmed by the number of women who’ve been in touch to say that they, too, have either thrown in the career towel, or are planning to.
The question is, why It’s not as if it was easy for women of my generation to realise our ambitions.
We 40 and 50-somethings took the beliefs and dreams laid down by the feminists of the 1970s into the workplace and fought hard for recognition, promotion and equal pay.
We have now accepted that we were kidding ourselves to think we could have it all. That’s never going to happen while working women still do most of the childcare, organising and housework.
Indeed, a few months ago, Tory MP Louise Mensch resigned her position to devote more time to her children and husband, admitting in a letter to David Cameron: ‘I have been unable to make the balancing act work for our family.’
While some applauded her decision, she also attracted howls of protest from others who accused her of letting down the so-called ‘sisterhood’.
Tough decision: Tory MP Louise Mensch resigned her position to devote more time to her children and husband
‘It takes a lot of strength and courage to walk away from an established career and the status it brings,’ says psychologist Sue Firth. ‘Undoubtedly, though, there’s some ill-placed guilt around deciding enough is enough.’
She believes we are much more aware that we have choices about the way we live and work today, and feel more empowered to make changes.
‘You don’t have to stick rigidly to an original career path, no matter what,’ she explains. ‘Nowadays, it’s not unusual to find that the role you took on has changed dramatically, morphing into a position you no longer want.
‘If you’re not equipped to take it on, you can feel you’re being stretched too thin.’
That was certainly the case for Pree Desai, 33, from Ruislip, North-West London, who returned to her well-paid career as an analyst for an investment bank when her son Anay, now four, was nine months old.
‘I’d always loved the buzz of working in such a fast-moving environment,’ she said. ‘But on the day I went back, Lehman Brothers collapsed — and from then on the pressure was horrendous. Suddenly I was doing the jobs of three people, in a role I barely recognised.’
Although she had supportive colleagues and was allowed to work four days a week, Pree sometimes didn’t get home until 11pm, and could go several days without seeing her baby.
By the time she was pregnant with her daughter, Alyssa, now one, Pree had decided she could no longer continue her career. ‘It wasn’t just because the situation was so stressful,’ she says.
‘I’d realised how much I was missing by not being at home with Anay, and I didn’t want to repeat that.’
Luckily her husband, Kish, 32, a City trader, earns a good enough salary to support the family, although Pree misses having her own money to spend.
'It took a great deal of soul-searching
to convince myself that quitting can be the right thing to do — and it
was only after I’d come to that lonely and rather shame-faced conclusion
that it began to dawn on me that I was part of a growing trend'
‘I also worry that Kish will think I’m stupid — only able to talk about nappies and feeding,’ she admits.
‘When he gets home, I want to know every detail about his day. It’s a world I’m no longer a part of, but I still take a genuine interest.’
Despite that, Pree has no doubt she did the right thing in walking away. ‘When the children are older,
'I’d like to retrain as a financial advisor and work from home,’ she says. ‘But for now I’m enjoying being a full-time mum.’
One study has found that instead of fretting about what you have to lose by giving up your career, focusing on what you have to gain by walking away makes the process easier.
Sue Firth cautions: ‘If you are thinking of quitting — be it for family reasons or because you and your career no longer seem to fit — you must analyse the situation carefully.
‘Consider how much you enjoy your job and what, if anything, you’ll miss. Talk it through with those you trust: your partner, friends, even a mentor. Most important, before you leave, have a plan in place.’
Mine was to become a writer. But Anna Warrington, 45, took a leap of faith when she resigned from her well-paid position as a facilities manager in the West Midlands four years ago.
‘I’d always been very work-orientated — my career defined who I was,’ recalls Anna, who was single at the time.
But she had started to feel something was missing. ‘I worked long, stressful hours, and I often thought, “Is this it” she says.
‘Then, on holiday in Devon, I made a split-second decision to relocate to the coast. I had no idea what I was going to do, but I was convinced I needed to move.’
Today, Anna is in a relationship with a fisherman and juggles several different jobs, from assisting at a cookery school to cleaning holiday cottages.
‘I realised I wasn’t bothered by the prestige of a fancy job description, and wanted my life to be more relaxed,’ she says. ‘Some people are aghast that I’ve stepped off the career path and think it’s a waste, but I couldn’t care less.
‘I’m proud to say I’m a cleaner, and confident enough not to feel intimidated by high-flyers. I’ve been there, done that — and I don’t need it any more.’
Of course, most of us quitters don’t completely abandon the experience we’ve gained in our careers. Instead we use our existing skills in a different way, as in the case of chartered accountant Susan Stuart, 53, from South London, who is single without children.
Six years ago, she turned her back on the prestigious financial career she’d enjoyed for 30 years.
‘I’d always loved my job, but as the working environment became more aggressive, I felt increasingly out of kilter with it,’ she explains.
Despite earning a six-figure salary and enjoying an affluent lifestyle, Susan became disillusioned, feeling a growing need to give something back.
‘I was on the board of governors at a special needs school while I was still working when I was approached by a charity called Thrive (thrive.org.uk) which aims to change the lives of disabled people through gardening programmes,’ she explains.
‘I’ve always been a keen gardener, so it seemed like a great opportunity to satisfy my interest and do something worthwhile.’
She started managing a garden project in Battersea, South London, and is now the charity’s interim chief executive.
Susan loves the direction her new career has taken. ‘It’s fantastic to use my skills — from team-building to project funding — to help develop the charity,’ she says.
‘What’s so rewarding is seeing tangible results, and building strong, durable relationships — something that no longer happened in my previous job.
‘I don’t earn anything like what I did before, but I’m so much happier.’
And me When I walked away from my career, a friend gave me the classic self-help book by Susan Jeffers, Feel The Fear and Do It Anyway.
I’m embarrassed to say that it’s still languishing, unread, on the bookshelf. I’d felt the fear, I’d done it anyway — and I’ve never looked back.