I Quit My Job Without Another Job and It's Terrifying and Great

Lesley Kinzel
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Hey guys, I quit my fucking job!

That makes it sound awful. It’s not. It wasn’t. I’ve talked before about what I did before I came to work full time at xoJane with literally no editorial experience. I was an office drudge. Well, maybe not; to be clear, I was a spectacularly flamboyant office drudge. Like a slightly more subtle Mimi. My job was so boring that the only thing I looked forward to every day was getting dressed. I did that for eight years, after I received my last PhD rejection in 2003; eight years of penance for not being smart enough for academia.

That last bit isn’t entirely accurate either. The years in between have helped me understand the issue was never my intelligence, but that I just wasn't willing to do what it takes to succeed as an academic, which should have been a signal that it wasn't the best place for me. Instead, I clung to the shattered pieces of the self-image I'd constructed of Me as Professional Scholar and Knower of Things for years—years! so ridiculous—before letting it go.

I was writing for xoJane prior to the site launch, and came on full time four months later. This was 2011. It was terrifying, taking that job, where I had no idea what I was doing and was afraid of screwing up every hour of every day. Also, my practical side felt very threatened; I still had reservations about whether it would be a good fit for me, and being a little bit of a pessimist, I wasn’t fully convinced that the site was going to last a year, and wouldn’t it be irresponsible and reckless to leave my very comfortable and mind-rendingly boring desk job—with no chance for advancement ever and which was making me miserable and dull but was also delivering a reliable if modest paycheck and a really sweet amount of paid vacation time—for a job that might not last very long?

Lesson #1: My practical side needs to shut the fuck up sometimes.

So I jumped and it was great. Great! I discovered I was a good editor, as well as being a good writer. And I was learning new things every day and I found out that living in terror of making mistakes was a really excellent way to challenge myself. And also—and this is of even more value—I learned that making mistakes is not all that debilitating as I’d thought.

I’d spent a long time as an activist and a blogger and a wannabe academic, and the one thing these fields often share in common is a need to be RIGHT and CORRECT and to never screw things up, because I thought that being wrong or making a mess would irrevocably destroy any authority I had built and ruin my reputation as a person who is always wise and trustworthy.

Lesson #2: Mistakes are cool.

Aging is totally rad for lots of reasons, but one of the greatest is that for many of us, it comes with the opportunity to recognize our own bullshit. I spent the whole of my twenties needing to be a know-it-all—I took PRIDE in it, for fuck’s sake, even describing myself that way in online profiles like it was a positive thing—and resisting ever being wrong, or asking a “bad” question, or otherwise betraying my conceit that I was the wisest and most correctest human in all the land.

It was a tragic period. Because as a result of my dedication to sustaining the illusion that I was omniscient, I didn’t learn much in that time at all. There are no “bad” questions. And while willful ignorance is dangerous and unacceptable, trying to remedy a sincere lack of knowledge or understanding on a given subject, even when people are going to call you an idiot, is an admirable thing. Looking stupid, or even like an asshole, is never a wasted effort if you take a positive gain of knowledge away from the encounter.

Also, looking like a stupid asshole ultimately isn’t that bad when viewed as the occasional cost of making yourself a more well-rounded person, and realizing how much you really don’t and sometimes can’t understand about the world and other people’s experiences. Today, after many years of being that stupid asshole, I get that my momentary discomfort is a minimal price to pay when compared to the realities of systemic oppression that I will never have to experience firsthand, but I wouldn’t have understood that without getting comfortable with being discomforted.

Lesson #3: I thrive best when I am spending every day feeling like I don’t know what I’m doing and yet doing it anyway.

This is probably the most important lesson of all for me, now and forever. It’s partly why I quit a stable (!) full-time job at xoJane, where I had over four years of seniority and where people trusted and valued me so much they wanted me to take on more and more responsibility. That’s a huge compliment, and I don’t want to sound ungrateful about it.

But I realized again—quicker this time—that I can’t let my worries about other people’s perception of me rule the decisions I make for my own life and happiness. I didn’t want to let anyone down. But the truth is I was in despair. I was miserable, not because the job was objectively bad or what I was being asked to do was bad, but because it simply wasn’t in line with where I saw myself going professionally, and it was no longer the job I’d been happy with in the past.

Remember before when I talked about being scared to leave my comfortable-but-wretched office drudge job exclusively because it was safe and reliable? So much so that I wound up lingering there for EIGHT FREAKING YEARS while I noodled on my blog and ran some online communities (oh, and I guess I wrote a book too) and squeezed what fulfillment I could out of side projects like that?

Yeah, I learned that lesson well: Don’t spend eight years of your adult life doing something that you don’t really want to do, if you have any other choice, simply because it’s the devil you know. Too often—and this is especially true of pragmatic folks like myself—comfort is the enemy of personal growth. I was stagnating. I didn’t want to poison all the incredible experiences and opportunities I’d had, and spoil the true fact that my time at xoJane was overall a positive, even life-altering experience.

I realized I had to leave.

Lesson #4: Believing in yourself is terrifying.

Let me be the first to acknowledge that I’m fortunate to be in a situation where I could quit my job and choose to freelance for awhile. That should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. There are a million ways things could be different for me such that quitting my job wasn’t even an option. Even now, I will probably wind up taking work I’m not 100% jazzed about at some point. That’s okay too. I’m learning from it, and that makes it worthwhile for me.

There’s a truth that all the positive uplifting destroy-your-goals-you-boss-person memes don’t tell you. That truth is that believing in yourself is actually terrifying. Terrifying! It’s not soft and pink and glittery; it’s laborious and ambitious and if it looks glittery that's only because it's made of extremely coarse sandpaper. It requires you to put all your faith in your own competence, and to rely on your persistence and effort to turn your life into something you really, really want. It means you have to cultivate an unshakable faith in your abilities to do things you’ve never done before, and to accomplish goals where even trying feels impossible.

It also requires you to accept that plain old luck is a huge part of success, and that sometimes it comes down to being in the right place at the right time, and all you can do is clear enough ground to make yourself available when that moment happens. And sometimes, no matter how hard you work, or how badly you want a thing to happen, you will fail, fail, fail and your heart will break and you’ll have to fight the urge to consider all of it a terrible mistake.

But then you get up and you do it again. Or you walk away and try something else. And you keep surviving. You only get one lifetime. And I don't have hard statistics on this but someday, when I am old, I suspect I'm a lot more likely to regret the things I didn't try than the things I did.

Lesson #5: My plans rarely work out as I expect, but they do work out they way they need to.

I have ideas! So many ideas. So many plans and machinations. So much energy and motivation. Probably 80% of it won’t work out the way I want it to, or even in ways I’ve anticipated. A seemingly-solid opportunity may crumble and disappear; a vague prospect I wasn’t taking too seriously may turn into a specific project; a long-forgotten connection may proffer itself as a chance to do something tremendous. You never know who might turn up with a task for you, or where that task may lead. Open-mindedness is crucial. So is a willingness to say yes to things, particularly things that scare you.

Particularly things that scare me.

When you leave a job as I have, the first thing people ask is what you’re doing next, because this is what responsible people do: they have a plan. I have plans. I am scared to death of not having plans. But I’ve also had plans my whole life, and plans are not reliable, because the world is not predictable, and no matter how carefully you plot your every move, you cannot account for the inevitable bolt of chaos that will interject itself.

My advice to myself today is this: don’t fight the chaos. Don’t try to put things back the way they were. It will never come together again as it was. Accept that your life will not unfold exactly as you’d intended it, and embrace the things that force you down paths you never thought you’d go. Those paths are where you find parts of yourself you didn’t know you had. Take a calculated risk, sometimes. Don’t fear your fear; when you feel afraid, let that be a signal to chase after whatever it is that’s scaring you.

I don’t know where I will be a year from now. Or even six months from now. But I know that however my professional future unfolds, it won’t be something that happened to me; it will be something I did for myself. Failure doesn’t faze me much anymore—I’ve experienced it too often and seen the long-term good it can do—but I can’t bear the possibility that I might miss out on a chance to grow because I was too nervous to take a leap. I’d rather leap and fall than stay safe on the edge. 

I’m leaping. It’s good.