Credit: Day By Day Photography/Getty Images
September 25, 2022 7:30 AM EDT

Amid all the recent buzz over quiet quitting, the other, more literal type of quitting continues apace. Roughly 4.2 million people in the US voluntarily left their jobs in July, accounting for 2.7% of the workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

This movement isn’t just costly for employers. In recent months, multiple surveys have pointed to dissatisfaction and regret among many people who joined the wave of quitting, for reasons ranging from difficulty finding employment to disappointment with the reality of a new job. To understand how someone seeking a change in their professional life might find one in a lower-risk way than tendering their resignation, we reached out to Insider reporter Shana Lebowitz Gaynor, author of the recently published Don’t Call It Quits: Turn the Job You Have Into the Job You Love.

A caveat: Some jobs are simply bad, full stop. “I’m definitely not the anti-quitting spokeswoman,” Gaynor says. “If you feel like you’re working in an environment that’s toxic or harmful to your mental health or discriminatory, leaving the company could be best for you,” assuming leaving is a viable option. But for those whose employers provide a baseline of dignity and a decent wage, an intentional mindset shift can help morph an unsatisfying job into one with more redeeming qualities.

Below are excerpts of our conversation, edited for space and clarity:

Why does the idea of quitting hold so much appeal?

It holds the promise of a life and career and a day-to-day experience that is very different from what we have now. You show up or show up virtually to work every day, you log in, you do your assignments, you chat with your boss—there’s this idea that if you quit, you won’t have to do any of that. Maybe you’ll run your own business and answer to no one but yourself. Maybe you’ll be working outdoors instead of at a desk. That’s so tantalizing.

If you’re a person who is miserable and feels stuck at work, that’s a really good story to tell: ‘I was miserable, then one day I decided I can’t take this anymore and I’m quitting. I got a new job and I feel great now, and no one’s holding me back.’ On the other hand, if you have a story like, ‘I hate my job, but I’m still there,’ that’s a terrible story, or it seems that way. When we talk to other people, we crave the happy ending and the redemptive narrative where people release themselves from some kind of challenge or trauma. In some cases, people are able to tell those stories because that’s actually what happened to them. But in many, many cases, that’s not how the story actually went for the person.

All this to say is that we feel a kind of social pressure to triumph and be our own hero in the end. And, given that that doesn’t always happen, I think we would do ourselves a favor to be a little kinder to ourselves and to our friends, and offer them more grace in the kinds of career stories they can tell.

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You write about how expecting less of your job can counterintuitively make it more fulfilling. How does that work?

A lot of people, particularly knowledge workers in cities and large metropolitan hubs—and I count myself among them—have this idea that our jobs or our careers are our identities, and how we perform at our job defines how we perform in life.

In the book, I analogize expecting less of your job to expecting less of your relationship, which is an idea that came from a psychologist at Northwestern, Eli Finkel. He has this book, The All or Nothing Marriage, and he advocates for expecting less of your marriage and your spouse in some cases. Pick one or two things. Your spouse doesn’t have to be your soul mate, your intellectual conversation partner, your tennis buddy, and also your best friend and the person who reads over all your work projects.

So in terms of your job, maybe your job is not your passion and your calling, and also the place where you make friends, and also where you define your self-worth, and also where you spend all your time and make all your money. Maybe it can be one or two or even three of those things. But if you look outside your job for sources that will fulfill those other buckets, you’re probably going to be happier in a shorter time.

What are some of your favorite tactics for shaping a less-than-stellar job into a better one?

Susan David is a Harvard medical school psychologist who wrote about this in her book, Emotional Agility: productive complaining. You can use the words and the sentiments that are coming out of your own mouth as a vehicle for introspection. To use one of David’s examples, if you find yourself saying, ‘I find this job so boring, the tasks are not stimulating at all, I’m miserable,’ well, I’m sorry to hear you’re miserable, but maybe that also suggests that creativity and intellectual engagement are things that really matter to you at work. Now knowing that those things are important to you and they’re missing in your current role, how can you either shape your current role to give you more of those things, that creativity and stimulation, or look for another role that does give you those things that are missing?

And how do you create your own learning opportunities? This particular piece of wisdom comes from the social psychologist Ron Friedman, who said if you can pinpoint one thing you’d like to get better at, one skill you’d like to develop, or one area you’d like to strengthen in terms of your professional skills, pick that one thing and see if every day you can do one little thing to try to try to make progress on that goal. Let’s say you heard a speaker or another colleague give a presentation at your workplace, and you’re like, ‘Wow. I wish I could have that kind of public-speaking skill and give a presentation like that.’ So maybe today it’s, ‘Okay, I’m going to watch the video recording of that person speaking, and I’m going to jot down a few things that they did well that I’d like to emulate.’ It’s kind of a little thing—you’re not taking an instructor-led class—but it’s a way to make that learning and development opportunity for yourself, and fold it right into the rhythms of your workday. The more granular, the better. Instead of trying to be a better leader, try to do a better job leading the 9 am meeting. That’s an easier target.

And I wrote about some research co-authored by Patricia Chen, who was at the National University of Singapore. She and her co-authors wrote about a strategic mindset, which basically means asking yourself, ‘If I’m in a rut at work, what are some ways I can get myself out of this rut?’ The point is, you might not even need to read this book. Maybe you don’t need a career coach. You don’t need your boss to help you. You can just think of a few ideas yourself to help you get unstuck. You’re smarter and more influential than you think.

Read a full transcript of our conversation, including how to handle bad managers and how to find a sense of purpose in small moments, and forward this to someone who could use some inspiration for their own job.

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