More specifically: If you are not clearly happy with your life, you should be able to at least consider the hypothesis of quitting your job. By "considering the hypothesis" I mean being able to think about it for more than five seconds without the feeling that the conclusion is already fixed and or without a feeling of dread, aversion, "I can't", "no way" etc. It might in fact be that all facts speak against quitting but it's important to be able to look reality in the face.
I currently have the weakly held hypothesis that people don't quit their job (early) enough, at least when they work at an org for impact reasons and when they are not clearly happy with their life. (I would write unhappy but when I was clearly unhappy for months-years, I would have protested and said I'm not unhappy.)
Epistemic status: Speculation/Intuition; hastily written
Meta on anonymity: Disgruntledly decided to publish anonymously. I think there's a lot of value to having EA forum posts, including this type, published under one's clear name and am open towards bids to move this to my main account. Obviously don't just de-anonymise me.
Reasons I have this intuition:
I think this because of personal experience, anecdotes, reading this 80,000 Hours article, and theoretical argument/intuition. I haven't polled people or looked into the literature myself though.
Some theoretical arguments:
- I have the same intuition about break-ups and the cases seem similar,
- There are many reasons people might find quitting scary (financial security, uncertainty about the future, social discomfort and feelings of loyalty, you might have to admit to yourself that you've made mistakes or wasted your time in the past, there was a reason you took the job in the first place and it's hard to admit that something isn't working when it initially looked promising), so it's hard to think about,
- I have the intuition that people in EA tend to not value their own welfare enough (even just instrumentally),
- It's awkward to tell others that you think they should quit their job,
- Status quo bias.
- I was extremely surprised by the questions in this burn-out questionnaire (first link on google) and feel like many of my friends would score relatively high on them. I might write a post titled something "All my friends are burning out and they don't know it" in the future.
- We see the upside of continuing our job very clearly but it's harder to see the opportunity cost of not quitting, i.e. the upside of potentially finding something else. I think you should take that particularly serious if you feel unproductive or feel like you could potentially be capable of much more than you currently do. In those cases, the downside and upside of quitting are lob-sided and quitting usually increases variance. If you want to kick ass and think you can but aren't in your current job for reasons that seem unlikely to change, maybe quit even if you're not sure how likely it is you'd kick ass if you quit. Being unhappy also might make you underestimate how well you could do in another job.
- Sometimes it's not obvious to people that they are/were unhappy until they're no longer unhappy.
I think for many people, thinking about quitting is at least somewhat painful. For some people, it's very painful. If you are one of those people and you're thinking about quitting, that's some evidence that there's really a lot of emotional pressure inside of you to quit because it managed to break through the aversion. That seems worth taking seriously.
I also think continuing a job you're unhappy in is really costly: My guess is that it increases the chance that you'll need a long break from work and that it also increases the length of that future break.
Who does this advice apply to?
As always, some people probably quit too often or too easily and need to hear the opposite.
Regardless, if you do decide to quit your job, make sure to try to communicate well with your team and to make it as uncostly as reasonable for them.
Here is the type of person I have the quitting intuition for and who this post is targeted towards. Note this is heavily driven by intuition and anecdotes and many criteria are probably neither sufficient nor necessary:
- Anybody who finds it (nearly) impossible to even entertain the possibility of quitting.
- Generally struggles with their mental health and productivity, not very happy (note though that for some people, quitting their job might mean losing a lot of social contact and structure, leading them into a black hole. I am optimistic that many people will still be better off in the medium-term but clearly not all.)
- Really impact-driven and feel like they have an obligation to continue with their job. The thought of quitting generally fills them with guilt or dread. Alternatively, really worried about what other people think about them.
- Tendency to have some idea of what an ideal agent would do in their situation and try to act according to that. Difficulty facing their own (e.g. psychological) constraints and needs, especially where they are in the way of "doing what's good".
- Some indication that the above applies: Regularly finding themselves thinking that a task they are struggling with should be "easy" (no really! This should be really easy. I literally just have to do this thing that should only take 5 minutes.)
- Have been unhappy for a few months.
- Tend to not trust their own abilities including their ability to be happy.
- Thinking that always/most of the time feeling strong aversion or anxiety or related things when thinking about work is normal.
- You've never filled in an online burn-out questionnaire (first link on google), do it now, and have a high score.
- It's your first job. (I think there are considerations pushing in both directions but I expect people on average to be more biased towards staying if it's their first job.)
Here is the type of person I don't have the quitting intuition for although I'm also not making opposite claims:
- People who are generally happy and or not at all thinking about quitting even though they have sat down to (or are very confident they could) think about the reasons for and against quitting for 20 minutes.
- Generally doing all right but always wondering whether there is something even higher impact they could do.
- Probably many other types of people.
- You have a lot of work experience to compare to and your current job doesn't seem uniquely bad.
Here is the type of person that I have the intuition should be really careful with quitting:
- You have no financial security, a weak social network/other things that can buffer your mental health, are prone to serious addiction (or some other mental health problem that it's hard to recover from within ~1-6 months) that could be triggered by quitting, including extremely low trust in your ability to do other things - low enough that you expect yourself to not apply to anything, work on self-development, or try anything new within 1-12 months after quitting.
- You haven't taken at least a few weeks to think about this, especially if you have just been in an intense environment (e.g. a retreat) or have only talked to very few people about this
Even more speculative stuff in this footnote.
My personal story:
- I started my first job a couple of years ago. I loved it and I also hated it. I struggled with mental health and productivity and went through many cycles of getting better and getting worse. (Although post-quitting, I think I actually achieved more than it felt like at the time and am proud of what I did.) At any point in time it felt either like "Oh, I had this rough time but now I'm on the way up" or "Oh, I'm having this exceptionally rough time right now because of these specific reasons." It always felt like I just had to push on and great things were gonna come. I also wouldn't have applied the label "unhappy" to myself during the time.
- Others sometimes brought up the idea to take a break or explore other jobs but I always blocked those suggestions.
- I took me over a year to see that things were, on the whole, not improving.
- I liked (and still like) my manager and my team, so I assumed it must be a me-problem. Especially because it wasn't obvious to me which factors of my work I would actually like to be different.
- I think I had a mix of not being able to entertain the hypothesis that maybe it just wasn't working out even though nobody did anything wrong and not being able to entertain the hypothesis that others were (not) doing things that made the workplace unideal for me.
- I felt a really strong sense of loyalty towards my team.
- Despite often having read advice about how you should have a plan B or plan Z that you can retreat to if things aren't going well at work, I thought I was exceptional in that I, and only I specifically, really didn't have any other alternatives than my then-current job if I wanted to work on the things I cared about.
- As time went on, I lost a lot of confidence in my own abilities, which amplified the sense of having no alternatives.
- I eventually decided to take a long break from work. (I was still employed at my old organisation and intended to come back.) This might not be possible for people who don't work at an organisation that's as supportive as mine then.
- Even 3-4 months into the break, I couldn't entertain the possibility of quitting. Thinking about it felt taboo. When others asked me I would half-heartedly say that quitting was a possibility but unlikely. I gave it at most 5-10 second of thought or half-assed argument in conversation. It never felt like I really gave myself the chance to come to the conclusion "Yes, I should quit."
- As soon as I was able to entertain the possibility seriously (prompted by my partner making me list things I could do instead of my then-job), it was almost immediately obvious that I wanted to quit.
- Quitting felt awesome. Months later, I'm still really happy about it. I think I also understand how to work much better now. I think it's important to say that I have a strong social network, have enough runway, and enjoy self-improvement, introspection etc. At this point, I had also recovered enough of my self-confidence to believe in my ability to find something else. This was perhaps easier because I had the luxury of a long break with the knowledge that I had a job I could always come back to. I also have a fairly clear vision of what I want to do now, which might be a bit unusual.
I feel a bit irresponsible writing this very quick post without much/any research on something that could affect people's life in important ways, so I'll leave a poll in the comment section for people's experiences with (not) quitting. It's a bit hard to come up with a good version of the poll because it's hard to catch people who decided not to quit. Let me know if you have suggestions for what to poll.
Feel free to dm me if this resonated and you want to talk to someone or just get a weight of your shoulders. I might not be the fastest on the replies though or decide to only offer text responses.
- I think you can get a feeling for the direction in which you're biased.
- You can ask yourself whether you feel more dread from thinking about all the great opportunities you're missing by staying at your job (FOMO) or from thinking about quitting.
- You might be more biased towards leaving if you have more FOMO and more bias towards staying if you dread quitting more.
- That said, your emotions are an important piece of information and might also just reflect reality. Weighing this part takes a lot of self-knowledge.
- I think the most important part is figuring out whether there are certain things you're not capable of thinking about.
Related (and IMO excellent) blog post that you might find interesting: https://www.benkuhn.net/abyss/
Here is a paper by Steve Levitt that argues that for people who are having difficulty making a decision (quitting your job, ending a relationship etc), those that do make a change are happier 6 months later.
Here is an open access earlier version of the working paper.