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In Praise of Quitting Your Job, or The New Work Ethic. (pieratt.tumblr.com)
161 points by pstinnett on Aug 19, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 52 comments

I just came out of a 2.5 year stint. Before that I went into consulting because I couldn't hold down a job for even a year. I figured it was boredom and thought the solution was to simply expose myself to a constant stream of new problems. Turns out it was simply ownership that was the problem. I never felt in control.

By ownership I mean ownership of my domain (area of involvement, etc) in the project. I don't mean ownership as in control and possession. The kind of ownership that kept me around at my last gig was the kind that let me make suggestions, criticisms, and decisions that were taken seriously. I had responsibility to back up every claim I made and that responsibility kept me highly motivated to produce software I could. It made the project feel more collaborative and kept me involved as a part of its development.

What kills that motivation is a loss of that ownership. In the final months of my last gig we brought on someone who took total ownership of the project practically from design to implementation. It no longer felt collaborative. I felt like a monkey in a room of monkeys trying to type out Shakespeare; as if I could replace myself with a junior programmer at half my salary and things would still run smoothly. That's not a good feeling and such loss of ownership (or lack of it in the first place) is completely demoralizing.

I get the sense that the OP was referring to this kind of ownership. The kind that makes you feel involved and responsible.

But does that mean you should quit your job? I don't think so. Some jobs will have ups and downs. I didn't leave my job when they brought the new guy on. I was going to stick it out... just circumstance brought my tenure there shorter than anticipated. I think you can stick it out in this way as well and avoid "depression." I take pride in my work and it does affect me very personally.. but you have to keep things in perspective. Especially when you have other people relying on you to keep your job.

To an extent this is a reasonable way to put it, but in all honesty, there's much more to software engineers than whether their programming muse is satisfied or not.

For example, I'm happy whenever I can make users happy. Even if I'm just writing a data loader script, if the script is fast, gets the users' data loaded correctly, I'm happy and fulfilled.

Put in a situation, where I'm unable to make users happy, maybe through clashing with company objectives like making money on a badly written contract, or bad design, I'm miserable.

Deprived of feedback from users, or stuck writing designs, I'm miserable.

If you are always miserable after 9 months, you need to have a deep think about what sort of jobs you are applying for, or whether pursuing the work at all is worth it. There are decent companies out there, that are customer focussed, and that use new technologies and development methods that stress individual creativity. Go find them.

This piece struck me as very insightful. Not as advice per se, but as a window into the motivations of Creators. This part in particular: "Creation is a deeply personal and rewarding activity, which means that your Work should also be deeply personal and rewarding."

I think if you talk to founders who have left companies several years out from the company's inception, the loss of that sense of engagement and "ownership" in the creative sense is a major driver of departures. Some may stay for the financial aspects of "ownership", but once things devolve into board meetings and committees, the spark is gone.

I've been with the same company almost 5 years now. While I occasionally have times that I'm incredibly frustrated, I can deal with that because I know that I work daily to make things better. (A co-worker would laugh at this because he thinks we don't do enough better-making. He's leaving.) I've seen this company's software turn from 'oh ---- that's crazy' to 'man, this sucks' and it's continuing to get better.

While I'm making it better, I'm also adding features and pleasing the users of the software. And despite the state of the code, it ALL works. That's very important.

For me, the key to job happiness is simply to be making things better. For guys like at this article (and my co-worker), it apparently means having everything be perfect from the start. I don't know how people can live like that, since they will always be disappointed.

The author isn't saying things need to be perfect from the start, just that he's frustrated by imperfection being introduced by people other than himself, especially when it's the result of compromise or design by committee.

The argument is inherently selfish -- I want to own everything -- but I think it's pretty natural for some people. The thing I hated most about contracting for other people was knowing that I was being hired because I'm good at designing and building apps, and still being forced to do something I knew was a bad idea because the client demanded it. I think the best contractors instinctively know how to pick clients who trust them and can be convinced by compelling arguments, and are themselves good at arguing their case in the face of opposition.

Things don't have to be perfect from the start, they have to be in such a way that you are free to make things better.

I've been in consulting for 2 years, and switching projects is like leaving a job and starting a new one. I've gone through exactly what was described, and by 9 months it was outright defeat.

I just quit that gig for a startup and couldn't be more happier with the move. This felt like reading what's deep within my subconscious.

This article struck a real chord with me too. I stayed far, far too long at my last job and it's only after finally getting bored enough to quit that I've realized how corrosive it's been to my motivation for everything.


Ownership not as a percentage of equity, but as a measure of your ability to change things for the better.

I found this succinct expression to be the most valuable (perhaps even the tldr summary).

A percentage of equity, as laughably small as it tends to be for non-founders, might not even serve as an alignment of financial interests.

This speaks really strongly to me. This is why I stopped working in the field too. It's not impossible to find an awesome job, but it's also not easy. It's maybe as difficult to find a good job as it is to find a good programmer.

Why isn't this person just a consultant?

There is nothing wrong with just being a sprinter, but isn't there something to be said for being able to run the marathon?

If the spark is gone after only a few months at a company, seemingly no matter what the company, maybe the problem is within and not with the companies that you're working with?

Or maybe there is no 'problem' at all. Different people work in different ways.

I can sympathize. I've been at plenty of jobs where my ideas were uniformly ignored--not rejected, or outvoted: ignored. That's deflating. It makes work not just menial but downright demoralizing. And it causes the employee to stop thinking and stop trying, which is bad for everyone.

Now I wanna go watch Office Space.

This reminds me of the "Self-Determination Theory" that Cal Newport emphasizes:

"To be happy, your work must fulfill three universal psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness."

-- http://calnewport.com/blog/2010/01/23/beyond-passion-the-sci...

Ownership not as a percentage of equity, but as a measure of your ability to change things for the better.

In any company it is difficult to find ownership and recognition at the lowest levels of the corporate hierarchy. If you only work for the company for less than a year, as the author proudly admits to, then you should not expect to be given substantial influence in the company.

Influence and recognition must be earned, and that takes time and hard work. The bigger and more established the company, the more time this will take. If you're impatient, then you're going to have to work at a startup or start your own company.

From my experience, the trick is to get engaged and routinely demonstrate that you care. If you begrudgingly implement or design every request that comes your way from the confines of your cubicle, of course you will burn out. If instead you ask your boss about the customer's needs or take the initiative to track down and talk to the sales person in charge of the account for some additional detail, you've effectively taken a small piece of ownership and showed some initiative. This rarely goes unnoticed, and definitely factors into decisions involved influence, ownership, and recognition in the future.

If you only work for the company for less than a year, as the author proudly admits to, then you should not expect to be given substantial influence in the company.


Explain VPs and midlevel execs that come in and are given substantial influence on day 1. They've not worked at the company, yet are given staff, budgets, division and respoonsibility, sometimes (often?) before it's known if a) they're really competent and b) a good corporate fit.

Seeing that sort of stuff happen can lead people like the OP to despair even more of being able to make any substantive impact.

In any company it is difficult to find ownership and recognition at the lowest levels of the corporate hierarchy. If you only work for the company for less than a year, as the author proudly admits to, then you should not expect to be given substantial influence in the company.


Software developer interns at good companies like are routinely given serious work (consequential to the company) to do and left to figure it out largely by themselves, with help available if they need it.

I don't see why it should take a year before anyone would extend that level of respect to a actual employee.

People just want to feel like the work they do matters, and that they aren't micro managed to the finish line.

While it is true that influence and recognition can be earned by hard work, it is also true that influence and recognition can be earned by being political and other sneaky means as well.

When enough people do that, you will loathe yourself to no end. Staying would require a really big enough reason.

I agree on your argument on the patient/impatient. However, I would argue that being impatient is not necessarily a bad trait in this case.

> If you're impatient, then you're going to have to work at a startup or start your own company.

I think that's exactly the point of the article.

> the trick is to get engaged and routinely demonstrate that you care

It's hard to care when you don't have ownership. It's impossible to 'demonstrate that you care' when you don't actually care that much.

> If instead you ask your boss about the customer's needs or take the initiative to track down and talk to the sales person in charge of the account for some additional detail, you've effectively taken a small piece of ownership and showed some initiative.

I do that sometimes, but it often falls on deaf ears.

The response is often: yeah the product sucks, our design sucks, but that's how it is, we know that and we're not gonna let you fix it; we need you to work on XYZ instead.

One can probably have a good discussion whether one can force the muse to speak to oneself (see Steven Pressfield - The War of Art). Still, the author has quit several companies after working for them for just 6-12 months at best and still sees the companies as being the problem, not himself or his attitude. To each his own, but it makes you wonder if his advice is valid and not an excuse.

The bad guy here was not meant to be the employer, though I can see where you'd get that impression. It's a statement against the lack of control that is inherent to most work environments, and a brief waxing on the effect that has on a person's ability to build great stuff.

I'm not a lazy person. I enjoy working, and I have at least a little bit to show for it. So the email was an exploration of why this ceases to be the case when I've spent a certain amount of time working for someone other than myself. The only feasible conclusion that I've come to is what I wrote.

Ideally not so much an excuse as a reason.

Depression isn't attitude

And "unhappy at work" isn't the same as "diagnosed as depressed by a professional". I have a feeling that the author wasn't using the word in the clinical sense.

Depressing response.

It is revealing how many people vote up this protestant work ethic judgmentalism masquerading as concern for correct professional diagnosis. What, his emotional concerns are not legitimate to you for some reason? How about you expound on that a bit, maybe reveal a bit more about your delightful world view.

Why even dilly-dally with that...why don't you just tell him to grow up and enjoy his cubicle already like all the rest of the poor schmucks in cubes.

Hell, maybe you could send a message to working stiffs everywhere that they should get a professional diagnosis before they leave a our soul killing corporate work culture, feel better, then encourage others to do the same. (OMG, how would the captains of industry stay all captainy with so much free thinking!? ;)

I hate how people randomly heap shit on the plight of people. Crass. Mean-spirited. Farcical.

Regardless of semantic, I would argue that when you are really, really hate what you are doing, depression is not a surprising outcome.

"The longest was 12 months at [Redacted], and that was only because I wanted my options to vest. I handed them my resignation on my 366th day."

This made me livid. I don't hire engineers with the intention of firing them the day before they vest, why would it be ethical to wait until the day after your cliff to quit?

[EDIT] Let me clarify. This individual seems to have decided months before that they would quit the day after their vesting cliff. Everyone here thinks that's ethical and appropriate?

I'm not questioning whether it's legal, of course it's legal. It's just not very honorable. A vesting cliff exists so that both parties -- employer and employee -- can have a chance to get to know each other before stock is granted and make sure that they're making the right decision.

It's very hard to comment without making some assumptions here, since we don't know the particulars...

But I don't see anything necessarily underhanded about quitting on day 366. He didn't take the job with the intent to quit at the 366th day. I don't know the whole picture, but let's assume he produced good work, slowly became disillusioned as the job turned out to be something other than what he reasonably believed it would be, and finally decided to leave. If some of your pay is in the form of deferred compensation (ie., for staying a year), and the writer continued to work honestly at the job (even if he was not highly motivated anymore) I don't see anything wrong with deliberately quitting on the 366th day (at my last startup was 25% vesting per year - in this case, this scenario is anticipated as part of the employee agreement).

Similarly, I'd see nothing wrong with you firing an employee prior to vesting if it turned out his performance was far lower than you reasonably expected it would be. The underhanded thing would be intending to do this when you hired him (then again, this seems like such a loser move... I know projects start and stop, but it seems like the startups that are going to make it have the opposite problem with talent - how to I keep this guy here now that he's vested?)

Cliff vesting is deferred compensation. Your concern about an ethical paradox is invalid.

It's not. It's contingent compensation. If it was merely deferred compensation, and you quit early, the company would owe the pro rata amount that you worked (at the 1 year mark).

Quitting after you've vested is 100% honorable. It's unethical to fire someone the day before they vest because that makes it clear you did not intend to ever hold up your end of vesting agreement; it means that you entered the agreement in bad faith and planned to manipulate your way out of paying up.

But in the case of quitting after your options vest, the employee never made any agreement - explicit or implicit - that they would continue working after options had vested. If the agreement is that the employee will receive 1,000 options for 365 days of work, the employee is not obligated to work for 366 days any more than the company is obligated to release 1,001 shares. Somebody who works 365 days has already held up their end of the bargain. They didn't cheat.

> This made me livid. I don't hire engineers with the intention of firing them the day before they vest, why would it be ethical to wait until the day after your cliff to quit?

Ethical is continuous vesting with no cliff, or at most a month or two of cliff.

> A vesting cliff exists so that both parties -- employer and employee -- can have a chance to get to know each other before stock is granted and make sure that they're making the right decision.

It doesn't take a year to make that decision.

Do you really think that cliffs benefit employees or were you just hoping to slip that by?

An understandable response, but if I'm 3 months away from owning stock in a company that will surely go public, it would have been irresponsible of me to quit the job before the hours I'd put in had vested. Had the company not chosen to enact a cliff, I would have gladly walked away with what I'd had accrued up to that point.

I think it would only be dishonorable if the guy:

1. Was slacking off for months and just being a dead weight until he vested--and if the entire time you kept him around out of loyalty.

2. Left you high and dry at a vital moment that just happened to coincide with the vesting period.

Maybe a better idea is to rework vesting.

I don't think this is a very good comparison. Firing is different than quitting. I can come up with a scenario where someone leaves amicably one day after vesting, but I can't think of a nice, friendly parting where someone gets fired one day before their cliff.

Do it to the wrong person and you'll have a mass walk-out on your hands.

If you want a longer vesting cliff you should negotiate one.

Also I'm personally completely against vesting cliffs, much more in favor of a gradually growing stake so that there is no sharp transition like this.

If the employer can't find a way to offer any incentive other than money to earn an employee's loyalty, then they're going to lose talent that way. The vesting cliff isn't a probationary period, it's deferred compensation. Leaving after vesting isn't any less ethical than having a vesting cliff in the first place.

A better question is, if good workers leave after they hit the vesting cliff, what's wrong with the company?

Based on my experience, I'd say that this is endemic to the ass-in-seat... I mean, IT industry.

There's nothing unethical about making the decision early; it would, however, be unethical to make that decision and then not continue to put in the required work while you wait for that vesting day.

Your employment agreements set up the economic incentives for working at your company. If the agreement is 1 year cliff to vest and the employee took advantage of that why would you get mad? You got a years worth of work out of that person and in exchange that person got his/her stock. Sounds like a fair deal to me.

On the other hand, firing an engineer right before he/she vests is unethical because you are getting almost a years worth of work without having to pay out the stock. Also it is a pretty good way to get sued by said employee.

Responding to the grandparent's edit.

I disagree with your premise that a vesting cliff exists as a "getting to know you" period. It is a guarantee of a minimum investment of time for a given amount of equity. The person put in the required time and now wants to do something else. This is not dishonorable in the least.

You seem to be confusing personal relationships with business relationships. This might explain why you see quitting as a sort of betrayal.

Oh, he's not confusing it at all. He's just so used to being able to take advantage of the average employee being the one confusing the biz & personal that when an employee acts like a businessman, it challenges his entire exploitative hustle.

Agreed. Its business. You give me money, I give you work. Beyond that is all figment of your imagination.

Ownership is grand, but it comes with a price: fear.

That is not so bad. Without fear, there would be no feeling like adventurous, which is a kind of feeling when you DO overcome fear.

"Three elements of true motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose" Daniel Pink

Its nice to be able to decide between art, ownership and equity. As my old minister used to say "We can have all the morals that we can afford".

What a load of crap! This is some strange entitled rationalization of his friend's fear of commitment. And it's an attempt to legitimize the author's own fear of commitment.

> I’ve worked for a handful of companies over the course of the last 6 years. I started all of them with a fair amount of enthusiasm, but within 5 months of each I dipped into a depression. By 7 months the work was having a tangible effect on my mood and outlook, and by nine months, I’ve quit almost every job I’ve held.

Does the author really think that the next job will hold something different? That somehow there's some magical workplace around the corner where reality never sets in and the inevitable drudgery of "work", creative or not, can be put off forever. Pure fantasy.

"Ownership" is missing the point. If you believe you must define your creation or contribution in terms of some neatly measured production (like code or design) you are missing the point of your own existence. If you think that there's some fixed body of work you have control and ownership over -- that you must defend and slave over -- you are missing the point.

Every second you exist at your job (and everywhere else for that matter) is an opportunity to create the world as you see it. Every second is an opportunity to be creative, to express the person that you are in see that borne out in your work and with your coworkers.

The depression and negative outlook the author points to is a failure to be. It's a shrinking away reality -- the reality of the opportunity and commitment that he faces each day he comes to work. He does himself and everyone around him a great disservice by shrinking and turning away like this instead of waking up to what is in front of him.

I've been at my job for 8 years and there were many times I wanted to storm out in disgust or just not show up in the morning. But then I realized that every job will be like this if I do quit, that I was bringing my own fear of being or committing with me wherever I go and finding perfect opportunities to manifest it.

I stood up and took responsibility for these fears and the negativity and said "enough". I still occasionally find myself doing work that doesn't "inspire" my "muse"... but it really is only a matter of perspective. My muse can be inspired by change in attitude, but a positive conversation with a coworker, by seeing change manifest around me as it manifests in me.

I'm no longer defeated by this negativity. I no longer seem my work neatly delineated -- I no longer need to defend anything or pour enormous effort into some limited creative endeavor. The opportunities in front of me are always limitless. Every second is created anew.


_Your muse can only be treated as the secretary of a subcommittee for so long before she decides to pack up and look for employment elsewhere. If you aren’t able to own the product and be creative, then you aren’t able to do your work, and if you’re not doing your work then you’re negating a very real part of your personality, which is no good for anyone. No good for you and certainly no good for your employer._

That is why I quit my jobs… and consulting, period, in the end. I couldn't stand to watch people wreck my work. My heart couldn't get excited about such a compromise. And sure, I could have spent a decade learning how to really work a committee -- but to what end, exactly?

What do you do now?

So she doesn't have to stan herself out, I will. (http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=stan)

Lately... She's a Javascript/ front-end developer (co-creator of Twistori + everytimezone for example), business thought leader type (did i just say "thought leader?" Sorry.), and co-founder of the SaaS service http://letsfreckle.com. But none of those things would get much as much attention as they do if it weren't for the fact that she is an amazing user experience/ interface maker. These skills make the things she works on (from books to slides to web form interactions) really friendly and fun.

(I have no professional affiliation with her. But full disclosure: We are Twitter friends. #realtalk)

She's a wildly successful entrepreneur and UX person, she's probably spoken at more conferences than you've attended.

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