By the spring of 2015, I had been in direct social services for nearly 10 years. I had worked exclusively in low-income communities, working with individuals and families who were facing challenges I had never encountered in my life. I kept at it because I was really good at it. I have no problem saying now that I excel at getting people from where they are to where they want to be. I know how to meet them where they are and show them how to unleash the best versions of themselves.
But back then, I was being beat down by my job, specifically by the people above me, and I had lost sight of what I was good at. I felt defeated and rudderless. I knew in my gut I needed to quit but I had no idea what I would do next. Here are the 3 biggest lessons I learned from taking the leap of faith and quitting a job that was killing me inside.
1. You must put the oxygen mask on yourself first.
I was sitting in my professional mentor’s office, unloading on him about all of the challenges I was facing at my job. I was visibly exhausted and haggard looking, and he finally stopped me and said something I’ll never forget. He said, “You put everyone else’s needs above your own. At what point will what you need be as important or more important than what everyone else needs?”
I had literally never thought about my own needs in a job. I had actually accepted jobs without knowing the salary because I was so excited about the mission and vision, much to my mother’s chagrin. Being a social worker was a profession with an inherent savior complex. No matter how aware of it I was, I could not escape prioritizing the population served, level of need, and potential impact over salary, benefits, and location. For the very first time in my life, on the cusp of turning 30, I was being asked to figure out what I wanted from my working life. And I didn’t have a clue.
2. You have to know what your values are and how they show up for you.
Since I had no idea what I needed, I had some homework to do. I went home, got out my laptop, and just started writing. I listed out all of my “must haves” and “nice to haves” in excruciating detail. I completed an exercise designed to unearth my own values and see which ones were in conflict. I realized that my personal values were in one category, yet I was working for an organization and under people whose personal values were in direct conflict with mine. By trying to serve theirs, I was neglecting my own, which led to internal turmoil for me daily.
My mentor closed out our meeting with the following food for thought. He said, “You say you’re afraid of abandoning the mission. But if you stay in this job, you will burn out from the helping profession completely. Forget their mission. What is yours?” Again, I had no idea. I didn’t even know what he meant. I had always aligned my mission with my organization’s, thinking that my job was to throw myself 100% into realizing their vision. I never thought I could have my own vision.
Before I did anything with my newfound revelations, I had to sit down and figure out why I work. It was no longer enough to say “because I have to pay rent” or even “because I like helping people.” I needed a personal mission statement to serve as my guiding light when I started to falter again, found my enthusiasm waning, or God forbid, got fired. I needed to know what I want to do, why I want to do it, and how I want to do it. Then, and ONLY then, could I go off in search of a profession that would fulfill my needs.
For me, that turned out not to be another organization, but to wake up in the middle of the night and write an insanely long Jerry Maguire style manifesto. I had never felt more energized, and the words spilled out of me. That’s how I knew I was on the right path. I was scared, and had never done anything like start a business before, but everything about it felt right in my gut. I have never looked back.
Too often we approach our career search like unqualified grifters, hoping to trick an employer or a client into giving us money in exchange for work. Forget that. That is a mindset that has been fed to you by employers because it serves them best. You have education, experience (no matter how young you are), and energy. An employer or a client who wants you knows that you bring skills, motivation, and ability to learn that they need. They have the money, benefits, and structure within which you can realize your vision.
An interview is like dating - when you’re inexperienced, you think “I hope they like me.” When you become more experienced, you realize it’s about hoping you are both mutually a good fit for each other. You owe it to yourself to realize sooner rather than later that assessing that fit up front will save you a lifetime of heartbreak.
Now that you know your own true north, you can set out to find that organizational fit! Instead of focusing on tangibles (hours, location, benefits), start with their mission. Take an example like Nordstrom. Their mission is rooted in their commitment to happy customers. There is a legend (that is true, according to friends who work in their instructional design department) that a man came in one day in the 1950s to return 4 Goodyear tires. The employee in customer service cheerfully accepted the return and refunded him the money. After he left, a colleague turned to this person and said, “But we don’t sell tires.” The employee replied, “I know.”
Because Nordstrom knows that its commitment to happy customers trumps everything else, the company accepted a return from a customer, no questions asked. This customer likely went back to Nordstrom over the years, remembering how he was treated. He probably told his friends, and they probably shopped there, too. A good mission statement guides everything you do, whether you are one person or a multi-billion dollar corporation.
Jenny is the founder of Forward in Heels Executive Coaching, which empowers badass women who want to excel at what they do, stand tall, and own their worth so they can light up the world. As a licensed psychotherapist as well as certified executive leadership coach, Jenny has been helping women make bold, lasting changes in their lives for over a decade.
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