I quit my job last week without another one lined up. I am both incredibly relieved and terrified.
Let’s start from the beginning. My family has been in this country for only two short generations and we believe deeply in the power of hard work and suppressing our emotions. Had it not been for the adventurous spirit of my grandfathers, I’d be knee deep in a rice paddy in southern China, right behind a water buffalo. My grandparents came to this country and waited tables, sewed in sweatshops and ran mom-and-pop corner stores in the most dangerous neighborhoods of 1950’s and 60’s San Francisco. My parents both worked full-time while raising three kids. I’ve had jobs since I was a kid–first working the cash register at my father’s photo finishing shop at 12, summer jobs throughout high school, a 35 hour a week job during college while carrying a full course load. The point is: our family believes in work. Actually, my grandmother would be horrified to learn that I gave up a good-paying job without another one. Her favorite saying is: You work hard, you rich. You lazy, you poor.
So, I’ve never not worked and I’ve never not had a job. Over the past twelve years, I’ve worked to build a nonprofit from a small shop to a $3M a year nonprofit that serves over 500 kids. Any Executive Director will tell you that building and scaling up a nonprofit is no cakewalk. I made a ton of mistakes along the way and I learned a lot about myself, others and the nonprofit community. Especially in the beginning, there were 90 hour weeks and I was exhausted but I loved it. Last December, I transitioned out after 12.5 years because I both felt that the organization needed a different type of leader to go to the next level and I needed to find out who I was outside of this organization that had become an extension of myself. Who was I if I wasn’t the Executive Director of Breakthrough New York? I was excited to find out.
I decided to take a completely different approach and joined a small tech firm doing Business Development. I reasoned that it was an interesting new path and would still allow me to work with many of my nonprofit peers. The truth was that I knew from the very first week that it wasn’t a fit for me. I stuck out like a sore thumb. The office culture wasn’t a fit. My boss and I couldn’t ever seem to get on the same page or find our footing. And I realized that I just couldn’t pour my heart and soul into something that was removed from helping people on the ground. I realized that the most important thing for me was helping people, connecting with others and solving big problems. Selling databases and making money just weren’t enough to get my heart racing.
I tried in the beginning to settle into it. I told myself that it was a transition and that all transitions are rocky. I tried to talk myself into it. But, my gut knew. I started grinding my teeth at night. I got a pit in my stomach when I went to work. I broke out in hives. And, after two months, I realized that it just wasn’t working out and the pain of prolonging it was worse than the fear of uncertainty. I wasn’t happy and there was no amount of pretending that I could fool myself into thinking I was.
The job I took just wasn’t aligned with my values and it was sapping my energy.
It was hard to walk away (see: stubborn immigrant DNA above) and terrifying to walk away without a Plan B.
And…what was this feeling? Liberation?
All of a sudden, for the first time in my life, I’m asking myself what will make me happy and how I want to best contribute to this world. Every step I’ve taken before this point was because it was expected or because it was the ambitious thing to do. What happens when there is no more script? Since I’ve shared this experience with people, I’ve actually been shocked at how many people endure bad work situations and how lucky I have been in my career that this was a new experience for me.
I’m challenging myself to sit still for a little while and not jump at the next thing because I’m scared. For so long, I defined myself through my job, my career, my achievements. What happens when I’m just Rhea? What happens if I just search for a little while and listen to the still, small voice inside me? What happens if I ask for the moon and dare to be happy in the work I choose to do? What a radical thing that would be.
Have you made scary transitions? Leave a comment and tell me about it.
Originally published at www.rheawong.com