The Courage to Quit

Sometimes, quitting is a good thing.

Wendell Potter testifying before the Senate Commerce Committee in 2009.

The question people ask me more than any other is this: “Why don’t more corporate executives do what you did?” They want to know why more don’t walk away from their jobs when they realize the work they’re doing is ethically questionable.

I left my job as head of corporate communications for a big corporation after a crisis of conscience and soon began doing something I never imagined I would have the courage to do: make a career out of speaking truth to power.

Although I never had any intention of taking on the industry I used to work for, I eventually came to believe that I had an obligation to make amends for what I had done over my career. The scariest day of my life was the day I explained at a Senate hearing in 2009 how the practices of the health insurance industry were contributing to the rising number of Americans without health insurance. More importantly, I explained the consequences of health care companies putting profits before patients.

Since then, I’ve written books and hundreds of articles about how corporations and special interests manipulate public opinion and spend huge sums of money to influence elections and public policy. All to protect a profitable status quo.

What I haven’t written about until now is the other big reason I ultimately left a good-paying job. It wasn’t all about a crisis of conscience. It was also about burnout.

After nearly 20 years in the industry, I had reached the point of just phoning it in. My ultimate job objective had always been to “enhance shareholder value.” Toward the end, my personal values were no longer aligned with that objective.

In one of the one-on-one meetings with my boss around that time, I realized I wasn’t hiding my burnout as much as I had thought. “Wendell, you don’t seem to be engaged,” she told me.

That stung. She wasn’t firing me, she just wanted me to be more enthusiastic about helping my company “win in the marketplace.” I gave it a good try for a while, but I wasn’t feeling it. I couldn’t fake it anymore. Neither my employer nor I was getting a good deal from my hanging around. If I complained about the way things that were common industry practices, I wouldn’t be considered a team player. Truth was, I didn’t want to play on the team anymore. It was time for me to go.

I didn’t quit that day, though. I didn’t have another job lined up. All I knew was that I didn’t want to keep doing what I was doing, and I didn’t want to leave one big corporation just to work for another one. What I really wanted to do was go back into journalism. I was a newspaper reporter in my first career. A lot of journalists go into PR for the money—or after being laid off—but I had never heard of anybody leaving the corporate world to go into journalism.

I also knew that it wasn’t just about me and what I wanted. My decision would affect the people closest to me, my family. I finally did walk away from that job, of course, but I went through a months-long process of self-examination before I handed in my resignation. Here’s what that looked like and actions I took to muster the courage to do what I know was the right thing.

  • I talked it over with my family. I confided in my wife and children for the first time about how miserable I was at work. I hadn’t been fooling them, either, but I had never opened up to them in the way I needed to and ultimately did. Importantly, I didn’t do all the talking. I listened to them about their concerns, which, of course, included financial concerns. It was one of the best and most rewarding conversations we had ever had, but it wasn’t the last. (We talked again before I decided to testify before Congress. Even if I wanted to get another corporate gig, being known as a whistleblower would make that pretty darn unlikely.) After several heart-to-hearts, we agreed as a family that we could make it work without my corporate paycheck.

  • I stopped drinking. Among the other things I came to realize was that I was drinking too much when I got home from work. I admitted to myself that I was using alcohol to keep from dealing with my big problem. I decided that it would be to everyone’s advantage for me to be sober before making the irreversible and life-altering decision I wanted to make.

  • I unplugged for a while every day. Like with alcohol, I was using TV and the Internet to keep from thinking about things of real consequence and making decisions begging to be made. I even took up meditating (and I haven’t stopped).

  • I went back to church. My gut kept telling me I was supposed to be doing something else for a living. I just didn’t know what it was. During one memorable sermon, the preacher talked about the importance of living fearlessly—or at least of recognizing that fear of the unknown so often hold us back from taking action that would benefit not just ourselves but others, too. I took that as a sign.

  • I read books. One of them was John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage. I was inspired not only by the courageous people he wrote about but by a quote in the preface that Kennedy’s brother Bobby said was the president’s favorite quote was one attributed to Dante: “The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.”

  • I talked to others who had made big career changes. One friend, tired of my worst-case-scenario fears, made me realize they weren’t likely to happen and that even if they did, “You can at least push a broom, right?” Another friend nudged me off the sidelines when she sent me John Burroughs’s famous quote: “Leap, and the net will appear.”

I did, and discovered that my friends were right: those worst-case scenarios in my head were the fears we all have and that are almost always unfounded. I also discovered what I humbly think is my life calling: speaking truth to power as, yes, a journalist once again.

Ultimately, walking away from my corporate career represented a shift from dwelling on those worst-case scenarios to embracing new possibilities. I discovered that the scenario I once dismissed as impossible—becoming a journalist— was not only possible, it was that life-calling waiting to be discovered and pursued. As a journalist and soon-to-be publisher, I now have the opportunity not only to expose wrongdoing in health care but to take on other industries that rig the system to protect a profitable status quo.

Discovering a new sense of purpose takes more than just quitting a job. Yes, finding the courage to let go of an unsatisfying career is a critical part of the journey. But just as critical is finding—and answering—your life calling. 

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