A few years ago, I was working as a software engineer at a startup in San Francisco. Being able to work on something that I enjoy in one of the most beautiful cities in the entire world was indeed a blessing. It was what I had wanted since my high school years, and I was able to achieve it.
Unfortunately, things weren't working out as I had expected it to be after the initial period where everything feels lovely when we begin a new job anywhere. There were a lot of great things happening, but there was a lot of stress, uncertainty, and under-appreciation that came along with it. Simply put, I wasn't happy with my working conditions.
It got to the point where it was affecting not only my mental state but my physical well-being too. I couldn't sleep well knowing that the next day I would have to muster all of my energy to get myself out the door and to work. I would have terrible headaches. I started consuming all sorts of unhealthy food to comfort myself. A couple of times I was scared that I was going to have a heart attack due to my chest suddenly being in pain during stressful situations. I knew this job wasn't the best for me.
Months passed by, and yet I was still working there, unable to escape from something that was unmistakably not good for me.
I eventually was able to summon the courage to leave that job, and as you might expect, it was one of the best decisions I've made. It almost immediately corrected all of the physical and emotional problems I was experiencing on a daily basis. Most importantly, I felt calm and happy again.
Since that period of my life happened, I spent a lot of time thinking why I hadn't left that job sooner. As I investigated, I noticed that this happens in a lot of different circumstances, not just people like me who stayed in a terrible work situation for too long. One of the more common examples is someone persisting in a relationship when it's not serving them (which is somewhat similar to staying in a job). It also manifests itself in other forms like paying for an online course that you know is wasting your time, but you stay in it because you already paid for it.
So, why does this happen in so many areas and to so many people?
Feelings that keep us stuck
How often have you heard phrases like "Never Give Up" or "Quitters Never Win, Winners Never Quit"? I'm sure you see or listen to them all the time in movies or your social media feeds. I see these or similar motivational phrases every single day, it seems.
Not giving up or quitting can be excellent advice. No matter what you're doing, there will come the point where you will hit a rough patch and will want to stop. It might happen internally, like feeling that the road ahead of you is too scary or that you're wasting your time doing what you're doing. Other times it comes externally - you lose your job, or a family member becomes ill, for example.
Regardless of the reasons, you have to pause and think whether or not what you're doing is super-important for you to continue to do. If you have a strong motivation for doing what you're doing, you shouldn't quit. You can navigate through the rough patches ahead and come out even stronger than before if you firmly believe in what you're doing.
However, I realized one thing: you might think you have a compelling and vital reason for not giving up, but in reality, you don't. I've been through this so many times that I've lost count. Here are a couple of reasons we don't let go of something when we probably should, along with some examples that I've gone through myself.
Feeling of failure
I went into freelancing after I left the job I talked about before. Things went pretty well. I was able to get steady work, and although I wasn't earning the same as when I was a salaried employee, I was doing a lot better than I anticipated during the first few months as I established myself in the freelancing world.
After completing one project for a new client, he gave me a call and said that I did a great job and was wondering if I was interested in getting back to full-time work by joining their team. Having things such as a steady (and much better) paycheck and health insurance covered for were missed when I was freelancing. And since I worked for a couple of months with that company, I knew I wouldn't be having the same hassles as I did with the company I quit almost a year before.
It was a great opportunity that a fantastic organization served on a silver platter right in front me. Not many people have chances like this presented to them. But initially, I completely resisted the offer. I had only been freelancing for nine months at that point, and the first thought that came into my head was that if I jumped back into full-time employment so quickly, it meant that I failed to be a freelancer. I almost let that opportunity go because I didn't want to label myself as a failure.
In a lot of areas of our society, quitting is associated with failure. At school, if you don't do something you'll get a bad grade. At work, if you don't complete a project you'll risk getting fired. While these are different circumstances than you wanting to leave something by your own will, the point is that no one wants to feel like they failed in anything. That's why we tend to put on a brave face and march on with something when it's not ideal for us.
Going back to my previous story, I eventually decided to take the job offer and have been working there since then. I received an unexpected moment of clarity when I had lunch with a good friend in San Francisco and explained the situation to him. I said something along the lines of "I've only been freelancing for less than a year - it feels like I couldn't hack it if I take this job." He merely said, "No, you've been freelancing for almost a year, and you learned a lot from it." His reply was the epiphany I needed to look at my situation from an entirely different perspective.
If you quit something, you shouldn't look at it from the point of failure. Instead, you should look at it as gaining experience and knowledge. You can use that new experience to know what to do in the future and - sometimes more importantly - what not to do again. There's always a lesson to learn in every situation.
Feeling like you're letting someone down
When I was in the middle of the worst moments of the job mentioned above, I remember thinking "I'll be giving my two-week notice tomorrow, I can't take this anymore" over and over again. I even typed up the notice months before I handed it in. There were a few reasons I didn't pull the trigger immediately, but the one that stood out was thinking that I would be disappointing a few people in my life.
I thought I would disappoint my mom, who I imagined would think poorly of her son who ran away from a job. I thought I would disappoint my girlfriend, who I believed would label me as a coward. I thought I would disappoint some of my former co-workers I would be abandoning them.
Too often, we remain someplace we don't want to be in by using others as an excuse. You stay out late instead of going back home earlier because your friends are there and you don't want them to be upset by your departure. You remain at a job where your boss makes your life miserable because you like your co-workers and don't want them to be stuck with extra work. In short, we think that people will be upset with us because we're quitting something that isn't helping us.
The reality is that most people will understand your reasons and will be highly supportive of you. My mom fully understood my situation and encouraged me to find something that made me happy. My girlfriend was okay with my decision because she didn't want to see me complaining and constantly upset over work. My former co-workers supported my choice, and that's it. They probably couldn't have cared less if I stayed or left.
There will be some people who won't be as understanding and will not be happy regardless. Quite frankly, you should re-evaluate your relationship with those types of people, because they will hold you back forever if you let them. You need to focus on you and your well-being before anyone else.
Feeling like this is the best situation you'll ever be in
I was in a long-distance relationship for a few years. I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area, and my girlfriend was living in Japan. Typically, long-distance relationships end in one of two ways: somebody (or both) will have to move, or the relationship fizzles out and dies. I did not want the latter to happen, but at the same time, I didn't want to let go promptly of my dream of living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area.
I thought it was the best situation for me, due to my career as a software engineer. The Bay Area is a hotbed for software development jobs, and it pays very well too. I assumed that I would not be getting nearly anything like that either freelancing or finding a job in Japan, so I thought that I would be getting in a lesser situation by moving away.
Thankfully, I didn't let that hold me from proposing to my girlfriend and moving to Japan to marry and live with her. And it turned out that I was able to keep a remote job with my same salary as before while living in Japan. The situation turned out to be far better than I had anticipated.
Feeling that there's something that can't possibly get better is a classic reason for becoming stagnant. Far too many people think that there's no possible way that they could find a better situation than the one they're in right now, so they don't even bother to find out for themselves.
For example, you might have a job that makes you feel like you're not growing at all, yet it pays well enough, and you think that you won't ever find another job that will fulfill you and pay you well at the same time. Or you might have a romantic relationship that you feel isn't the right one for you but you don't think you'll be able to find someone else who is a much better match that will want to be with you.
This reasoning needs some work to deal with because it does require some shifting of your mindset to build the courage to move out of the comfortable into the unknown. But there's hasn't been a single successful person on this planet who has gotten their success by thinking that they can't do any better. They've all moved towards bigger and better things. Based on my own experience, I can securely say that there is always something better out there for you if you're not happy with something. You do have to be willing to put in the work to get it, but it's always there.
The key is here is that you can move towards bigger and better things too. You have the power to build that courage and let go of what's holding you back by letting go.
The power of letting go
There is great power in letting go of what's not serving to you. However, you need to make sure that you're letting go for the right reasons. You need to decide that it's worth letting go of something because it will eventually be the right thing for you. If you're letting go because you feel like something is too hard, or too intimidating to get started, there's no power in that. You'll remain stuck in place for the rest of your life, and I'm sure you don't want that for yourself.
Also, notice that I said, "the right thing for you" - not the right thing for your family, your friends or your co-workers. You can use some key people in your life to guide your decision. You wouldn't want to make a huge decision like quitting your job when you have a family to support, for example.
Permit yourself to quit
The reason I say you need to focus on you is that you need to give yourself the permission required to let go of something. Again, we often use others as a crutch to prevent making tough decisions on our own. If you focus on yourself and you permit yourself to explore, the possibilities you can come up with are endless.
Giving yourself this kind of trust isn't an easy task, to be honest. You'll need to dig deep down inside and figure out if there's something more important that will guide you to greater heights. The simplest way to figure this out is to determine if the good outweighs the bad. I'm a believer that even in the worst situations, there's always some good within the circumstances. If you can't figure it out, sit down with some pen and paper and write down whatever comes to mind, kind of like a "pros" and "cons" list.
If you determine that whatever you want to let go of isn't important or has more negatives than positives, cut it out from your life as soon as possible with zero regrets. There's no room here to be second-guessing your decision here because that will hold you in place as if you never let go of it. You need to be firm with your choices and trust your ability to choose the right path.
I'm not going to lie - letting go of something is painful, even if we know with 100% certainty it wasn't serving us. There's no way around it. But trust me, the pain you would've had if you didn't let go would be even more significant. The pain of letting go will eventually subside and disappear, and you'll find yourself much like me, asking "Why didn't I do this sooner?"
Tips for your Practical Good
If there's something in your life that you feel is not positively serving you, it might be time to let it go. Here are a few small steps you can take to move towards the direction of letting go and finding something that will help you succeed.
If you feel stuck or want someone to help guide you through this process, please leave a comment below or send me an email at [email protected] and I'll make sure to respond and help as much as possible.
- Spend a few minutes taking stock of your current situation. Just ask yourself a couple of questions to clarify how your life is going:
- What makes you feel good right now?
- What doesn't make you feel good?
- What things do you wish you were doing that you're not doing?
- Take one thing you don't like right now and determine if it's important to keep holding on to. If you're uncertain that something is important to you, figure out if the positives outweigh the negatives to make it more transparent.
- If you determine it's not essential or there are too many negatives, let it go as soon as possible. Don't hold on to it if you still want to think more, as this will keep you stuck in place for good.