Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Why Blowing Off Your Job is Like Blowing Off a Guy

In this day and age, there are few things that come to define us as much as our relationship status and our jobs. With relationships, it's inevitable that significant others change our pronoun usage entirely and our partners become our signature epithets (I becomes we, Jennifer and Ben morphs into Bennifer, and Jennifer becomes "Ben's girlfriend"), so it is with our jobs. Our titles, departments, or companies turn into our last names or labels - it's as if someone wouldn't know who we were if we didn't have these modifiers attached. You're never having a meeting with Kate, it's always, "Kate from Paramount", or "Just call Kate from Marketing and ask her".

I recently discovered the parallels between boyfriends and jobs when I broke up with both. First, I broke things off with my boyfriend of 6 years, later I quit my job. The two events were about a year and a half apart, and they were largely unrelated - but the more I thought about them, the more I wondered if they really were.

After I broke up with my long-term boyfriend, for reasons completely unapparent to the outside world, I was shocked by the number of women who congratulated me - told me how proud they were and how difficult that decision must have been. I couldn't believe this response - to me, it suggested that many women are stuck in relationships and don't want to fight the power of inevitability. The classic, marriage is what comes next in my life, so I'll do it.

I also couldn't believe how free I felt - people tell you that you'll have so much more time after a break-up, but I didn't really understand what this meant. For me, it meant a Sci Fi-free Netflix queue, and nights with cereal, red wine, and The Biggest Loser, instead of watching my boyfriend play video games. I felt more liberated than lonely. But your habits remind you of holes left by the loss of your partner, there are some adopted preferences that are so deeply ingrained that you almost forget what you like. It was awhile before I went back to Smooth Peanut Butter - I forgot that I liked it better until I tasted it again. Outside of preferences, there is other behavior that has to be unlearned in a break up. For us, it was pointless emailing about what's for dinner, forwarding of articles on well-liked topics, and of course pronoun usage and nicknames. My ex subconsciously called me "Baby" for 6 months after we broke up, mostly because he had done it for 6 years. In due time, I figured out what I liked to do after dinner, I stopped using "we" and more importantly, I created memories that didn't involve him. I forged an identity for myself independent of my significant other. Now you don't need to know him to understand me.

And so it has been with work: six months ago, I quit my job, which like my relationship was good on paper but broken in reality. I quickly learned how much our job acts as a label for us to the outside world. I realized that the first question a person asks you when they meet you for the first time is, "So, what do you do?" After I quit, meeting new people made me anxious because it always brought about this question. And it brought up the very same feeling of seeing people for the first time after breaking up with my ex. When people you know see you, they ALWAYS ask, "How's [insert ex-boyfriends name]?" and I would be forced to lie or awkwardly explain - this dilemma lasted for months.

And so it was with work, I'd left my cushy corporate job to work as a freelance consultant, but "freelance market research consultant" didn't sound as good as "work at Warner Bros." When I started working at Warner, my mom once said, "It's great - now I never have to explain to people what you do - I just say you work at Warner Bros." Change of job also meant massive break in routine and regular misuse of pronouns. "I wonder how we did at the Box Office this weekend" or "We [WB] never work on projects like that." Dammit, I couldn't even get my tenses right! I know it was out of habit more than denial, and it took me awhile to realize that the only person who cared or noticed the pronouns or the long, convoluted new job title was me. Most people were just making small talk, they weren't even listening to my responses.

When I left my job, without another permanent position to go to, I was again surprised by how many of my peers told me they were proud, impressed and envious. Of course there were the few, "I can't believe you're quitting your job in this economy" comments, but they were the minority.

I learned as much about myself in ending my relationship with my job as I did in ending my relationship with my live-in boyfriend. I set my own schedule, only worked on projects that interested me intellectually, and most importantly, started to care a little bit less about what people thought. As a result, I built more confidence in myself. I was beholden to no one: the only person who benefited from my success or suffered from my failures was me. I learned that quitting my job isn't the end of the world. Despite my lack of regular paycheck or company-sponsored health care, I'm the least stressed and most fulfilled I've ever been. There's no better way to build up your own personal strength than standing on a ledge, pulling out the safety net and jumping anyway - you'll see you get some cuts and bruises, but you survive, and next time you can jump from a higher bough.

The hardest part about break ups or job moves, is that it changes how we define ourselves infinitely more than it changes how others define us. We are forced to define ourselves without using easy labels, like "Marketing" or "Jack's girlfriend." And it can be painful, like defining "the" without using "the." In my best cases, I was described with adjectives instead of just nouns: funny, ambitious, resourceful. I'm of course not advocating that you quit your job, I'm just suggesting you realize you are greater than it, you have an identity that is completely independent from it - make sure you know what that "job-free" person looks like. For me, it took quitting my job to get to know her.


  1. My job free person smokes alot of doobie and naps alot.

  2. If you were using this as a college undergrad admissions essay, you would get in.... Nice write-up!

  3. I can so relate to this when it comes to quitting a job. I still cringe when people ask me what I do and I feel like I sound like a dork saying i'm a writer. Plus, whenever I talk about ABC Daytime, I say "we"--- although I think I'm getting better than that. I definitely felt defined by my title (and my salary!)