When James Horgan quit his job at the software company Riverdeep in 1998, it was for the second time. He’d left his position as a digital designer a year earlier for a job in Italy. When he reached out about rejoining the Dublin-based company, he recalls, “They jumped at the chance to have me back.”
But things quickly soured. “I was treated like a lover who’d been dumped . . . There was all that resentment” still poisoning the air. So less than a year later, he quit again–without having a new gig lined up.
While expert advice is divided when it comes to quitting a job without a new offer in hand, the fact remains that plenty of people do. For many of them, it’s only time that tells whether or not that was a smart move. So Fast Company asked a few such quitters to think back on their experiences and explain what made it worth it–or not.
“There’s definitely a difference between an abusive workplace, and one that’s just not friendly or unpleasant, or where people aren’t nice,” says Sarah Jones, a New York City–based reference librarian.
She should know. Jones accepted a job as an assistant at a small local magazine six months after graduating from college in 2009. The day she arrived, she says, “It was a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde situation.” Her new boss, who ran the publication out of a one-bedroom apartment, chastised Jones for sneezing.
“She spent most of the day on the phone with various relatives, screaming at them,” Jones recalls. The rest of the time Jones spent photocopying newspaper clippings to an exacting degree of precision. Afterward, she went straight home, resigned by email, and never heard back. For Jones, that was the right choice, but it took an unusually awful situation for her to make it.
Horgan, too, says he quit because he couldn’t bear to stick it out while he looked for a new job. “My body was screaming every time I walked to work,” he recalls.
But short of these extremes, quitting without a safety net isn’t such an obvious good choice, for one reason in particular: money.
Reflecting on her decision to leave NPR’s Marketplace after more than a decade, Tess Vigeland recently recounted for Fast Company how money matters can be decisive: “I would never advise anyone to simply up and leave without having an idea of how to pay the mortgage” (or rent).
Jones agrees. “It would have been much harder for me if I were quitting a job that had been a significant financial and lifestyle change.”
For his part, Horgan says he was grateful that the job he quit was in Ireland. “Quitting a job in the U.S. causes a lot more anxiety because you don’t have health insurance automatically.”
And having worked at a coffee shop previously, Jones says, “I knew I could go back onto Craigslist and get a job and basically have the same salary . . . What I felt I was losing was having a foot in the door.”
Jason Kim is a playwright and screenwriter who’s worked on HBO’s Girls and In Treatment. But in 2010 he was working in The New Yorker’s research department and wanted to get out. But with the financial crisis still fresh, “There was a lot of anxiety about having a job and keeping a job and doing everything you could to not get laid off,” he recalls.
On top of that, Kim explains, “I am an immigrant, and so grinding away was something that was very much in my DNA . . . To not have a job on purpose so I had the time to write was a completely insane thing to do.”
Four or five months after quitting, Kim’s bank account was merely one of several reasons he regretted his decision. Then, “right when I was almost completely out of money,” he landed a writing gig and got into grad school.
“Even now,” he says, “I have no idea whether I’m doing the right thing.”
Measuring regret might be the wrong way to tell whether quitting when you don’t have another job is worth it. Not only is “worth it” a fundamentally relative thing, but a little self-doubt can be healthy in most careers–especially when they take dramatic turns.
Quitting on her first day “was certainly the right move” for Jones, “but that wasn’t apparent immediately.” It wasn’t until a few years later, after working at a more “legitimate organization that has HR and things like that . . . that I realized how extreme the situation was,” she says.
“If I had gone into that interview [now], I would’ve known there were tons of red flags.” But it’s hard for her to regret such an instructive experience.
Looking back, Horgan can’t entirely fault himself either for making mistakes that later proved valuable. “My gut was telling me not to go back to that Riverdeep job,” but that taught him something: “You should never make a decision–ever–about a job if you’re in a state of desperation.”
But for the rising ranks of independent workers, Kim says “a good dose of terror” can be a great motivator. “As long as I’m a writer, I’ll be a freelancer to a certain extent, and that’s a certain lifestyle that you have to get accustomed to.”
Like any work-related skill, that also takes practice. “Accepting uncertainty,” he says, “is something I have to work at constantly.”