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Quitting Quitting

A Spy in the House of Work

You know the guy must have tried everything if he came to me. I’ll call him Q. His profile fits that of the classic compulsive quitter. He grew up with the standard Dad-sanctioned messages: “Quitters never win, and winners never quit.” “Finish what you start.” “Clean your plate.” Q put in a year (“the minimum!”) at his first McJob. Then, one night, stuck on an airplane, traveling to some armpit of a company that he knew sucked, he read a story — “Quitting: The New Virtue” — in an in-flight magazine.

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Suddenly, after a lifetime of persevering, Q had found that quitting was okay. In fact, quitting was good! Quitting proved that you weren’t afraid of change, weren’t afraid of living on Top Ramen while you peddled your greatest asset — you — to an even better company than the one you’d left in the dust. Sticking with it was for losers. Loyalty was as up-to-the-minute as a sundial. But what no one had ever told Q was that while quitting could feel great (it was skydiving without the plane!), it could also become a monkey on your back.

The first time that Q quit, he was so nervous about giving his notice that he was sure his boss could hear his pulse pounding in his neck. Then, two days before he was going to drop the bomb, Q was assigned a stinkeroni project at a staff meeting, and he thought, “Whee-o! Bring it on! I’ll even volunteer to organize the company soccer leagu … suckers!”

After that, Q made quitting an art form: “It’s like watching the movie of your life but still getting to know who’s going to be the next victim.” While Q stayed at his next job for two months, he knew that he was going to quit after just three weeks. Memos about projected earnings, the 2001 launch of this or that new product, who was going to bartend at the Christmas party — it all meant zilch to him. There’s nothing better in life than being “outta there” all the time. He quit during his first performance review. His boss, hip to current thought, misinterpreted his quitting as chutzpah and offered to double his salary. Q accepted the raise — and then quit before it went into effect.

At his next job, he quit before he had even unpacked his carton.

Eventually, word got around: Can you believe this guy? There’s quitting, there’s taking the hyperspace route from one company to the next, and then there’s simply not giving a rip. He must be a genius! Q was sought after. People wanted to hire him, just to see how long they could make him stay. They offered him bonuses, the corner office. The crafty CEO of one e-commerce business hired Q on the morning of the afternoon that he was leaving for a three-week river-rafting vacation in Thailand. Q gave notice to a temp at the front desk.

Then the inevitable happened: Q got depressed. Quitting was no fun if people were expecting him to quit. He called his mother — and quit her. Now, that was satisfying. He quit his college alumni association. He called the Red Cross and tried to quit his blood type. Clearly, this was a disease. He tried (and then quit) hypnosis, behavior modification, and a 12-step program. I knew that I had one shot at curing him for good. He’d already quit my online advice service, just like he’d quit everything else. I knew what I had to do. Deep in the recesses of his mind, he was vulnerable to other, more ancient messages.

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“Hey,” I said to Q, “you sound like someone Ask the Spy Enterprises could really use.”

“Sure. When do I start? And don’t try to offer me any fancy incentives to keep me from quitting.”

“No problem. You’re fired.”

“Fired?” He looked stunned, helpless, deflated. “Now I feel humiliated and worthless.”

“Hey, you’re welcome.”

This is the latest episode in the Spy’s continuing saga, “Working Behind Enemy Lines.” You can find the entire Spy chronicles on the Web (www.askthespy.com).

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