I quit my new job after one just day. This was a "real job," with a six-figure salary and a legitimate career path, and I'd beaten hundreds of other applicants to land it. 

I'm still not exactly proud of the experience. However, it was absolutely the right decision, and I'm sharing the story now, years later, because I can imagine it might help someone else in a similar position.

Here's what happened, plus how quitting so quickly affected my career--plus the lessons I learned, and that I can share with you now. 

The background

The story starts in early 2009. I was finishing a book project and living in Washington, but it was also the height of the Great Recession, and I craved a steady paycheck.

I saw that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs was hiring attorneys at its headquarters. I'm a lawyer (I hadn't practiced law in a while, but I still kept my bar license), and a military veteran. Maybe it would be a fit for a while.

I applied and heard nothing back, but then a few months later the job was advertised again. I resubmitted my application. Then, I learned that a friend of mine was dating a woman who worked in the office I'd applied to. I asked if she'd put in a good word for me.

This time, I got an interview in August, a job offer in September, and a start date in October. However, the whole process had taken eight or nine months, from first application to start date. During that time my personal situation changed quite a bit.

Then, within hours of arriving on Day 1, I knew I'd made a big mistake.

11 years, 4 months and 22 days

The Department of Veterans Affairs does important work. But, it's a giant government bureaucracy. One thing I should have admitted to myself: I do not thrive in bureaucracy. 

My first task that day was to attend new employee orientation. I remember one speaker made a crack about knowing exactly how much time he had left before retirement. Then some of the other speakers picked up on him, introducing themselves like:

"Hi, I'm Jane Smith. I have 11 years, four months, and 22 days until retirement. I'm here to talk about information security."

One after the other. It was black humor, sure, but they all seemed so down on their situation and resigned to their fates. I really felt bad for them.

Later, I settled into my shared office, where the desk was covered with a huge stack of files that I was supposed to start working on. When I stepped out for a cup of coffee that afternoon, somebody commented that I took 10 minutes longer than we were allowed.

Oh man, I thought. Just one day, and I was already chafing. Plus, I'd still have to go home each evening and work on edits for my latest book. This wasn't going to work.

I steeled myself for the tough conversation I knew I was going to have to have.

Day 2

The next morning, I arrived at work at 7 a.m, to be sure to catch my new boss first thing. I thanked him for the opportunity, but told him I would not be staying.

"As bad as I feel about quitting," I said, my voice shaking, "if I don't do this now, we'll probably be having this conversation in six months. At least now, you still have a stack of resumes from people who would be a better fit."

I knew that there had been hundreds of applicants, so this seemed likely. I also remember I added: "Could I get a mulligan?" meaning go back in time as if I'd never accepted the job--not even accepting pay for the one day I'd spent in the office. 

That was it. It wasn't even 7:30 a.m. on Day 2, and I was on my way home for good.

The aftermath

My first priority afterward was an apology phone call to the employee who had highlighted my application for me. Then, I got down to business. I had my savings, but I'd been assuming I'd be getting this paycheck. So, economic fear lit a fire under me.  

I'd had a lot of unsolicited requests to work as a ghostwriter over the years, mostly from people who'd read some of my books and articles. I hadn't really thought of this as a business before--but now, I started accepting clients for the first time.

Some of the work was fascinating, other parts less so, but it more than paid the bills. Eventually, I built it into a real, lucrative business that could be done from anywhere.

And, that business ultimately led to quite a few other opportunities, including my job at Some Spider, where I just celebrated my four-year work anniversary, and also this column on Inc.com. It traces its history back to 2012, when the top editor here (he's now the now-CEO of Inc.com's parent company) recruited me, after reading one of the books I'd collaborated on.

So if you ever find yourself quickly realizing your new job was a big mistake...

To be clear, quitting a job soon after starting is risky. A lot of people will tell you that you should wait it out and see if things can improve.

I'm not saying they're never right, but it would have been the wrong choice in my situation.

So, even though I hope you never need this advice--here's what I'd say to do if you accept a new job and realize quickly that it's a bad fit:

1. Don't wait.

If you're 100 percent certain you're not going to last at a new job, I think it's better to make the decision and act quickly. It's better for you, and it's also better for the employer, who at least hasn't yet invested much time and money in you.

In retrospect, I am glad however that I came in on Day 2 and gave the news in person--rather than just sending an email or making a phone call. 

2. Accept that some people won't like you.

Most of us like to be liked, but it's hard to do this and not leave a bad impression. However, sticking around because you don't want to be disliked for leaving seems like a recipe for failure.

Besides, your coworkers probably aren't going to think much more highly of you in that case, anyway. Better to rip off the band aid, so to speak, and let them ultimately meet some new coworkers. 

3. Accept that it doesn't look good.

I've never written about this before, because it's normally not the kind of thing you brag about. However, "now it can be told," so to speak. It's been almost a decade, and besides, I've been very successful working at other jobs and business for years--both before and after this weird experience.

Even if you don't include the short tenure job on your resume or your LinkedIn profile (why would you? I don't) here's one thing I've learned: You'll likely work twice as hard at whatever you do wind up doing afterward, because you'll appreciate the opportunities more

4. Ultimately, you'll be forgotten.

It might take a little bit of time, but like most things in life your quick-quit will ultimately be forgotten. Or at least your name will be forgotten, if not the story itself.

The woman who helped me when I applied for this job reached out to me on LinkedIn recently. It was nice to hear from her, and I had to ask what happened after I left so quickly.

"You became a little bit of office lore," she said, laughing, the kind of story that gets told over drinks at a work happy hour. "But it was always with good humor."

I have no problem with that. How could I? She also added: "I absolutely understand why you had to do it."

5. Plan as best you can, and work your tail off.

I can think of one situation that might have made me stick around longer at this job--that's if I had already become a parent, and if I'd been counting on the salary and health insurance for my family's sake. 

I still would have been plotting quickly to move on, but I probably would not have done it quite so fast. In real life, several more years passed before my daughter was born, so that wasn't an issue for me at the time.

Overall, quitting quickly was a very tough thing to do, but I'm much happier and more successful than I would have been otherwise. Also, I was extremely motivated to make my business work afterward.

And without the flexibility of that business, it would have been hard for me to pack up and move to New York quickly, when I later got together with my future wife. So it was the right decision for other reasons, too.

Still, the job probably was a good fit for someone else. So, if you're reading this, and you happen to be a lawyer who got a job offer from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in late October 2009: You're welcome. I hope it worked out for you.


 

Published on: Jul 3, 2018