Recently, I was perusing used books at a local shop and came across Tim Ferriss’s book The 4-Hour Workweek. The back cover warned, “Do not read this book unless you want to quit your job.”
So, I put it back on the shelf.
Nothing against Tim Ferriss—I bet that clickbait-y back cover copy was the work of his publisher’s marketing team—but if you’re like me, learning how not to quit your job is a more relevant life lesson. It’s easy to fantasize about quitting your job. If somehow you didn’t need the paycheck, imagine the freedom: time to do whatever you want, when you want to. No more pesky deadlines or annoying coworkers. No more cranky boss.
But deep down, you know that quitting isn’t always the answer. For one thing, you were made to work. For another, you do need the paycheck. Sticking it out in a tough job is often the right thing to faithfully provide for your own needs and for your family.
While it’s wonderful to find a better job if you can, perfect jobs are in short supply. Looking for greener grass is a reliable method for ignoring the grass right in front of you. There’s a difference between a toxic workplace that you need to escape and a good job with genuine difficulties. Learning to face workplace difficulties with courage, rather than running away from them, is the path to freedom and joy on the job. Learning how not to quit your job won’t just make your experience of work better; it will make you a better person.
When Quitting Doesn’t Solve the Problem
I would say that I’ve learned this lesson the hard way, except that I’m still in the process of learning it. I wish I had learned how not to quit my job when I was younger.
A few years ago, I quit a job that was, in many respects, a wonderful gig. I had fabulous coworkers, was doing meaningful work, had great benefits, and saw lots of opportunities for growth. But there were also some intractable problems.
In particular, an annual project I helped run was a source of profound anxiety. Partly to get away from that pressure, I took a new opportunity. On the one hand, I was pursuing a next step that was the right thing for its own reasons. But, in hindsight, I was also running away.
Here’s the thing: Running away from that project did not solve my anxiety. That sense of pressure and dread followed me to the new job. Even though it wasn’t the same project, new responsibilities catalyzed new apprehensions. My stressful projects were not the problem. My inability to face my own anxiety about the projects was. My real issue wasn’t external and situational; it was internal and spiritual.
If you’re tempted to quit your job, it’s important to ask where the problem really lies: In your situation or in your heart.
How to Be Courageous
Sometimes, the things we dislike about our jobs are the very things that grow us the most. As the proverb goes, a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor. Challenge and difficulty are what engage us and call forth our internal resources, stretching us beyond where we’ve been before. In spiritual terms, the person who is willing and able to embrace challenge and pain for the sake of doing what’s right is a courageous person. In a word, that’s how not to quit your job: find the courage you need at work.
You already have some level of courage. You may not have the physical courage of a soldier who can run into battle with bullets flying. But there are difficulties you’re willing to embrace in order to do the right thing—even small things like forcing your mind to keep working toward the end of a tired workday, or doing the dishes when your roommate is sick.
Then there are difficulties that you’re still tempted to run away from. For many people, conflict with a boss or a coworker falls into this category. For others, it’s asking, “What are my real work priorities?” (It can be scary to realize you’ve been wasting your time at work on things that don’t matter.) For me, it’s facing my anxiety and admitting my weaknesses when I’m unsure if a project will succeed.
The main way to become more courageous is to practice. So, pick a work difficulty you’re tempted to side step. This week, find a way to face it head-on. Initiate the awkward conversation with your coworker about how they’ve been missing deadlines. Take an hour and do an 80/20 analysis on your work activities. Talk to someone about the anxieties that work uncertainty sparks for you. Do the thing. Take the “next step” of practicing courage.
Over time, as you choose to press into difficulties like this, your “courage muscle” will get stronger. You’ll start to automatically face and handle the same things that it used to take a decision and effort to confront. That in turn will deepen your sense of confidence and self-efficacy, reducing the anxiety associated with such challenges. You’ll find yourself being the person who can provide “a non-anxious presence” to others (to use Edwin H. Friedman’s beautiful phrase), in the very same kind of circumstances where you used to be the anxious one.
Keep Working to Fend Off Despair
Learning how not to quit your job also requires confronting one particularly serious workplace challenge: despair.
Medieval scholastic Thomas Aquinas describes on-the-job despair in this way: when “a man deems an arduous good impossible to obtain,” it is “due to his being over downcast, because when this state of mind dominates his affections, it seems to him that he will never be able to rise to any good.” In other words, we get discouraged when what we’re working toward seems out of reach. It’s just too hard. We’re overwhelmed. We want to quit.
Interestingly, this description of despair comes in the context of Aquinas discussing another vice: sloth. If you step back from doing the work, it can give rise to that feeling of it being impossible. The good news here is that the reverse is also true: Our first defense against despair is to keep doing the work. Of course, this brings us back to courage, because doing the work means facing the difficulties that are part of it head-on.
Courage as a Gift from the Holy Spirit
But keeping at the work doesn’t always cut it as a defense against despair. There are times when our strength is spent, and we really can’t just keep going. We need a spiritual power beyond ourselves to sustain us in the middle of overwhelming difficulties. When writing about the need for courage, Aquinas says that courage is not just a habit or virtue, it’s also a gift from the Holy Spirit.
When we’re tempted to despair about a specific project’s success, we’re usually also tempted to despair about our own life and situation. If we have a strong sense of well-being, we can stomach the prospect of failure. If project failure means we’re a failure, then despair is even more destructive. It taps into our sense of shame.
But the Holy Spirit can reassure us that our ultimate well-being does not rest in our work, but rather in God’s promise of everlasting life. Aquinas writes that “sometimes it is not in a man’s power to attain the end of his work . . . [But] A certain confidence of this [everlasting life] is infused into the mind by the Holy Ghost Who expels any fear of the contrary. It is in this sense that fortitude [i.e. courage] is reckoned a gift of the Holy Ghost.” We need that gift to sustain us when we’re at our weakest, unable to face the day.
Get Vaccinated Against Workplace Despair
Together, these things are ingredients for a kind of vaccine against workplace despair:
- Practicing the “next step” of courage, to get stronger over time
- Continuing to do the work
- Receiving courage as a gift of the Holy Spirit, a conviction of eternal life
A vaccine works by training our immune system. By exposing our body to something that’s like the more serious disease, we start to produce the cells and antibodies we’ll need to fight off the real thing if it ever comes our way. The process of God’s work in our life to produce courage is much the same. If we embrace today’s challenges, we’ll be ready to face tomorrow’s.
You may know the Apostle Paul’s famous words, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13 ESV). Paul penned this claim while speaking about suffering. In the verse just prior he writes, “In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (Philippians 4:12 ESV). As external situations in his work of ministry changed, Paul found a power beyond himself in Christ’s presence. It gave him the courage he needed to keep going, to not quit, and even to rejoice in suffering.
That same strength is available to us, in whatever challenges we face at work and in life today.
Reflect and Practice
- Do you want to quit your job? Why or why not?
- As best you can tell, is sticking it out in your job the right thing right now?
- When do you have the opportunity to embrace pain or challenge at work? What’s the “next step” of courage you can take this week?
- Have you ever felt genuine despair at work? What was that like?
To welcome the Holy Spirit’s reassurance and gift of courage, try praying this prayer from the Book of Common Prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ, by your patience in suffering you hallowed earthly pain and gave us the example of obedience to your Father’s will: Be near me in my time of weakness and pain; sustain me by your grace, that my strength and courage may not fail; heal me according to your will; and help me always to believe that what happens to me here is of little account if you hold me in eternal life, my Lord and my God. Amen.