When I quit my job, I cried for three days: heavy, gasping sobs. Not because I found deep fulfillment filing papers in the basement of a corporate law firm. But because I failed, or so I thought.
I’d spent all of college drunk and delusional on the idea that I would “follow my heart” to the perfect career. Now, in the harsh, specular daylight of our capitalist job market, I had a hangover.
Growing up, older millennials like myself heard “follow your heart” a lot. Parents and teachers upheld it as the guiding principle for our lives and careers. So I followed my heart to writing. I wanted to write nonfiction, to explore and make sense of the tangled, sloppy, glimmering mess that is the human experience while also living it.
That’s where I ran into trouble: I followed my heart to something that doesn’t hold market value. Unable to find a job that would allow me to write and also pay my rent, I took the path of many a defeated English major before me. I made plans to take the LSAT and took the aforementioned job to get some law-firm experience.
I hated everything about that job. The pressure-cooker office culture, in which support staff served as the release valve for those at the top. The unofficial accolades for those who came in early or stayed late (I did both, too often). The invitation to a tedious corporate ladder I had no interest in climbing.
I quit because I reached my breaking point, and because I’d been lucky enough to save some money. I did not quit because I had another plan. “Follow your heart,” it turns out, didn’t provide the roadmap I needed. I’d been out of college almost two years, and I still felt directionless.
Months later, I still didn’t have a plan. But I knew more about myself and what I wanted from my career (and life in general) than I ever had. Quitting my job was crucial to gaining that knowledge, and building a career and life I now love.
Here’s what I learned during that terrifying and absolutely necessary time:
1/ It’s worth it to pursue your creativity even if you don’t get paid for it.
When I got the law-firm job, I stopped writing, even in my own journal. What was the point, I thought, without the paycheck?
But tamping down my creative impulses felt like shit. My brain liquified, bubbling over with unexpressed ideas. I found myself scribbling quick fragments and poems on the 3×3 Post-it pads I kept at my desk, just to stay sane. Once I accidentally wrote—and quickly erased—a haiku on the back of a deposition.
Oh my f**ng word
I f**ing hate this dumb job
I’m leaving early
I started writing again when I quit, mostly because I had time on my hands. I also thought it might help me sort my feelings, or figure out my next steps. I felt guilty at first, spending hours on something that did not come with health benefits and a 401(k).
But then something else happened: I didn’t care. Writing made me happy in its own right, when I gave myself permission to do it. I realized that I could find a job I enjoyed, get paid, and do this thing I loved without forcing the two together.
2/ All those hours spent stressing about your job are actually unpaid overtime.
My inbox used to dominate my time and consciousness. It was my forever excuse for not prioritizing myself. I felt irritable and depleted on most days, having deprived myself of essential time to let my body move, my mind rest and wander.
Without the looming presence of my work email, I came up for air. I exercised, read for pleasure, and made plans with friends I hadn’t seen in months. One of my girlfriends admitted that she’d almost written me off. It was too hard to get in touch with me, she said. It just seemed like I had other priorities.
She was right. Work occupied 85-90 percent of my brainspace on any given day. I squeezed my relationships, health, interests, everything else into the remaining 10-15 percent. I wish I got paid for all that precious time and energy I gave up. Actually, scratch that. I wish I got it all back.
The thing about emails is that they will always be there. And the reward for answering all those emails? More emails!!
But any time I gave myself, I got back tenfold with more energy and focus. My world looked somehow clearer, calmer. My relationships shifted. I found myself more present in everything I did—which was infinitely more rewarding than the momentary high of reaching inbox zero.
3/ Sometimes you need to take a shot (or many) in the dark, and miss.
There was no ah-ha moment, no love-at-first-sight sparks that set me on the right career path. Only a process of elimination.
Without a clear plan, I applied for every entry-level creative role that remotely seemed like a fit. But my skill set, which included creative writing and an “excellent work ethic,” did not appeal to most companies, which were looking for multiple years of agency experience.
I lost count of the rejections, their sting calloused to a dull ache. Then I discovered freelancing. Companies that wouldn’t make a full-time commitment were much more interested in hiring me for low-stakes contractor positions.
I started to hear, “yes.” The more I heard it, the more I said it. To everything. I worked in every digital marketing platform for every kind of company, from fashion PR to an Invisalign competitor to natural disaster insurance. For someone who lives in Los Angeles, I know entirely too much about tornado preparedness.
None of it fit perfectly. At that moment, I felt defeated. In hindsight, though, I was doing something important: calibrating my gut, ruling out what didn’t work in order to zero in on what did. And that brings me to my next lesson…
4/ Following your gut is just as important as having a goal.
I quit my job with two objectives in mind: find what I wanted to be when I “grow up.” Then get on track to doing that thing. Those were big goals. And vague.
They did not help me in the day-to-day push to “figure it all out.” Freelancing was like being on the inside of a wave, turbulent and disorienting. But here’s the thing about waves: even though you’re lost in opaque water and angry white foam, you’re likely still headed toward the shore.
I was indeed getting closer. I learned that I preferred to work from home, that I was good at structuring my own time. I learned that I loved the food and lifestyle industries, that I enjoyed working on big-picture marketing strategies, and that I had good instincts for understanding consumer habits.
I eventually landed a job that combined all of those things: the right industry, required skill sets, company culture, and a cushy WFH situation. I dove after it like a bird of prey, hunger in my eyes and belly.
I guess your gut really is the second brain. Months earlier, I wouldn’t have recognized this job as the shining opportunity it was. I needed to tune in, to feel the high of creative satisfaction in the work I liked and the low of effort-plus-boredom in the work I didn’t. Learning to follow my gut saved me the opportunity cost of overlooking the right role when it came along.
5/ You don’t have to have a perfect plan (or any plan) to move forward.
In all that time, I never had a plan. Not for lack of trying, though.
I attempted a five-year plan and an Oprah-style vision board. I wrote a letter to “myself in the future.” I meditated. One exercise instructed me to put my plan on the floor and stand on it. If it was the right plan, then I could expect to feel the magic, like first-date butterflies. I did get butterflies, from anxiety.
My most important takeaway from quitting my job wasn’t a part of any plan I ever tried to make: I learned how to value myself.
All the rough patches, pivots, and failures worked like immersion therapy. I had to detach myself in order to survive. I had to get to know myself outside of my fledgling career: interests, creative impulses, hobbies. By nurturing all these dormant facets of myself, I learned to value myself for who I am rather than my title or resume.
I love my career now. I’m in the right industry, in a role I find challenging and fun, with a company that values me. To get here, I had to love myself first. For the record, I would never have put that on my vision board.
Renae Hilary Getlin lives in Los Angeles where she writes, works, cooks, and creates space for her little family to thrive. She writes about food, identity, motherhood, career, and all the ways they intersect. See more of her writing on renaehilary.com or find her on Instagram @renaehilary.