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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Changing Jobs

How My "Stupid" Career Decision Led Me to My Dream Job

Nine years ago, I made a stupid decision. I left a great job at an extraordinary company, Capital One. But, I’d been there for a decade and felt worn out at the ripe old age of 35.

With responsibilities, a family at home, and plenty of stock options waiting to vest, I should have asked for a six-month sabbatical, but instead I resigned.

What would I do during that time? I would take a step back from the daily grind to figure out what I should do next and how could I make my career meaningful again. Rather than sitting in a cubicle hoping the answer would come to me in between answering emails and meetings, I would get away from it all and listen to the Universe.

Turns out, it was the best decision of my career.

I know not everyone has the option to walk away from a salary. But everyone does have the option to listen to the Universe even if it seems a little crazy at the time. Here’s what I learned in the process.

Even if You Do Not Decide, You Still Have Made a Choice

I gave my notice on a typical grey January day. Yet as I left my boss’ office, the sky looked bluer. The grass was greener. Food tasted better. Only after breaking free did I realize how strongly inertia had locked me in.

The thing is, few white collar roles are insufferable—and that makes it all too easy to suffer through a job simply because nothing’s wrong. However, as my senses sharpened in my first few days off the job, I realized “nothing wrong” should not be confused with “something right.”

Here’s a litmus test: What’s your outlook heading into work each morning? Be honest with yourself. In the right job, it’s fair to expect you’ll look forward to going into work most of the week, be ambivalent at least once, and mildly dread one day. (Usually Monday.) Of course, even a job you love will have its bad days. But there should be more good than bad. More days you look forward to than days you dread.

By accepting that you’re unhappy at your job, you’re making a choice to feel that way. So don’t—decide to be happy, decide to take control of your own career.

Your Career Depends on You Seeing the Right Questions, Rather Than the Right Answers

One month into my experiment, I could sense my batteries recharging. I was fortunate enough to be able to spend most days taking care of my family as well as myself. My sons got to go to the park each day, my wife got to eat a home-cooked meal, and I got to spend time doing the simple things—exercising and reading.

Now that my regimen included time to simply think, I started having ideas again. It was novel and luxurious. And it was the natural consequence of fencing off this time and granting myself permission to explore my own thoughts. Some days I had brilliant thoughts, other days not so much. Liberating myself from a cubicle and the day-to-day pressure to deliver unleashed my creativity.

This period in my career taught me to accept that it’s OK to have a lot of ideas, even half-baked ideas. While working backwards from a clear goal can be very important, I learned that sometimes the best ideas arise just from going on an open-ended journey. You don’t always need to have the strategy and the answers and the plan.

The Universe Will Speak if You Commit to Listening

OK, I know what you’re thinking—and yes, I just about ran out of money. Having time to think is wonderful, but it doesn’t pay the bills.

Let me come clean. I’m not proud. Even though I felt that my career goal was to be part of the startup community, I considered I might have to return to Corporate America, and I interviewed at a Fortune 500 company. A little voice in my head said, “Dad was right; you should have done the smart thing and just taken a sabbatical. What’s this nonsense about listening to the Universe?”

But, just as my anxiety was peaking, the Universe spoke to me. And it came in the form of an email from a former Capital One senior executive. He heard I might be on the market—and he just happened to know a great opportunity.

As it turns out, he was subject to a non-solicit and was prohibited from contacting current employees about job opportunities. If I had taken a sabbatical—“the smart approach”—I would have been an employee and still off limits. Finally, I got official word from the Universe that I’d made the right decision. Everything in the past year had led to this moment, this email.

Long story short: The email turned into freelance consulting for a year, which in turn led to my co-founding a venture capital firm, QED Investors. I love my job, to the point that my wife comments that I “bleed QED.” And it’s only because I made the nominally stupid decision to commit—truly commit—to listen to the Universe.

My advice: don’t let yourself be a victim of inertia. You deserve a satisfying career. Find a way to explore, listen, and meet the Universe when it speaks.

Photo of man in winter courtesy of Shutterstock.