Quitters never win. At least, that’s what many of us have been told. Sticking through it, channeling your inner Little Engine That Could—this is the stuff winners are made of; this is how you set the foundation for success.
But when it comes to your career, sometimes sticking through it means you’re just stuck. If you’re unhappy at work, odds are it’s going to show: in your energy, in your output, and in your overall morale and enthusiasm. Even those of us with the best poker faces aren’t fooling anyone, least of all ourselves.
So, how do you know when you’re in a temporary rut, or when quitting is actually the best possible option? Here are some telltale signs that you really ought to pack up and go.
1. You’re No Longer Learning on the Job
Someone once told me that the best careers are built from chasing learning curves, and I think that’s absolutely true. Picking up new skills, getting to build relationships with a variety of people, learning about a different industry: These things keep you fresh on the job and can make every day an adventure. Even those topics you might not particularly love learning about (Excel 101, anyone?), can help you ramp up and open opportunities to work on new, more exciting projects. (The day I discovered Excel formulas was a very big day indeed.) But when these kinds of learning opportunities disappear, things can get pretty dull—and pretty career-stunting—fast.
If you’re bored at work and no longer learning, ask yourself why. Is it because you haven’t sought out opportunities that will push you to take on new responsibilities and expand your skill set? Or, is it possible that you’ve learned just about everything you could have learned in your current role? If you’re only refining your current skill set without expanding it (which is really a nice way of saying you're doing the same thing every day), it's a likely sign you're not learning much on the job.
2. Your Opportunities for Growth Have Been Maxed Out
While this is highly related to #1, it’s a separate issue to watch out for. Sometimes it’s an entirely different roadblock that stands between you and greater opportunities: internal politics and policies. If you’ve had tiffs with higher-ups, sense an unfair environment of favoritism, or are otherwise mired by work policies that are preventing you from taking on more responsibilities, you’re likely better suited spending the next phase of your career somewhere else.
For example, if it seems like your current company tends to hire outside talent rather than promote internally, be realistic about whether or not your current company can or will make an exception for you. Think about how invested your company is in personal and professional growth to begin with. Do people regularly switch departments? Have you witnessed any significant promotions, any you can model your own career trajectory on? If there’s not a clear path in sight and you don’t see the support to get there, don’t waste time fighting against the tide. Now you’ve got one more prerequisite for any position you take in the future. (That’s a good thing!)
3. There is an Obvious Faster Route in Sight
Perhaps what you’re missing is a specific skill set to get to the next level in your career, or even another degree. You could certainly gain these things without quitting your gig—many skills today can be learned online, on your lunch break, or after work—but it will take you longer to reach your goal. If you’ve really got some learning to do, it may be time to go back to school full time.
Consider your timeline, the skills you want to acquire, your goals for getting a new position, and the opportunity cost at stake. If you’re pressed for time and a full-time program is an option, consider going for it. Your career is a long-term investment—remember that in the grand scheme of things, a one-year master’s program is actually quite short!
4. The Situation is Toxic
Sometimes there's plenty of opportunity for growth and you learn something new every day, but the work environment is emotionally draining and entirely uninspiring. Maybe you love your boss but hate the product you’re marketing. Or you find yourself dreading the two-hour commute and counting the minutes until it’s time to go home.
It can be hard to know in advance what your non-negotiables are for work, especially early in your career. But, boy will you know them when you see them. Office culture, team culture, commute time, company size, organizational structure: You’ll know how important each of these factors is to you once you’ve fallen a few times in the wrong camp. If you find that your quality of life is seriously negatively impacted by your workplace, it’s time to start looking elsewhere.
5. You Want to Do Something Else
Don’t find your boss’s job appealing? Side project keeping you up at night? If you find you don’t actually like the career path set in front of you, listen to your instincts, admit that you’re searching for something else, and consider heading down that new path.
If you find you are looking to change industries entirely, you’ve got a couple of options for easing out of your current gig. If you can stay in your current job and take on projects that are more in line with what you’d like to be doing next until a new opportunity arises, great. But be realistic about whether or not this is possible—you can’t take blood from a stone. You can also forge connections in your new industry while keeping up with your current job, but if it’s a really different industry or role you’re gunning for, you might have to just take that leap of faith and quit. Building a network in a new industry, after all, can often be a full-time job.
Calling it quits isn’t easy, and yes, sometimes in life you have to grin and bear it. But remember: Sometimes it’s only through quitting that you can get to the next big win.