Just about a year ago, in my article Unwinding our Values: To Gaman and Grind I shared about the deep exhaustion leading an organization while at the intersection of gaman and grind culture, leading to my decision to leave the organization.
What I didn’t get into was that when I left the organization, I did so without a new job lined up…for the second time. For me, both decisions to leave came down to a clear sign that my physical, mental, and emotional health was declining. I was getting sick from stress, I couldn’t sleep, my blood pressure was going up, the list could go on and on. And then I realized that I was also missing precious moments because I was preoccupied with work and taking regular breaks felt impossible. I knew I had to go.
For this article, I spoke with two of my favorite people, Jeff Moy and Sarah Baker, who are currently on their own work hiatuses, and I resonated so deeply with everything that they said during this conversation. I’m so grateful for their friendship and that they were willing to share their stories with Yo! I only wish I could convey the deep love and hearty laughs sprinkled throughout this conversation.
If you’ve contemplated leaving your job, especially if you work in the nonprofit sector, I hope in reading this article you’ll find community and affirmation that there’s nothing wrong or bad about prioritizing your wellness and peace.
For Yo!’s readers, would you please share a few things about yourself and since this is a conversation about jobs, please share a little about the type of work you were doing before you left your role.
Sarah: My name is Sarah Baker (she/her). One, I'm mixed race Japanese American. Two, I've lived in the Pacific Northwest my entire life and definitely believe that the West Coast is the best coast. Sorry, everybody. And three, I'm a queer person and happy Trans Day of Visibility! (This interview was conducted on March 31, 2022). For my work, we're a nonprofit organization that serves other nonprofits and small businesses in the state of Washington. We do legal services and capacity building services, most of which are completely pro bono.
Jeff: I am Jeffrey Moy (he/him) and in terms of pieces of my identity, number one, I'm Yonsei, but also Chinese American and Okinawan American. Secondly, I grew up on the East Coast. That's a really important part of my identity. And even though I live in California now, I still identify as an East Coaster. I was working for a nonprofit organization that is focused on health equity issues, nationally.
The three of us have done something that millennials were traditionally told not to do: quitting your job without a next job lined up. What were the circumstances in which each of you decided to leave your job?
Jeff: I had my last job for over five and a half years. So a part of the decision was feeling like I'd been able to do a lot in my role in terms of starting multiple programs for the organization. I helped the organization transition from one executive director to the next executive director and through several other staff as well, so I had reached a point where I felt pretty tired and burned out from my time there. I felt the organization was in a really good place and sort of guilt-free walking away. Ultimately, over the last couple years, everybody's been dealing with different challenging circumstances, myself included, because of the pandemic. I just knew I needed a break and it felt like I earned it.
I’m sure the last couple years were extra tough because of COVID too.
Jeff: That's exactly right. Supporting folks, primarily people of color around the country, in the programs that I was managing, who had to very quickly pivot to focusing on addressing COVID in their communities. They may have been dealing with conditions that were more adverse, you know, than other places.
Sarah: So I was at my job for four years and I was working on the legal services side. I just remember very distinctly this day that I woke up and in such a bad mood. And I was like, why am I so angry? Man, I wish I didn't have to do this anymore. And then suddenly, it hit me like a train…I don't have to do this anymore. I can make a choice to not do this, so I did. And then after that my mood was great!
It took me another couple of weeks to think about a plan and how I wanted to talk to my boss about it. But after that moment, I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. I realized I don't really want to work in legal anymore for a number of reasons. I was also in grad school simultaneously, had been working another job, and was on three different boards. I was just feeling very, very tired and done. I just reached a point with my job where I was not getting fulfillment out of it and there wasn't a lot of upward mobility.
For me, as an extroverted person, this showed up as me articulating how tired I was and all the reasons why I didn’t want to do the job anymore. Could you describe a little bit more of that sense that you were having or if there were other considerations you were weighing?
Sarah: Sure, even before I decided to quit my job, I could name it very easily. Every single day I was waking up with this existential dread that I had to go to work. We’d been working from home since the pandemic. It's nice that I didn't have to commute but, even then I was like, oh my god, I just do not want to do this job, even from home. I was dragging my feet through the mud every single day to get the things done to do the job and it was just awful.
Jeff: I would agree with what both of you have said. It was a feeling of exhaustion. First of all, it was getting harder to get myself up and motivated. There were all these negative thoughts that come with the work and a realization that I knew I could do the work, but I'm so annoyed that I have to do it.
Also, as a manager I was really worrying about my own negativity rubbing off on my team in a way that would be detrimental to them. I was trying to be cautious about that. There was a constant exhaustion in managing my emotions when they were not lining up with how I was feeling.
I'd been considering leaving, and I was trying to make it to a vacation essentially. I thought, if I can just take a vacation, I'll come back, refreshed and recharged, and maybe I'll re-evaluate how I'm feeling about work. I went on a vacation, it was lovely and I relaxed. When I got back, literally within a couple of days, I was right back to that same negative space. That's really when I knew that something had to change drastically because otherwise I'd just keep coming back to this place and that's not going to be good for anybody.
There were some challenging personal losses that I went through last year too, and I didn't really discuss them with my coworkers. They were kind of aware of some of the things I went through, but I felt like I had to shut that piece out because I knew it was going to interfere with work. I didn't really know how to process it and in my time since I’ve been catching up on the emotional stuff that I went through last year, which is kind of crazy to think about. There’s a weird delayed response to things.
You’ve touched on this with regard to burn out and exhaustion, but do you want to share more about why you decided not to seek another job before leaving?
Sarah: Economic stability was a big part of it. I had the realization that I can actually coast for a little bit and be okay. Actually, knowing folks like you two, and there was a woman from my dance studio whose mantra has been “quit your job,” but you all did this thing, and nothing bad happened. So I realized this is something that I'm capable of doing and like…I'm going to take the plunge and do it. I’m so glad.
Jeff: I feel super privileged to be able to take this time. I'm lucky enough to have some savings built up, I knew I could handle expenses and I have a spouse who's still employed. We kind of did the math and knew that it would be all right. I had some prior experience with leaving jobs in the past without necessarily knowing what my next steps would be and I was not as financially stable as I am now.
Most of all I realized I was recognizing some health challenges I was dealing with physically and mentally. I knew I needed at least a month if not at least two months to refresh and recharge. I didn't want to be in a position where if there was an offer out there, if I was lucky enough to get one, to have to make a decision about prioritizing my own health vs. dealing with my own preconceptions of how important it is to have a job and financial stability.
How did folks react to this decision that you made?
Sarah: When I told my boss, somebody else had quit earlier that day, so it was really badly timed. But this was my plan and I know I had to tell my boss on that day. I was so nervous about it, but I knew if I didn’t stick to the plan it would mess me up mentally. So I told her and she was so shocked. But that was really telling to me. I think that everybody else could see the writing on the wall.
For the most part, people were very supportive. I had a couple of friends who were like, “Wait a minute, you're quitting your job without having something else set up. That's crazy!” And I just thought, is it though? Do I have to subscribe to this belief that you have to have a job at all times? And if you don't have a job that you are somehow worthless?
Jeff: I had a similar experience where I think a couple of my bosses were surprised. I think to a certain extent, they took for granted that I would continue on. That sounds a little bit more negative than I meant it, but that's how it was.
I don’t think my other coworkers were surprised at all. They understood that my time had come and they were happy for me and supportive. I feel lucky that my friends have all been supportive. There are several others I know that are also taking a break and looking for jobs. So I know there are many of us in the same situation and I haven't really heard a lot of negativity. People understand that's what you need right now.
Can you share a little bit how long you haven't been working now and what have you been learning about yourselves in this process?
Jeff: I haven't been working for a few months now. And honestly, one of the things that really bothered me and informed my decision to leave was I felt a disconnect with myself. I felt that I had become someone who was entirely focused on my work, and just trying to complete things for my job. During this time, I'm really trying to reconnect with the things that I enjoy in life and trying to reassess. I'm trying to figure out if things I pulled away from were because something about me changed or because I was lost in my job. So, whether it's watching movies, playing video games, going on hikes, I know it's cliche to say, but I’m trying to be as present as possible in those experiences and figure out if they bring me joy.
Sarah: It's been two weeks and I think what Jeff was talking about is very, very applicable. Recently someone asked me, “What do you like to do for fun?” And I was like, “I don't know. I have no idea.” My whole life has been working and school for the last two and a half years and I have no idea. What are the things that I like doing? Not the things that I'm required to do, not the things that I have to do for other people.
Did you have a hard time relaxing initially?
Sarah: No, I've been literally just making lists of things that I would rather be doing than school or work. Right and those things include watching movies, going for walks, reading comic books…I’ve found there is no end to things that I could be doing that are things that I actually enjoy doing. Recently, I sat in my bed all day and read comic books, and it was great. It was very enjoyable.
Jeff: I'm super happy for Sarah- that it wasn’t difficult for her! It’s been a struggle. Some of it is exhaustion from the past couple years, some of it is hardwired into me. I feel like as a Japanese American or Asian American, some days I really struggle with thinking I've got to earn relaxation. But, it's really hard to quantify what “earning it” would be when you don't have a salary attached to it. It's like, how many times can I vacuum our apartment before I feel comfortable sitting down?
I do think some of that is rooted in things that are much deeper than my decision to leave this most recent job. So it's been an interesting process to try to work through that and to feel comfortable realizing I can just do whatever I want, and that's fine.
Recently, I went on a camping trip with some friends for a couple of nights. The last night we were there, we were stargazing because it was beautiful and clear out. It reminded me of how important it is to just stop and observe, and how beautiful the world can be if you're able to do that. Obviously, we have to do a lot of things in life that aren’t going to be pleasant to survive, and that are going to be exhausting. But, how do we make sure that we're still making the space for those other things that make it all worth it?
With a little distance now, what do you think needs to change in the nonprofit sector since we all work/worked in this field?
Sarah: Let's just dismantle the nonprofit industrial complex. We need to stop operating out of a scarcity mindset. We're constantly under-resourced in terms of the human aspect of resources as well as the dollars. And with those two things combined, it's just like a constant swirl of the toilet and you're just going further and further down the drain.
You're just constantly going from the next grant, to the next thing and hiring this really great person and then you burn them out. Nothing's sustainable.
Jeff: Staffing, in terms of having enough staff to actually handle the amount of work that's being done, is always an issue and then obviously, pay. But I think vacation time is really important and having the culture in place where people feel able to take that vacation without guilt. Knowing that their work will be fine or covered while they're gone. All of us have commented on work being on our minds while we're supposed to be off and that's not the way it should be.
Sabbaticals could be a solution, and would be really helpful for folks to feel refreshed, and ideally be able to learn something during their sabbatical that they could bring back to their position. Ultimately having a little bit more time away from work would lead to more productive people in the office.
As a small aside, recently I learned that the Durfee Foundation has a sabbatical program for nonprofit CEOs that’s really amazing! If you are a CEO or ED of an NPO, definitely check out their program. In the event that there are foundation workers reading this article, it’s so good that foundation money is moving toward funding staff time and other unrestricted costs for NPOs. Please also fund staff rest. We need more opportunities for nonprofit staff, at mid level too, to receive intentional and paid rest and enough organizational capacity to cover their work while they’re gone.
So back to the conversation, what do you hope for the next season of life? Could be job related or otherwise.
Sarah: I don't want it to be about the job necessarily. I do have hopes around work but that's not the thing that I want to focus on. I want to learn what it is to be myself again, because I feel like that's been missing for so long that I don’t know what that looks like anymore, which is kind of a fucked up thing to say. I want to dig into that and figure me out.
Jeff: It's not fucked up at all. I totally agree with you. I want to have a better sense of what my priorities in life are. And the strength to go into whatever the next opportunity is, and be very clear about what my boundaries are.
I do still think about my next job, which leads me to think that I'm not really ready to answer this question. I want to keep working in a space where I'm fighting for equity and social justice, I’m just not sure what role yet. I’m still trying to figure out the right space.
As always, my final question is what advice do you have or what mantra would you share with others who may be contemplating quitting their jobs?
Sarah: Mine is just like, one sentence: quit your job*. With the asterix, being that there's a lot of privilege attached to that. And it's very situational. And a lot of folks do not have the ability to do that. But if you can do it, and you can do it in a way that you feel safe and supported, you absolutely should.
I've definitely had this thought over the last couple of weeks of when am I ever going to be able to do something like this again, where I just have basically no strings attached? I can just do what I want and that's such a rare thing. So just quit your job!
Jeff: Trust yourself and trust what your body is telling you. That's how you'll know if it's time. I avoided that feeling for a long time, but eventually it still won out.
It's not a weird or bad thing to leave a job. It's okay. Everything Sarah said in terms of the asterisk. You need to make sure that you have some sort of financial stability and family stuff is taken care of, or whatever you need to factor in.
And while you don't know when else in your life you’d be able to take a break like this, maybe we should all feel like we could take breaks like this when we need them. Maybe as a society, we should try to normalize that a little bit more. We're not hurting anything by stepping away for a few months, every five years.
I love that and I love you two, so much. Thank you for your time!