Why I Quit My Job (a.k.a. "Regrets of the Working")

Alistair-Clark's picture
Rank: King Kong | 1,102

Earlier this year I quit my management consulting job after 4 years on the grind.

I didn't quit to do an MBA or because I got a better job, and I didn't quit because I hated the long hours and travel.

I quit because of something I read. A simple article that changed how I think about life.

"Regrets of the Dying"

I found the article while procrastinating one day at the client office, probably between PowerPoint revisions or during the post-lunch lull. I was skimming through essays from Paul Graham's site, lazily clicking between articles as I waited for inspiration for the next great Y Combinator startup idea.

One essay that piqued my attention was titled "The Top of My Todo List", which talks about a palliative care nurse--called Bronnie Ware--that made a list of the biggest regrets of her dying patients. Paul linked to Bronnie's original article, titled "Regrets of the Dying".

Reading the list of dying regrets snapped me out of my mindless reading and shook me to the core. It's not an understatement to say that reading this single article has changed the course of my life.

When I had finished reading I came to the sobering conclusion that if I didn't change something soon then I would be echoing 4 of the 5 regrets while on my deathbed.

Here are the five regrets from the article, along with a painfully honest assessment of my life:

1. "I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me."
FAIL -- I went into consulting because I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life when I graduated. A lot of people wanted consulting jobs, so I followed the herd and got myself hired. I worked hard for promotions for the same reason: because that's what everyone else wanted. It took me a while to realize, but all I was really doing was trying to win an imaginary status competition against my peers. It's only recently in life that I've started to really think for myself and figure out what I want to do in life.

2. "I wish I didn't work so hard."
FAIL -- Little explanation is required here: I worked nights, I worked weekends, and I travelled a lot. I still work extremely hard now on my business, but I don't regret a second of it. Maybe my priorities will change when I have a family. Regardless of how I feel now, Bronnie is pretty clear in saying "All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence."

3. "I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings."
PASS -- This was the only regret that I didn't have when I first read the list. I've always tried to say what I feel, even when it is inconvenient or pissed people off at work. But if I'd stuck it out at my job for another 4 years I doubt I'd still "PASS", as there is constant pressure at work to suppress your feelings in favour of "playing the game" with bosses and clients.

4. "I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends."
FAIL -- I lost touch with a lot of friends in the first few years after university. Everyone moved to different cities, became busy with different jobs, and started making different friends. The convenience and proximity of school life gives the illusion that it's easy to maintain friendships, but it's a lot tougher in the "real-world". I haven't seen some of my closest friends from school since we graduated, and it's already one of my biggest regrets in life.

5. "I wish that I had let myself be happier."
FAIL -- If you had asked me while I was working if I was happy, I would have said "yes". But after a few months of time away from work, it's clear that I didn't really know what happiness was. Sure, I went out for nice dinners, travelled a lot, and bought stuff I wanted, but I no longer associate those things with happiness. Now I'm happy when I'm fully immersed in writing or working with a coaching client, when I'm going for a walk on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, or when I wake up before dawn to hangout with my girlfriend before she leaves for work. All of these activities are free, and all of these activities make me extremely happy.

How to live a life free of regret

My solution when I read this was to quit my job and start my own business, but I don't think this is the only approach or even the best approach. I think it's entirely possible to live a life free of these regrets while working an insane finance job -- it just takes a little honesty, planning, and effort.

Below are two activities that have helped me take control of my life. My life is a perpetual work in progress so these aren't perfect, but they helped me and they could help you.

Step #1: Be honest about the current state of your life
It took me around 6 months to quit my job after reading Bronnie's article. I could have sent a resignation email the minute I finished reading it, but I was in denial and I was scared. I tried to justify my career choices by pointing out all of my seemingly successful and happy colleagues, but the internal gnawing feeling wouldn't go away.

It took me a while to finally give an honest assessment of who I'd become after 4 years in the corporate world. It wasn't easy and it wasn't fun to realize that the life I was working so hard to build wasn't going to make me happy.

Take a few moments to objectively look at your life and give an honest assessment of whether you are happy with the direction you're heading. If you're happy then great, but if you're not then don't worry -- there are ways to take control and get things back on track.

Step #2: Build systems to protect what's important in life
The challenge with these regrets is that they are the result of tiny day-to-day decisions that accumulate over the extended timeline of your life. As Paul Graham says, "the mistakes that produce these regrets are all errors of omission [...] Errors of omission are a particularly dangerous type of mistake, because you make them by default." Paul's solution is simple: convert the 5 regrets into 5 commands that sit at the top of his to-do list. Don't ignore your dreams; don't work too much; say what you think; cultivate friendships; be happy.

I've taken this a step further and have built weekly and daily systems to guarantee that I'm doing things to prevent these regrets. Things like journaling about my biggest goals in life, scheduling in time for long walks and meditation, and hosting monthly dinner parties with my closest friends. I literally put these into my schedule at the beginning of the week and prioritize them over a lot of other seemingly important things on my to-do list.

Most of us never think about dying, let alone how we'll feel about our entire life in the last moments. Talking about death is uncomfortable, scary, and emotional. It's a lot easier to live as if we are immortal than to face the inevitable truth that someday this party will end.

I guess I won't really know if the steps I've taken have worked for another 60 to 70 years, but for now there's peace of mind knowing that I'm trying to fix things before it's too late.

Alistair Clark is a former management consultant that runs worklifefitness.co. He's on a mission to help busy professionals (consultants, bankers, entrepreneurs, etc.) take control of their demanding careers and hectic lifestyles so that they can succeed at work, create a meaningful life, and maximize their health & fitness. Get started with a free eBook: Get in Shape and Save 11 Hours a Week.

Comments (34)

May 6, 2015

Like the read and I'll give that article a browse.

Something strikes me as off. You quit your job because you felt it facilitated those regrets. How did you then come up with the idea of help others in busy jobs with their work-life balance and why didn't you apply those concepts to yourself? You can't obviously tell bankers and consultants to quit their job to avoid regrets but you could have applied your own principles for a fruitful career in the long run?

May 6, 2015

Good question / comment. There were a couple of contributing factors to why I quit in addition to the regrets that might help explain. 1) I realized I didn't actually want to be in consulting / corporate-world long term and had only been staying in it because of momentum; 2) I decided that helping real people would have a bigger impact and be more rewarding than consulting for corporations.

So while the principles / systems I use with clients can increase work-life balance and address the "regrets", they can't fix an underlying lack of motivation and commitment to the career path like I was experiencing.

    • 1
May 8, 2015

I get where you're coming from.

I don't know if its just a coincidence but I notice you play professional rugby. A buddy of mine played for England Saxons, the youth development team of England, but went into corp fin. We both played prop at high school and he was super competitive and I was...total shit. He felt his attitude to winning would translate well in the office but just became disillusioned, quit and opened his own gym, where most of his clients are city workers.

    • 1
May 6, 2015

I like Paul Graham's stuff. For those thinking about quitting, Tim Ferriss says it best: "Most who avoid quitting their jobs entertain the thought that their course will improve with time or increases in income. This seems valid and is a tempting hallucination when a job is boring or uninspiring instead of pure hell. Pure hell forces action, but anything less can be endured with enough clever rationalization. Do you really think it will improve or is it wishful thinking and an excuse for inaction?"

    • 1
May 11, 2015
MMBanker14:

I like Paul Graham's stuff. For those thinking about quitting, Tim Ferriss says it best: "Most who avoid quitting their jobs entertain the thought that their course will improve with time or increases in income. This seems valid and is a tempting hallucination when a job is boring or uninspiring instead of pure hell. Pure hell forces action, but anything less can be endured with enough clever rationalization. Do you really think it will improve or is it wishful thinking and an excuse for inaction?"

Great quote.

Here's my favourite from Tim Ferriss. I printed it out and put it above my desk at home around the time I was deciding to quit:

"For all of the most important things, the timing always sucks. Waiting for a good time to quit your job? The stars will never align and the traffic lights of life will never all be green at the same time. The universe doesn't conspire against you, but it doesn't go out of its way to line up the pins either. Conditions are never perfect. "Someday" is a disease that will take your dreams to the grave with you. Pro and con lists are just as bad. If it's important to you and you want to do it "eventually," just do it and correct course along the way."

    • 2
May 8, 2015

Well written.

May 8, 2015

I feel like we've been seeing a lot of this "quit the corporate world to start my own company and liberate myself" archetype on WSO recently. Very interested in seeing what you guys will have to say a few years down the line on your new trajectories

    • 3
    • 1
May 8, 2015

It's definitely not a new trend on the site, nor will it continue to fade away on the site (or in society in general). For some it will work out, some not. If anything, I admire all that have the desire to give it a try. It's often not the easier path, especially at first, but with the proper mix of sweat, wits, networking, and a little luck, the alternative path can definitely work out best in the end.

WSO's COO (Chief Operating Orangutan) | My Linkedin

    • 1
May 8, 2015
AndyLouis:

It's definitely not a new trend on the site, nor will it continue to fade away on the site (or in society in general). For some it will work out, some not. If anything, I admire all that have the desire to give it a try. It's often not the easier path, especially at first, but with the proper mix of sweat, wits, networking, and a little luck, the alternative path can definitely work out best in the end.

Andy, I think I may have my topic for the next webinar :)

May 8, 2015

Bet most of them are happier than you are.

    • 1
    • 3
May 8, 2015

How would you know? I was asking a legitimate question - no need to get your panties in a twist.

Would love to hear more from people like @MBAApply" reflecting on their experiences after "going off the grid". Interesting perspective

May 8, 2015

Thank you for being so candid with us. It was an enjoyable read. Would you consider sharing your progress on this new venture, say, every six months, or so? I'm sure resigning and moving on to other things is not a simple two-step process, so it would be nice to keep up with the challenges you face and how you overcome them, hopefully.

May 11, 2015

Thanks for the comment and support. I'd be happy to share my progress every 6 months or so.

You're right that quitting isn't just a two step process, but it's also less complicated than most people assume. Two additional things helped make the decision a lot simpler:

1) Rather than quit outright, I negotiated a leave-of-absence where I could return to my job after 6 months. This acted as a safety net and meant the worst-case scenario was sacrificing 6-months of salary and returning to my consulting job.

2) I did some simple math and realized I could live comfortably for a few years on my savings. I basically decided to make a bet on myself and my brain that I could figure out a way to make money before my savings ran out.

    • 2
May 8, 2015

Good article, and it's awesome you're finding what you want to do. I think doing what you want is key, as long as it doesn't negatively affect a family that you're feeding.

For some though, dedicating all their time to landing a job, etc is what makes them happy. I know that if I gave up on all that I've put into certain things, it would be a major regret. So there are definitely trade offs.

May 8, 2015

Good read this morning. SB

May 8, 2015

Love Paul Grahams essays, and props to you for taking action on your ideals. What was the hardest part of the transition? How long did it take for you to find your new calling and startup idea?

    • 1
May 11, 2015
Yekrut:

Love Paul Grahams essays, and props to you for taking action on your ideals. What was the hardest part of the transition? How long did it take for you to find your new calling and startup idea?

Thanks for the support. Here's a quick response to your questions, but shoot me a direct message if you want to chat more:

1) The hardest part was doing the opposite of what all my friends and colleagues were doing. In a vacuum the decision to quit was easy, but the peer pressure to adhere to societal norms made it tough to quit a good job and go out on your own.

2) It probably took about 6 months to figure out what I wanted to do next. I had lots of other ideas that would have been more profitable in the short-term, but my current work has a lot of long-term potential and is really well matched to my knowledge/skills/experience and interests.

May 8, 2015

To the OP, I was in your shoes more than 11 years ago. I was a few years out of b-school, working at a VC-funded startup as a CFO before deciding to go "off the grid" so to speak (and still off the grid; I haven't had a traditional salaried office job since then, and have no plans to at the moment).

Every individual who walked away from the grid has a different story to tell, as I'm sure you will as well.

There's a reason why most people don't do it - because it's a much harder life, especially beyond the first few years (which are more or less a honeymoon period). But it can be a more meaningful one if the choices you make "off the grid" fulfill you in some way.

I'm not religious, but it's in many ways akin to becoming a priest, rabbi, pastor, monk, etc. You have to be prepared to sacrifice more than you ever would have anticipated (even in your worst case scenario in your head) - and those sacrifices and sufferings you experience along the way will test your faith (and it's normal to question "is it worth it?" especially when you don't have to do this - plenty of normal people are religious without having to dedicate their lives to it).

If you're looking for happiness, you're unlikely going to find more (and maybe even less) by going off the grid. But if you're looking for some greater meaning (however you choose to defining a meaningful/fulfilling life), you most likely will - just be prepared to pay for it.

It's great that you're taking this bold step - and hopefully whatever happens, you'll learn a ton about yourself, and that kind of self-actualization can be invaluable in ways you may never anticipate. And if after a few years you decide this is not for you and it's back to the office, that's okay too.

    • 3
May 10, 2015

I'm not in Ibanking, but at around six figures and I always think to myself...this is more money than I really need. I can buy mostly everything I want, without issues.

    • 1
May 11, 2015

I'm curious as to OP's financial position when he left consulting. In other words, how long can you fund a simple lifestyle assuming you will be start net cash flow negative?

I always entertain the idea of starting a business but it would involve quite a lifestyle downgrade. And then you have to account that most businesses do not succeed. Of course that shouldn't deter anyone from trying eventually, especially as the rewards can far outweigh the risks, but there has to be some foundation, financial and skill wise, as well as a backup plan in the event that the business does not materialize as anticipated.

May 12, 2015
mb666:

I'm curious as to OP's financial position when he left consulting. In other words, how long can you fund a simple lifestyle assuming you will be start net cash flow negative?

Depends a lot on how simple a lifestyle you are willing to tolerate and what kind of business you are starting. Coaching is not capital intensive; likewise you don't have a lot of fixed costs. Potentially you are able to give it a go for 6 months without much cost besides the lost income, and if you are living well below your means, it shouldn't put much of a dent in your savings.

May 12, 2015

Great stuff OP, thank you!

Metal. Music. Life. www.headofmetal.com

May 12, 2015

you what mate? there are 1 million starving non targets who would kill for your role.... and you just dropped it. #Generation Y

    • 4
May 15, 2015

Nice thoughts conveyed! I like your article. Good luck for your future endeavors!

I left a Fortune 50 Company to pursue my dream - it's hard (and sometimes scary) to take that step, but following my heart was the best decision I ever made. It's a very different satisfaction and happiness that I get by pursuing my dream; the feelings I can't express through my words (at least I can't), but yes, I love my job today. I spend 18-20 hours a day on it, and I just don't feel tired with it.

I sleep with a peace of mind, and carry a heart-fulfilling happiness for what I'm doing today - a job that I always wanted to do since my college days.

    • 2
May 15, 2015

Just curious, could you give a range on what you were taking home before you left? feel like knowing what you walked away from helps solidify how you felt about the decision

May 15, 2015

It all boils down to doing what you really want to do. I believe those five regrets came from different people and it is going to be a real challenge to achieve all those especially for consultants/bankers/finance professionals.

Lucky are those who are passionate about something where working hard is not a major requirement and hours to be spent are reasonable.

If you keep thinking really hard about avoiding these five regrets, it might negatively affect you which leads you to not letting yourself be happier.

I think fulfilling at least two of the five is going to be enough.

    • 1
May 15, 2015

Personally ,I'm at a top hedge fund and once I save 2-3 mil I'm going to teach at a good business school. I think that would be very fulfilling. I'm not willing to walk away yet, I like where I am and it's a lot of hours but not super painful.

What about going into academia to teach after doing well on wallstreet? MY best prof at mba school was an ex JPM MD , guy was awesome.

May 19, 2015
dutchduke:

Personally ,I'm at a top hedge fund and once I save 2-3 mil I'm going to teach at a good business school. I think that would be very fulfilling. I'm not willing to walk away yet, I like where I am and it's a lot of hours but not super painful.

What about going into academia to teach after doing well on wallstreet? MY best prof at mba school was an ex JPM MD , guy was awesome.

Assuming this situation is realistic, why quit? You can always give back by being an adjunct professor and teaching part time.

Best Response
May 16, 2015

Most of these 'life explained' type posts are ultimately fluff regardless of how well they're written or how inspiring or heartfelt the message. The problem is that life is very nuanced and complicated, not a lot of black and white but a ton of gray, can't just simplify everything into five neat little punchlines

1) What you consider true to yourself is influenced by others perceptions because we don't live in isolation. Sometimes I wonder if I am nothing more than the sum total of every person I've ever met or interacted with
2) Work is one of a few ways that you can have a sense of personal achievement and fulfillment, so the amount of work isn't necessarily the issue
3) Not expressing your feelings in their entirety isn't always due to a "lack of courage"
4) There's nothing inherently valuable about random chit chat with long-distance friends that you're no longer all that close with
5) Happiness usually isn't a choice, it's not something you can obtain by deciding to, if you try to be happy you never will be

But that being said, I gave you an SB for this:

Alistair-Clark:

The challenge with these regrets is that they are the result of tiny day-to-day decisions that accumulate over the extended timeline of your life.

    • 3
May 19, 2015

Hey friends -- I'm currently working on a follow-up to this article, and I'm looking for your help. Below is a link that will take you to a short survey where I'll ask you a few questions about your career, your regrets, and your aspirations.

Take the 2-minute survey here: http://goo.gl/2edC39
Thanks!

May 24, 2015

"Don't ignore your dreams; don't work too much; say what you think; cultivate friendships; be happy" it's true, May i ask you a question, you don't work hard in your new job, do you?

Nov 26, 2015
Comment
Feb 25, 2016
Comment

christopherwchiu.com - Burnout Expert / Coach