Real Talk About When To Walk Away

Presented by Amy Dickens at You Got This Birmingham 2020

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These transcripts were captured live by a captioner. As such, there may be small errors. If you spot any, please feel free to submit a pull request with amendments.

Hello. Can you all hear me well enough? Fantastic. Okay. Yeah. Final talk. You made it through some time travel today with those schedules, and you made it through a whole day of really inspirational content. Some of what I'm going to talk about today will touch on what the other speakers covered, especially in terms of - because I used to talk about loving your job - but there are many other aspects to this talk.

So I don't know if many of you have seen this film? Yes, my talk title was a light-hearted play on this lonely island film where Connor4Real, who was a musician who didn't know when or how to quit, but the reality of the situation is actually something that the majority of us all will face at some point in our careers: how do you know when to leave a job that just isn't give you what you need?

The talk title was inspired by the film, but the actual content came to me when I was listening to this song. It's by Katelyn Tarver called You Don't Know. When I listened to this, it really captured how I felt when I was stuck in a job that I wasn't enjoying, and I really wanted to write this talk to help people recognise those feelings, and what to do, and how to act on them when you really need to.

You might be thinking you look young, you can't have that much experience, surely? Well, this number isn't my age, this is the number of jobs I have had. Yeah! Oh! I've never been fired! So there's a positive in that long stream of jobs, but I have actually had a part-time job since I was 13 years old. I have had jobs to pay for my bus ticket to college; I have had jobs to be able to pay for my driving lessons; I have had jobs to be able to facilitate all of the other things that my peers were doing when they were growing up and they were fortunate to have a different position, fortunate to have somebody else paying for those. I'm grateful of the experience of having those things, but it meant I've worked all the way through my university degree, worked through my PhD (that we don't talk about - God forbid my supervisor sees this talk!).

Out of these 24 jobs that I've actually had, I think you can only class two - maybe three, at a push - as my "tech career". And I think that's important to realise because I still feel deep down that I'm very junior in what I'm doing, but since I started university education, ten years has passed, and that feels like I should be so much further forward, and some of the time I'm questioning, you know, what am I doing? Where am I headed? And every time I get into this position of feeling stuck, I start to assess actually what is my plan and what are my goals? And take it from me, I really do understand that, when we get to this point, leaving a job, it's a hugely emotional thing.

Whether you choose to leave that job, or you didn't have that luxury, just leaving something you've been doing for quite a while is quite a hard task, even if you hate it. And it is also a huge, huge privilege, so, for many people, it would be impossible to think about leaving and not know where your next pay cheque is coming from. That is something that even I can't take a chance on right now, and I feel pretty secure in what I do, and I know that my wage is pretty good, and I feel confident about those things. But I still wouldn't want to take a chance on just leaving and not having, like not having something next, or something lined up, or an interview already in process. On top of all of that, there is this huge amount of pressure that we place on ourselves.

When we think about walking away from something, we toy with this idea of failure. "Am I failing because I'm the one walking away?" We really do put a lot of pressure on ourselves to think is this me that couldn't take it? Is this something that is going to show on my record as if you have a CV, you hear from people all the time, it doesn't look good if, every six months, you change jobs. You're like, "What if that is the nature of the industry?" What if I happen to be in a really toxic environment? Do I have to stick it out for a year just so it doesn't look bad on my CV. And I think that's why it is more important to know that not enjoying your job can actually be a huge problem for your mental health.

When we heard earlier about mental models of creating positivity so that we didn't have to deal with our own realities, it's really hard to do at work because we do tie our job satisfaction to our emotional well being. When things aren't going well, we gaslight ourselves. We say, "It must be me. It must be something I'm doing because everybody else is fine. Everybody else is doing the coffee mug, and everything is burning fine." You're the one going, "Oh, God, why is everybody else okay and I'm not?" We can cloud our own judgment with this. We convince ourselves that the toxic behaviour is the norm, that it won't get better anywhere else. But we don't have to. And I'm going to talk today about strategies to, one, recognise these feelings, but also to evaluate them, and understand when it is time to take action. And/or build your exit strategy on how to build that.

Back to this song. When I heard it, it was cathartic with everything I felt when I was being beaten down. I will share the lyrics on screen, and perhaps you will recognise some of this sentiment. [Music]. So it's quite powerful lyrics, I think you will agree. Why is it so powerful? I think it's because of this concept of shared empathy. The song actually has been adopted by lots of young people facing depression, because the lyrics focus on something what it is like to feel stuck. No matter how supportive the people around you are, sometimes, you want just not to be okay. And that in itself is something that we should all recognise as well.

I have a good friend who understands this, so, so well, and, when I talk to them about the difficulties I'm having in my job, or my life, or difficulties with friends, when I'm venting about something, they always ask me this question: do you want solutions or just somebody to listen? Sometimes, just allowing yourself to feel bad about something, it's not a weakness or something to have to eradicate or get rid of and "just be positive about it", it's actually the natural progression of emotion, and you can't box it up, run away from it, or fix it. You shouldn't feel forced to, either.

While it's perfectly okay to allow yourself to experience these feelings, it is important to recognise when it might be your environment that is causing you to feel this way. And check in with yourself. Do you want to just experience this emotion and just have that catharsis and sit there what you're feeling right in that moment? Or are you living in nothing but this? Is this your day to day? Is this something that you feel you can't escape? Can you identify any areas that are pushing you closer to this state? Let's have a look at some signs of being close to the edge.

It's specifically related to your work life. Are you always on? Are you always thinking about work, and is it always in a negative sense? Are you always worried about what is happening tomorrow, going into the office? That meeting that you didn't write the notes for, or the email you haven't sent yet? Is there always something playing on your mind that is always just to make the making you feel very stressed? Do you feel like you're holding back at work because you can't be yourself, maybe, or because you can't say what you want to?

Do you day dream about the thing you wished you had said in that meeting? I know I about sometimes - really badly! And are you reacting more intensely than you normally would? Are you watching your reactions? Is something that would normally only mildly bother you on a regular day actually making you get to the point of rage within five minutes? Are you frustrated? And do you have a sense of dread? Do you hate going away from work knowing that you've got to come back to just more stuff that's mounting? Is every day that blue Monday for you?

I would like you, when you're doing this kind of assessment, to try this exercise. When I think about work, I think about ... and fill in the blank. "I'm most worried about __." Fill in that blank. And "I'm looking forward to __" answer the first thing that comes in your mind. Don't self-edit. Check what the results tell you about how you're currently feeling.

Remember, this could be different at any different time of day. You might be quite happy in the morning, and then something happens, I don't know, maybe there is a bug, or feature that goes live, and you're really just stressed out by it by the end of the day. It doesn't always mean you're in trouble if the answers to all these questions are negative, but it can help you check your sense levels, and your stress levels and really check the temperature with yourself.

So here's my example. I'm now in a team of one in my job, so when I think about work, I'm often thinking about how much there is to do. And, as a result of how much there is to do, my biggest worry is that I'm going to forget something, that I was meant to do before a specific date. Maybe I was going to forget that the food I was meant to order for that meet-up, or the sponsorship I was meant to invoice for the event, or the swag I was sending over to Africa, maybe it's one of those things, but it's always something at the back of my mind where I'm thinking about this. And on bad days, my first two sentences can be more extreme. Maybe I think about why I'm even doing this, or worried about job security.

But even when I do this exercise, I check in with how big are those worries, and how often am I thinking about this? And right now, I'm looking forward to meeting all of the awesome people at You Got This, and that's one of the perks of this job. I get to travel, and I get to go to conference s like this and meet a bunch of wonderful people at events where I get to have those, like contacts and conversations, and then I get to take that back to my company and say we should be thinking about this more or doing more of these or supporting more of these events.

I think this is where you can really find a big indicator, because if you're currently not satisfied, you will really struggle to find the thing that you're looking forward to. If you can't think of a single thing you're looking forward to, it might be time to think about, right, what's my next steps from here? So maybe you do this exercise, and you realise that you aren't happy and you need to change things up. What actually happens now?

I would advise you to start by taking these small steps. Start to dig deeper into what is making you feel that way. Then evaluate if you can make that change to change the variables that are putting pressure on you in your job. Maybe you can speak to your manager. Is it within your power to say no to a specific task that is always causing this?

Check in with those themes, and try to list out what you could do to help that. But depending on how intense these feelings are, you might just want to skip ahead and start making a plan, and plan your exit strategy. And as cathartic as it might feel to storm in one day and say, "I quit", the reality most of us couldn't do this without some consequence, either financially because you don't know where your next pay cheque is coming from, or emotionally, because you will end up losing your colleagues who were good friends, and they might not understand, or there might be some hearsay, or drama around that.

Even professionally, you might struggle to have good relationships with the clients that you worked with with work that you just quit on because of the way that you left your job. We all know that should not be the case, but we know that it happens.

So, to help you with the investigation part, here's a summary of the top five things that contribute to job satisfaction. This is according to collated research from the 8,000 Hours - 80,000 Hours Project which is apparently the number of hours you have in your career - not to make anybody feel scared. There was a big intake of breath there. Don't worry. But, engaging work is one of these.

Do you have a variety? Do you have a sense of completion? Do you have autonomy? Do you get feedback and do you feel like you're contributing to something? Is your work engaging you in a way that makes you feel positive about what you're doing? Are you doing any work that helps others? So the significance is the degree to which your job is affecting other people's lives. Is that helping you get some kind of satisfaction? Are you doing work that you're particularly good at, or are you being forced to do busy work, or work that you didn't wish you had to do day to day? You do well in jobs - when you do well in jobs, you have higher motivation to keep doing them, and are you working with people you like? The social support of work is really, really important, and it's not just people you like necessarily, but people that look like you, people who you feel represented by, people who you feel supported by, people who you feel have some kind of shared empathy. And is it meeting your basic needs? Are you working reasonable hours?

Are you being exploited and working overtime because if that buy-in statement that we heard about in the very first thing this morning? "I believe in my company, and I want to give my time because I know my company's in a position, and it will be the hero story together." Do you have job security? Do you have things like a short commute and fair pay? All of these things can contribute to feeling happier at work. And there are some factors within this research that you might be surprised weren't up there

But there are some words of warning not to over-focus on these things, because whilst they suggest they are linked to job satisfaction, they're not as strongly linked as we think.

Your income: now, if somebody said to me you wouldn't be happier if you got paid more, I would be, like, "I would be very happy, thank you." I would buy a boat, a horse, and ride off into the distance. I wouldn't - I don't like the sea or horses! But what you will find is, if you're in a job that is really gruelling you, just having a pay rise of £5,000, or £10,000, or £15,000, won't necessarily take all of that away from you. It won't make it any easier, and it won't necessarily give you the fulfilment. It might make it easier for you to have what we call the "fuck off fund" built up quicker. Do start investing in one straightaway. But it isn't going to be the thing that fulfils you at the end of the day.

Having low demands. Actually, I don't know, who has worked in a menial job where you have zero responsibility but getting paid to stand around a lot of the time? It's not really fulfilling. It depends what kind of mindset you are. For some people, this is great, but honestly, like actually having moderate stress levels has been associated with higher job satisfaction. Yes, don't be so stressed that you want to cry every time you turn up at work or have a meeting, but don't be so breezy that nothing matters.

I've been in a job where I felt like nobody was checking up on me. Nobody was checking in with me about the things I was doing, or any time I made a suggestion, they were just like, "Sure, go for it." It felt so easy. It's like, "Why am I here? What am I achieving? What am I learning?" My manager was doing nothing to manage me. I was getting more and more depressed because I couldn't understand what I was doing wrong. I thought it was all me, and it was just being in a situation where I really wasn't happy with what was being asked of me, which was nothing.

And status, I mean, I know that titles can mean a lot. Going from being your junior to a mid-weight developer can be an important career step for you, because the next step you making, you'll be that mid-level, and you can ask for that mid-level money, but realistically, it's just a title, and, you know, if I was offered the option to have a title change, it wouldn't make my job any different because if I got promoted tomorrow to be, I don't know, the head of my team, well, my team is me. Nice. I hope it comes with a pay increase. But how meaningful is it? I know that that is kind of worthless, and that might just be a vanity metric that somebody's trying to do to keep me on side, and I have to recognise that when that is presented to you at work because those dangling carrots are the things that keep us staying in something that feels soulless.

So, once you've understood more about the cause and feeling low in your job, and what you can do, you can start making an action plan for those final two steps. You can look at the actions that you can take to change the things that are impacting you in a negative way, or you can just look at the actions that you need to take to start exiting the role if it is no longer for you. But, remember to be very kind to yourself in this stage.

So, look at what you will do on the next day. Look at what you will do on the next week, the next month. Next year, even, if you can stay in a job for that long that is doing this to you, or you feel like you can survive. Make a plan, but remember that looking for work is almost a full-time job in itself, and it requires an extra ton of emotional labour. Take it in steps that serve your wellbeing. If that means getting out quicker so your plan is maybe a few days lock, or a few weeks long, then do that. See what you can do to expedite the process. But if you can take your time because, actually, the environment is safer for you, and you can weather out the feeling that you've got for some time, or you recognise early on that you're in this position, and you can actually start making movement, you can actually start to do this like with a much longer lead time.

But whatever you do - and that can be any lead time you want - it doesn't have to be in days, but any qualifier like this - the steppingstone should be applying for two jobs, or one job. When I get there, I will go on to the next stage. It doesn't have to be time-based. Whatever you do, don't continue to punish yourself for not being good enough, or not acting fast enough, or feeling like this is all on you. You do what serves you best and look after your wellbeing.

At this stage, I like to create a wish list for future roles, because, when we're in a negative space about our job, one of the beautiful things about it is we know the things that we really don't want to happen to us again. We know for sure, I never want to have to see this again. I never want to have to deal with that report. I enquire want to have to deal with this kind of person again. And you can understand like what is more important to me now? And what is less important to me now? What can I live without? It helps me understand a few things about not only what I want to do about my next role, but what are my boundary. What are the things I'm going to say people. This is not what I'm here for. If you think that, I don't want this job, because that's a really good powerful position to be in when you know what those boundaries are.

Unfortunately, some of us only learn those from being in negative positions in the first place. When you're facing this process, please also don't go through it alone. Talk to people who you trust. Talk to people who don't even understand what your profession is - probably your family. Speak with the co-workers you like. They will value you for being honest with them and you're going to exit when they're in a similar space.

Chat with strangers, if it helps. I don't mean the person on the bus. Therapy is a wonderful thing for this kind of strategising element. I'm actually really grateful that at Pusher, we offer free Sanctus sessions for employees, which means anyone in the company can talk to a wellness coach about anything. It's confidential, it doesn't have to be related to your career, or work at all. You can talk about how, like I sometimes talk about how my dog is really difficult to work with sometimes. You saw him up on the screen earlier if you were in here earlier. He looks sweet. Don't let him fool you! He's really tough.

But most importantly, don't persevere through these feelings alone, because, if nothing else that that song shows you where I played it earlier, there is a huge amount of shared emotion in feeling this way, and you're not alone, and you won't be the first person to go through it. You might not be the only person going through it in your company at this time. Just understand that. Remember, you are way, way, way more than your job. Thank you. [Applause].

About the talk

Loving or appreciating your job isn’t a problem on its own. But you’re not obligated to do it. In fact, I’d argue that the pressure to love your job can be dangerous. Using examples from my personal experience and from the tech industry as a whole, I’ll talk about how unconditional job love is used to exploit or mistreat tech workers.

About Amy Dickens

Amy is a Developer Community Manager for Pusher. Amy’s career has traversed the worlds of music, audio and tech - finally finding their jam in community management. Having worked many jobs (over 15 to date) Amy is well versed in knowing when it is time to look for something new - a feeling that is familiar for many of us and that they will cover in their talk.

Photo of Amy Dickens

Amy Dickens


You Got This is a network of community conferences focused on core, non-technical skills coordinated by Kevin Lewis.