Quit Your Job When You Aren’t Getting Better At It

Growing in your career is like achieving new levels of fitness. When you stop getting better it’s time to move on to something new. Photo by Meghan Holmes on Unsplash

I am a huge fan of The New Yorker Radio Hour on WNYC. If you love the New Yorker and you love public radio, this show is ear candy. This week’s episode featured a clip from Chris Hayes speaking at the New Yorker Festival. I’m also a huge fan of Chris Hayes — I’ve watched his show since it debuted and love the podcast he recently launched, Why Is This Happening?

The interviewer asked Hayes how long he’ll keep doing his nightly MSNBC show, All In With Chris Hayes. He began by saying “definitely not forever” because there are other things he wants to do in his career, but also noted that he’ll for sure do it through 2020. But his explanation for how he’d know when to stop was so interesting to me. He said it was basically “a learning curve question.” It would depend, essentially, on how long he felt he was still getting better at it.

There are lots of ways to know when it’s time to quit a job. But lack of personal growth is probably one of the most important to recognize. When you stop getting better at what you are doing it’s time to go try something different. If you want to do big things, stay on the steep side of the learning curve.

“Buy it with your heart and then run it with your head.”

Photo by Michael Fenton on Unsplash

My friend Charlie O’Donnell writes a weekly newsletter for tech that I highly recommend subscribing to. An issue from a few week’s ago told the story of a man who wanted to buy a restaurant. A very specific restaurant that was not, as it happens, for sale. When he finally persuaded the owner to sell it to him the offer was insane. As he agonized over what to do his girlfriend told him “Buy it with your heart and then run it with your head.”

It’s such a great line. I get asked, pretty frequently, what made me quit my corporate marketing job at Return Path and start Path Forward. It was, without question, a “buy with your heart” decision. It wasn’t a completely illogical — it was a staff position that still afforded me the income and benefits I needed for my family. Matt, my Board chair, had secured a significant level of funding to get us started. (The guy buying the restaurant was simultaneously wrestling with the meaningless of all the stuff — including a Ferrari — he owned. Let’s be clear that it’s a lot easier to make a decision with your heart when you are starting in a place of material security.)

But it was a decision with a lot of risk, both generally (many new businesses, both for profit and nonprofit, fail) and specifically (I’d never run any kind of business and never even worked in a nonprofit).

And yet. I can’t explain fully why I was so convinced it was the right move, but it was one that was driven almost purely by heart.

But I’ve run it with my head. I’ve focused on building a great team, including finding an amazing VP who is good at all the things I suck at. I’ve focused on building our partnerships with employers as the engine of both short term revenue and long term growth. I’ve talked to literally hundreds of people seeking wisdom and advice so I can make good decisions and avoid obvious pitfalls. That isn’t to say I haven’t made mistakes. I’ve made PLENTY and I’ve made some really, really big ones. But I can honestly say that I haven’t made mistakes that were the result of running with my heart. The passion I have for our cause runs deep in me and it drives me in an intrinsic way. But the day-to-day decisions I make are driven by a clear-eyed sense of what I think will make our organization successful so that it can continue to fulfill its mission for years to come.

Star Power: Where Does It Come From?

On his blog Web Ink Now David Meerman Scott asks a really provocative question: does star power come from a personal brand or from a corporate brand?  Essentially, does Really Big Company lose out when Really Famous Guy leaves or does Really Famous Guy lose credibility when he is no longer associated with Really Big Company?

This reminded me of one of my favorite bits from Ruth Reichl’s book, Garlic and Sapphires, which is about her years as the New York Times restaurant critic.

As she tells the tale, the former critic, Bryan Miller, starts to give her the cold shoulder.  Unsure of why she asks one of the secretaries who tells her that he is bitter at having given up the job as he now realizes this star power has been much diminished.  The secretary tells her:

After nine years he thought it was all about him, that the paper was holding him back.  When he gave up the beat, he thought the offers would come pouring in.

The offers do not, as it turns out, pour in.

The woman goes on to advise Ruth to remember where the fame really comes from:

[L]ater, when everyone’s telling you how wonderful you are, don’t forget this.  Remember that no matter how well you do the job, the power is not yours.  It all, every scrap of it, belongs to this institution.  You’re just a byline. Take a good look.  The minute you give up the job, you become a nobody.  Like him.

Ruth learns the lesson.  She does eventually give up the Times job, but only after landing an even better gig as the editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine.

I actually think the answer isn’t either/or.  It’s both/and.  No question that Ruth Reichl became a star because of her association with the Times and then Gourmet.  But now she is Ruth Reichl and has a personal brand that is separate from the specific institution she is associated with.

What does this mean for companies and for employees?

My advice to companies:

  1. Don’t overestimate the importance of “stars”: Yes, superstars can be a boon to your company and even to your brand.  But if you’ve built an enduring brand that is bigger than any one person then the loss of even a few key superstars isn’t the end of the world.
  2. Support your stars, but do it in the context of your corporate brand: Let your employees worry about their personal brands.  They will anyway.  You can support their efforts but do it in a way that enhances your company brand.
  3. Hire lots of stars: This is a no-brainer.  Diversify your assets.  If just one person speaks on behalf of your company then you are truly up a creek if that star leaves.  Have a stable of stars.  Then you are less vulnerable to any one of them leaving.

My advice to employees:

  1. Take a page from the Book of Ruth: Don’t underestimate the reflected glow that comes from the company you work for.  The bigger your employer’s brand, the more care you should take to not believe too much of your own press.  And be sure to set yourself up with a new great gig before you leave the current great gig.
  2. Associate with great brands: No matter how smart or talented you are the brand for which you work has a big effect on your personal brand.  Choose your employers well.