The Courage Fallacy
In 2005, Lisa Feuer quit her marketing job. She had held this same position throughout her 30s before deciding, at the age of 38, that it was time for something different.
As the New York Times reported in an article from last summer, she wanted the same independence and flexibility that her ex-husband, an entrepreneur, enjoyed. Bolstered by this new resolve, Lisa invested in a $4000 yoga instruction course and started Karma Kids Yoga — a yoga practice focused on young children and pregnant women.
Lisa’s story provides a pristine example of what I call the choice-centric approach to building an interesting life. This philosophy emphasizes the importance of choosing better work. Having the courage to leave your boring but dangerously comfortable job — to borrow a phrase from Tim Ferriss — and instead follow your “passion,” has become the treasure map guiding this philosophy’s adherents.
But there’s a problem: the endings are not always so happy…
The Economics of Remarkable Lives
As the recession hit, Lisa’s business struggled. One of the gyms where she taught closed. Two classes offered at a local public high school were dropped due to under-enrollment. The demand for private lessons diminished.
In 2009, she’s on track to make on $15,000 — not nearly enough to cover her expenses.
This, of course, is the problem with the choice-centric approach to life: it assumes that a much better job is out there waiting for you. The reality, however, is often more Darwinian: much better jobs are out there, but they’re only available to people with much better skills than most of their peers.
As I’ve argued before, the traits that make a remarkable life remarkable — flexibility, engagement, recognition, and reward — are highly desirable. Therefore, to land a job (or start a business) that returns these rewards, you must have a skill to offer that’s both rare and valuable.
It’s simple economics.
Lisa didn’t have a skill that was rare or valuable. She did receive professional Yoga training, but the barrier to entry for this training was the ability to write a tuition check and take a few weeks worth of classes. This skill wasn’t rare or valuable enough to guarantee her the traits she admired in the lives of successful entrepreneurs, and as soon as the economy hiccuped she experienced this reality.
Her courage to follow her “passion” was not enough, in isolation, to improve her life.
The Value of Nerves
This brings me back to the (perhaps) controversial title of this post. If you’re in a job that’s boring but tolerable, and you feel nervous about quitting, you might consider trusting this instinct. Your mind might be honing in on the economic truth that you don’t have a skill rare and valuable enough to earn you a substantially better deal somewhere else. Because of this, your mind understandably reacts to your career day dreams with jitters.
On the other hand, those who have built up highly desirable skills rarely feel much nervousness about the prospect of switching jobs. They’ve probably had other job offers, or can name a half-a-dozen clients that would pay handsomely for their consulting services.
Tens of thousands of bored cubicle dwellers fantasize about building their own companies. (Writers have built lucrative careers around pitching this message.) Most of these workers, however, are nervous about this idea due to the very real possibility that their business ventures will fold, leaving them, like Lisa, broke, without health insurance, and worse off than before.
By contrast, earlier this year I received a call from a head hunter trying to recruit me to work at a Manhattan-based start-up incubator that would, in essence, pay me to think up and try out business ideas. (Jeff Bezos was in a similar position at D.E. Shaw when he came up with the idea for Amazon.com.)
My point is that if I wanted to start my own company (which I don’t), I wouldn’t feel nervous. The reason is clear: By earning a PhD in computer science at MIT I developed a skill that’s rare and valuable to this particular economic segment. The market has made this value clear to me; ergo, no nerves.
The Hard Focus-Centric Approach
Though I’m not nervous about the idea of starting my own company, I am, at this point in my career, nervous about the path that most interests me: becoming a professor at a quality research university.
Instead of paralyzing me, however, these nerves provide wonderful clarity. My goal during my postdoc years now centers on eliminating this nervousness. To do so, I need to make myself unambiguously one of the top candidates in the computer science academic job market. This, in turn, requires incredibly high-quality research that promises to push my research sub-fields forward. This specific goal has trickled down into concrete changes in my day to day work habits. Most notably, I’ve recently rebuilt my schedule around hard focus, and I spend much more time reading the research literature and thinking about the long-term direction of my short-term work.
In other words, nervousness can provide more than just sober-minded warning. It can also help guide you in your efforts to build a remarkable life. Instead of grappling with vague worry — “Am I stupid for wanting to try this new career path?” — you can focus your energy toward a clear metric: building up a valuable skill until you’ve eliminated this nervousness.
Once your stomach stops churning about your occupational day dreams, the time is right to make them a reality.
55 thoughts on “If You’re Nervous About Quitting Your Boring Job, Don’t Do It”
Will you please tell more about how to develop the hard focus ability?
yeah you MIT Phd’s are all so great and awesome
Thank you for writing this. It always frustrated me in college (and, for that matter, in grad school) when I saw–both in students and in the faculty–this idea of passion always leading to achievement, with very little mention made of work–or, more importantly, differentiation.
I’m more than a few years out of college/grad school now and what’s interesting is that while I was there I unconsciously tried to work towards many of the strategies you suggest: becoming excellent (and known on campus) for one particular skill; managing time to get work done well in advance (finals week was always my favorite week because I never had any work left to do, so it was the most relaxing week of the semester); pinpointing a particular area of focus and linking all coursework (even the gen-ed stuff) to that area of focus whenever possible–writing reports, etc. that always tie in to the area of focus.
So thanks for confirming my bias, as it were! 🙂
A side note: I’d love to see a post sometime on “what to do when the system is not interested in your output,” because that was the one thing I felt like I never got right in college and am just curious to hear your take on it.
In my case, each year in college I decided I would commit to creating a large body of original work; one year I wrote an opera, another year a musical, and then the last two years full-length dramas. And I could never find anyone to review my work. Faculty would say “oh, I’d love to” and then it would sit on their desks for months–and to be honest, I did not make myself particularly attractive coming to their offices every week asking if we could set up a time to talk about my work.
Anyway, curious if you have any thoughts or insights on that particular struggle–though it may be as simple as “if the system isn’t interested in your output, produce better output!”
You can leave your boring job – and without a unique skill – as long as you don’t expect to make the same kind of money.
15k for her first year on her own is not bad – what was stupid was leaving her job without any significant savings. Any stupid self-help business book will tell you that you shouldn’t expect to make any money for your first 5 years of your own business.
I other words what the article is suggesting is forget about your dreams, your personal goals and the ideas that along with percisentence could have a chance to make you feel good about yourself, your life and maybe even help you actually enjoy the limited amount of seconds that you have to live and instead be thankful for the opportunities you have been “given” and shut up because things could actually be worse. Look at that 90% of the world that wish they had half of what life have given you.
It’s incredibly sad how what the article suggest is exactly what the majority of the world does when what we really are supposed to do with our life is so simple.
Life is short, try to enjoy it no matter what, never give up on you. If you have to spend all of your life trying to make work whatever it’s you want to do and that you think it will make you happy, do it. Because if you don’t, if you give up and do what you are “supposed” to do, what is safe, what society, your education, your family and your religious “beliefs” have tried to imposed on you will never be happy. That is guaranteed. But, hey! worse nothing than what you already have! right..
Another thing to add:
A skill that is valuable in a big company context often does not translate to being valuable in an entrepreneurial role.
Advertising, in the anecdote you cite above, is a good example.
Thus the woman above can also take on other projects within her firm to build up a wider breadth of skills versus trying to go for more depth.
If you didn’t do something every time you got worried – you’re life would suck. How are you going to fail or succeed if you do nothing.
The best entrepreneurs fail often, but know how to get back up again
Hmmm. There seems to be at least one practical issue with this position. Namely, how does an individual know that the market *doesn’t* find his/her skill set desirable and rare? It seems that there could be a myriad of confounding factors that could effect an individual from receiving indications that his/her skill set is desirable and rare.
I don’t think it’s so much having a rare and valuable skill set and/or trait. I think that’s a requirement, but not the only one. Many people have very rare qualities that are very much in demand. Part of the problem is they don’t have the avenue to market/push those qualities.
This is really underrated. There are a lot of intellectual, practical, or technical trained people out there who shouldn’t look into the idea of working for themselves if they don’t think they can market their traits reliably, consistently and purposefully.
my 2 cents.
This article contains great wisdom. I have been in the executive search business for more than two decades. During that time I have come to know those individuals that develop that skill that is rare and highly desirable. These persons are unsinkable. They work very hard to keep their skills at the top of their fields. They also make sure that the world in which they live in keeps in mind exactly how good they are.
As someone that has started two successful companies I encourage anyone thinking of starting a business to have a solid business plan and plan to have at least a year of cash to live on while you begin your business. Additionally I strongly encourage you to make sure you have a back up plan.
If you do start a successful business I can’t say this strongly enough. Live below your means. Save your money. The day may come when you require a fall back position. Cash flow is the lifeblood of any business. Your savings may be the only source of cash flow your business has during a period when business is slow.
Finally look before you leap. Make sure you understand the industry you are getting into and have some real life practical experience before you make the jump. I know way too many people that made the plunge and as soon as the shine wore off and the work started, the fun was over.
I advise a lot of entrepreneurs, and one of the questions I always get from people is, “How do I know when it’s time to quit my job?”
I give them two answers.
The first is that they should avoid quitting their job as long as possible. Until you’ve tried to make it on your own, you don’t know just how helpful a regular paycheck can be. I also point out that any entrepreneur worth his salt is already stealing time away from his job to answer emails, make plans, etc., so that quitting your job doesn’t provide the productivity boost you think it might.
The second is that when the time comes to quit their job, they’ll know. It may be scary, and there’s no guarantee of success, but it’ll be clear that you need to take that step.
I agree with you that developing a skill that is rare and valuable is important, but what about leadership? It seems that a lot of CEOs of comp sci related companies don’t necessarily have extraordinary comp sci knowledge- they hire people who do. Also for a field that is constantly changing (eg. computer science), how do people “work hard to keep their skills at the top of their fields”? ( on a side note,do most comp sci majors become code monkeys?)
Nice post. You’ve taken a bold position, and I applaud you for it. So many people advocate quitting a rotten job, pursuing your passion, and throwing caution to the wind…but we’ve all got bills to pay.
I would like to add one thing: sometimes quitting a job is a great thing to do, but only when it’s a financially responsible choice. This means pursuing your passion part time until it starts to generate some income, and in the meantime reducing living expenses.
I suppose this is a matter of lifestyle choice vs. income.
What’s more important: having a big house and a nice car or doing what you love?
Great article, once again, Cal! Love to see the blog continue to flourish with great ideas.
I’m not sure nerves themselves should be the key decision making criteria, but definitely, a rational assessment of your success in a new endeavor should be made before you leap.
I half agree. Don’t leave your job for another job. Have confidence that you can provide value and start your own business. If you’re old enough to work, you’re old enough to start your own business. Just look at that kid who made serious money making myspace layouts.
Instead of what everybody else says (overcome your nerves, don’t listen to them, just do it) you say the complete opposite.
And that is exactly what makes this blog interesting every time.
When I am in doubt, or am nervous, I sometimes actually know I shouldn’t do somethings. But most of the time, I don’t want to give in, I don’t want to have doubt stop me to do something. That is when I call my mom for advice, and she will just say: ‘You are asking me to say that you shouldn’t?’ And I will answer with: ‘Yes mom, and that sentence was enough.’
Works all the time.
This is a great article. Oddly enough, I find that “following your passions” is the *new* what “you’re suppose to do.” If you are gen-y, you grew up being told you could be whatever you wanted to be. What no one told you is that you won’t make any money doing this unless your passion is completely valued by other people and people with lots of money (just like that rare skill). And when you don’t make any money, you often can’t afford to do your passion!!! Sad but TRUE, especially if your passion requires purchasing equipment etc. Anyway. Safe bet to keep your cash flow going so you can always have the financial freedom to follow your passion, even though you’re in a crap job.
This is still a topic I’m trying to figure out myself. One thing I think to be true, however, is that it’s a practiced skill. The more you do it, the easier it becomes.
I think that’s captured by the “valuable” piece of “rare and valuable.” That is, if the system is not interested in your output, you’re probably doing something that, though rare, is not unambiguously valuable. As you experienced, however, for a lot of things, it can be hard to decide in advance whether or not the world will recognize its worth or not.
Definitely. For most skills that are rare and valuable, their value is restricted to the field. What might make me important in the world of writing won’t apply to business, and what might make me important in business wouldn’t apply to the music industry, and so on.
That’s a weird interpretation of the article…
I’m simply saying that having the “courage” to make a change is much less important than developing the valuable skill that makes a successful change possible. I’m not discounting the idea of guiding your life toward something better. I’m just providing what I see to be a more realistic way of accomplishing that goal.
If it helps, you can restate my concept as don’t change jobs (or quit your job to start a company) without well-founded confidence that you can end up better. In other words, the market doesn’t care about your “courage” or conviction to take control of your life (admirable as these traits may be), what matters is your tangible, valuable skills. So if you feel the former, your first step should be to get the latter.
Valuable skills are like porn: you know them when you see them, even if we can’t fix a specific definition.
This seems self-contradictory to me. How can something be “very much in demand” if there is no market that wants it?
Thank you Bill and Chris. It’s great to hear from the real experts on these issues!
That’s a skill.
There’s actually great wisdom in that approach: talking to someone you know well can help highlight the gut instincts that have been lurking all along.
Great article, Cal.
How much was the NY incubator paying? And are they still hiring?
Don’t know an answer to either, I told the headhunter I wasn’t interested in, and that’s the last I heard.
This is why I like your blog. There’s too many people who think they are the next Bill Gates out there, with totally unrealistic expectations about what it takes to succeed!
I guess i give my opinion regarding the article.
The article trying to mention (in a vague way) that we should always acquire the skill that needed to do a start-up before quitting your jobs.
Just like the author dream job require him to acquire certain skill and he figure that skill that he needed will only get through his PHD.
The nervous metric is good at it post a sign the person in question may not have the necessary skill to do the job. Yet, it a bless because by recognizing that, the person will know what skill he needed and acquire it before he quit the job.
In short, it not so much about taking risk but managing the risk it takes. So by acquire the skill needed for your dream job before you quit your boring jobs, you essentially increase the chance of you success and mitigating the risk of not being prepare.
And about the rare and valuable skill, it all about being competitive and offering something that your competitor couldn’t. If you go out and sell the same product and service that other can also provide, then the business or what ever doing is not sustainable and you bound to get screw up over by others sooner of later ( in the form of getting price out or competed out of the market). So the key here is doing it in sustainable manner.
Thanks for posting this. It does seem to be a controversial stance, as it flies in the face of all the “just believe in yourself and your dreams will come true” mantras us gen-yers have been fed.
I am currently employed in a boring but dangerously comfortable job, and I’ve been debating the idea of ditching it for something that I love. Thanks for giving me a little more clarity on the issue.
You say that she didn’t have a valuable skill. In my opinion, she didn’t have the PERSISTENCE and DETERMINATION needed to create a profitable small business.
Guess what: when things don’t work, you have to change your approach.. again and again, until they do work.
Working in your own small business is a lot harder than having a job. It takes more than just courage: it takes determination, resistence to stress, persistence, the willingness to try again & again & again and change your approach 1000 times, the ability of working as a marketer AND as a worker in your business, the ability to hire and delegate, and many other things. It is not for the faint of heart.
PS. Please check your web site in Full HD resolution (1920×1080 pixels). It doesn’t render correctly.
I agree with many of the comments above. I think that it is important to spend some time researching the industry that you are thinking of working in. Instead of quitting your job, you should “stop watching f%$#$ lost”- Gary Vaynerchuk points out frequently and dedicate hours during the nighttime where you may be plopped on the couch watching ESPN or gasp FOX News. From 8-Midnight or 2 am if you are really serious, spend some time looking into your business idea to follow your passion. If you are starting an online business, startup costs are very low and if its offline, you may need to expend some money to make a prototype or something to illustrate what you are trying to accomplish (Minimum Viable Product). When you feel comfortable with research and ideas, go for it but make sure you have reserve cash just in case things do not work out.
Wow. It’s really interesting to see someone splash a bit of cold water on the dream of starting your own business. There are so many blogs that hype it up, it’s good to see a bit of reality.
Great post as always, but I just wanted to throw in a couple of points:
Firstly there’s a great difference between quitting just to get away from a job you dislike and quitting as part of a plan to go to something specific that’s more interesting to you, or better paid or better for whatever reason. The reason why you are quitting makes a big difference on whether it’s a good or bad choice.
Secondly a cautionary point: don’t under estimate the damaging impact a desperately dull job can have on your self-confidence. If you have a truly boring job, it can make you feel generally stressed and that your chances of doing better are low. It isn’t always true and sometimes you just need a little more self belief.
Funny thing? I don’t see this article as a dream killer. I see it as speaking some truth – Work, research, persistence and planning comes with success. In this new era, in addition to all this you have to learn what makes you unique, find a way to stand out, be a creative designer of your life and be flexible. We all love the idea of success without the work. Heck >80% of american movies love this ending. This is a rare thing and a success that cannot be maintained for long. Thomas Edison said once “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”
I’m in the middle of a career transition where I’m starting from the bottom again. I was in a job where I was bored and frustrated – The nervousness came from not having the balls to quit. I know it will be hard work(the new career), a lot of training and the best of me to get where I need to go and beyond. There’s a chance that there might be major bumps ahead but that’s life. You learn and move on. If not, repeat until you do learn or can’t anymore.
What I got from the post is that there is a big difference between the person who spends hundreds hours mastering a video game he feels passionate about and the one who spends hundreds of hours learning how to program in order to create an even better one. One of them has a much more valuable skill to offer the market.
We all claim to make a better burger than McDonalds, yet none of us own a burger empire. There has to be something more to it. That something is a valuable (to say the least) skill.
It’s like what my teacher says. The truly brilliant never complain about “pettiness” in the academia. The truly competent is never out of a job.
Thanks Cal. I was a disciple of Pam Slim until I read your book. I recently tossed my copy of Escape Fron Cubicle Nation in the trash. I have a nice IT job deep in the heart of “Cubicle Nation”. I think my time would be better spent developing rare and valuable skills instead of trying to “find my passion”
After looking at the “follow your passion” mindset from your perspective it is almost like being in a cult. They admonish you to just ignore the naysayers who would squash your dreams. I can imagine a cult leader using the same reasoning to coax his followers into quitting their jobs and joining the cult.
I have read lot many Self-help books till now and all says ‘find your passion’ and ‘follow it’. It is really difficult to find passion because most of the time what we think our passion (if we claim that we find it then) is just a good pass time and pleasure activity. Your thought about passion or creating passion gives a great insight that passion is not to find but to create.
one of the most impressionable article and discussion thereafter I read .. thanks a lot for this great insight .. I am 31 and going through this dilemma myself .. it was my dream to be a teacher .. but a well paying corporate job took me far away from my dream .. now stuck in a dead boring recruitment job .. thinking of refreshing my academic or acquire reward mgmt skill .. or continue in recruitment .. the new skills require fill time and monetory commitment beyond my budgets .. any how . I m nervous but not scared .. I will figure out something soon.
As far as life is concerned, it’s the right choice to follow your passion. Of course it may not always work, but at the very least, trying and failing always feels better than not trying at all. In the end, if you decide to go back to your career, as long as you are competent, you will be able to get a job again.
Yes, I like this content. Sometimes, I find I do something day by day, and I do not know what time it will end. But I never give up this work, because I think if you quited this work, the next work will be had another problems like this work. So try to solve this problem. Such as try to something others.