Almost three months ago, I quit my job. I didn't give two weeks notice; I quit in an email at 9 pm. I did not have another job lined up. In other words, I broke all the rules of being a respectable member of the working world.
That morning, I had gone to Urgent Care with a strange array of symptoms: shortness of breath, rashes on my hands, nausea, heart palpitations, dehydration, involuntary shaking, insomnia. The doctor diagnosed me with a bacterial infection, but he also asked about my lifestyle. I explained that I hadn't been exercising, because I was working 60 hour weeks with an erratic schedule — 6 am to 5 pm, 4 pm to 2 am, and frequently not eating for entire shifts at work.
When he replied that my symptoms were most likely related to the stressful work environment, I realized that of course he was right. I was constantly belittled at work for my anxiety, and the managers cultivated a culture of fear that had resulted in panic attacks from multiple employees, myself included. I knew I had to leave the job to preserve my health, but I didn't have a back up plan.
For the first few days after I quit, I felt like a failure – that I couldn't hack it, that it was my fault for being weak and not able to handle the stress. I didn't know if my former bosses were out of line with their behavior, or if I just wasn't cut out for a harsher New York work environment. Popular wisdom espouses that it's bad to be a quitter, that the only people who will be truly successful in life are the ones who know how to 'stick it out.' Wanting to quit a job where you're miserable is considered shameful – when I was debating leaving mine, people often said things to me like “that's why it's called 'work' — it's not supposed to be fun.”
I was never asking for a job to be an amusement park — but I did need to work someplace that didn't leave me crying in the subway. I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do next, but I knew that I had to create a lifestyle that was going to benefit my physical and mental health instead of endangering it — and I was able to. These are the strategies I used to create a working lifestyle that both paid my rent and kept me sane.
1. Know That The Entire Experience Likely Wasn't A Complete Waste
When I started working at the terrible restaurant, I knew barely anything about wine. While working there I was quizzed weekly on the wine list, so I learned a lot in a short amount of time. I also learned something that I'd later realize was far more valuable than the specifics of the vineyards that restaurant sourced from: the vocabulary of how to talk about wine. When I interviewed for my current part-time restaurant job, I unknowingly impressed the manager with my wine vocabulary and was offered a position immediately. After leaving a toxic job situation, it's easy to get lost in a mental trap, thinking about the months or years that feel wasted. It's important to remember that most of the time, you've learned valuable skills or knowledge that will help you in future positions.
2. Break From The Pattern That Led You To The First Job
At my old job, I was making significantly more money than I am now. I could have easily found another full time serving job where I was making close to what I was at the old restaurant, but I knew I had to shift my priorities if I didn't want to end up in a similarly unfortunate situation six months down the road.
As much as I love fancy cocktails and lace clothing, I made the conscious decision to sacrifice creature comforts for a calmer lifestyle. I set up a strict budget and cut out things that weren't necessary to my health and creative work. The experience of leaving my job and learning to live with a much lower income made me realize that I'd spent three years convincing myself I always had to work places where I pulled a high paycheck to keep up my lifestyle. I learned that, for me, some things are more valuable than money when it comes to employment!
3. Don't Be Afraid To Ask For Help
I wasn't afraid to tell people that I'd quit my job and was looking for new ways to build an income. People often feel embarrassed about going through a work transition, but it's an unnecessary stigma. Nobody has it all figured out, and anyone who seems like they do probably had a lot of assistance along the way. I was honest about the fact that I wanted to gain experience outside of the service industry but didn't know where to start, and people were happy to respond with advice. This is how I got my first freelance client, doing social media tasks for a cultural agency. You never know who might need help that you could be qualified to provide!
4. Assess Your Savings Situation
I'd been saving a little money at the job I left, and I also had some leftover from my move to New York this past fall. I also quit at a time when my checking account had enough money to get me through a month or so without dipping into savings. You're the only person who can assess if you have enough money in savings to feel comfortable with a large job transition, but there are some basic questions — how long does it usually take to secure jobs in the industry you work in? Are you okay with doing in between or seasonal jobs to get you through a period of searching?
5. Use Your Knowledge About The Things Wrong With Your Old Job To Find A New Job You'll Like Better
One of the reasons that I was so anxious at my last job is the negative way that the managers reacted to small problems. I was apt to get screamed at for anything from cutting bread the incorrect way to forgetting the details of an obscure fermentation process. This atmosphere of fear and micromanagement led to constant anxiety and eventually to panic attacks at work.
While these things can be hard to judge from the outside, there are ways to gauge a workplace culture before you commit to a job. Being engulfed in a toxic situation for eight hours a day helped me learn to observe the roots of toxic behaviors. When I trailed at the restaurant where I now work, I watched how the management reacted to the same type of everyday problems that had sent my old managers flying off the handle. Seeing that people at the new workplace were calm in these instances was an indicator that I would be more comfortable in this environment.
6. Use Your Time To Realize What You Really Want From A Job
When I was working 50-60 hour weeks, I barely had time to see my friends or family, let alone lay out career goals. In the first month after I left my job, I spent a significant amount of time simply researching the different ways people earn money and craft a living. I spoke with temp agencies and asked friends to teach me how to use online freelancing boards. I explored everything from dog walking to real estate to catering. Right now, I make my income from a combination of a part time serving job, one regular digital media contract position, two freelance writing clients, and pitching various stories and articles to paying publications. I'm always on the lookout for new work, and I also know that if any of these gigs fall through I'll have the others to rely on while I search.
There are many different ways to earn an income and though you will always have to work hard, there's no requirement saying you have to be miserable to pay your rent.
Images: Arman Zhenikeyev/Corbis/Getty Images, Giphy