In Cameron Crowe’s 1992 Gen X rom-com “Singles,” winsome waitress Janet (Bridget Fonda) says she’s looking for a man who will say “bless you” when she sneezes. Instead, her boneheaded boyfriend Cliff (Matt Dillon) shoves a box of tissues at her and tells her not to get him sick.
Just like that, she has a revelation.
“Wait a minute. What am I doing?” Janet thinks, in voiceover. “I don’t have to be here. I could just break up with him!”
Two years ago this week, I had a similar revelation about a breakup — except I was leaving a job, not a guy. After 27 years as a newspaper reporter, I’d taken a more corporate position after moving back to Baltimore from Florida. The job gave me the stability to buy a house, but it quickly became apparent that it wasn’t a fit. I wasn’t passionate about it, the nonstop schedule drained me and took focus away from my young son, and honestly, I wasn’t really good at it.
My friend, bestselling author and business coach Kim Walsh Phillips, gave me some wise advice: “You can’t move onto what you’re supposed to have if you’re holding on to something that’s not right for you.”
Bingo! Just six months in, without anything solid lined up, I quit, leaping into freelancing and eventually winding up as the columnist here at The Baltimore Banner. It wasn’t easy, but I’ve never regretted it.
As I celebrate the anniversary of that pivotal decision, I wanted to talk to others who’d made that leap. Our situations vary, but I heard the same words repeatedly. Stress. Burnout. Dissatisfaction. Each of us, like Janet, had come to the point where we just didn’t have to be there anymore. We couldn’t.
I’m not telling everybody to up and quit their job. I know I had the privilege of savings and help with expenses and child care from my mother, who lived with us at the time. But not one person I spoke with was simply seeking a more prestigious title or a bigger paycheck. In many cases, they initially made less after leaving. But it wasn’t about money.
“I’m not rich by any means,” said Dounia Loudiyi, who founded her own French/English translation business after a career as an international consultant for environmental and nonprofit groups. “But at least I have peace.”
Loudiyi had grown tired of “the 9-to-5, being in the shark tank,” and the disparities between the moneyed companies she’d worked with and the poor communities they served. “It was almost a matter of life and death. My spirit was dying inside.”
Meredith Davis of Owings Mills, who left a career in higher education to do consulting for an executive search firm, agrees. “After 30 years of intensely cerebral work, I would be happy running a bakery,” she said. “I had to go.”
David Lerner of Columbia wound up starting his own bookkeeping business, Timekeeper Financial Solutions, after feeling “burned out for a long time” during his nearly 20 years doing accounting for a church. But that was almost by accident. He’d been offered good money to do bookkeeping and an overhaul of the accounting software of a local company. But a week after his last day at his old job, “my client pulled the plug” on the new position, he said.
So he pivoted to working for himself, a move that not only allowed him to set his own pace and be picky about clients, but reminded him of his ability to succeed on his own terms. “I’ve learned to trust myself,” Lerner said. “I believe in myself.”
I relate to the part about rebuilding your self-belief after burning out of a job and needing to muster the confidence to keep going. Media and video branding wiz Kim Rittberg, who hosts a podcast called “Mom’s Exit Interview” about women who’ve made similar moves, acknowledged that the perfect fit is harder to find “when you’re certain of what you need and you want to go in with confidence. You’re putting your foot down and saying ‘This is the type of job I need.’”
Karen Paul actually thought she was in the type of job she needed as a fundraiser at a Washington, D.C., nonprofit, but it turned out to be at the wrong time. Still grieving from the death of her husband, she was also the primary caretaker for her ailing father, who eventually died.
“What I didn’t know is that I really didn’t have enough in the tank. I was pretty empty,” said Paul, who lives in Takoma Park. “I thought, ‘I have to stop for a while. I’ll take two weeks off.’ And then I thought, ‘I need a longer time. Three months.’ Then I knew I needed to leave my job.”
She had to find the confidence to make that decision even if “the idea of quitting seemed absurd to anyone who was not inside my head,” said Paul, who started a consulting business and had her first client within a year. “It was the hardest decision I’ve ever made in my life, but the minute I made it I knew it was right.”
I asked each of my fellow leapers what they’d learned from the experience. Lerner and Davis said they both discovered they’d long been introverts who now thrived in the solitude “of not having to be ‘on’ every frigging day,” Davis said.
Most telling? Not one person said they regretted their decision. And I don’t, either.
Freelancing taught me how to advocate for myself as I figured out what to charge for speaking and writing gigs, and in having to chase people down to get paid, which happened more than once. (I always tracked them down.) By the time this job at The Banner came around, I was ready for it. I’d re-sharpened my skills and my confidence.
By the end of “Singles,” Cliff has realized the error of his ways and Janet takes him back. Cute ending, but if there’s ever a sequel, I hope she’s dumped him for good, finished her degree and moved on with her life. She never had to be there, pretending to sneeze so someone would be nice to her — either at home or at work.
None of us should have to.