Stoic advice column: should I quit my job?

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, but please consider that it has become very popular and there now is a backlog, it may take me some time to get to yours.]

Z. from the UK writes: “I am 42 years old and I work as a senior manager in the arts. I have a good job in the sense that it pays well, it is varied, it has flexibility, it’s a short commute, and I generally work with people I get on with. Many people are envious of my work arrangements fitting so well around family life. For a long time I’ve felt slightly disillusioned working for someone else and have yearned to be brave enough to do my own thing (even though I don’t know what that is… I day dream about running my own bed and breakfast, but this is for later in life, as we aren’t in the position to afford a property of that size yet). The question I pose is this. Should I give up my current job and attempt freelancing? As a freelancer I may have more control over the work I do, which could give me some of the feelings of independence I yearn for. But I may struggle to find work or could end up doing similar work for a fraction of the income. Would the sense of ownership over my own destiny outweigh the negatives? I have always had a yearning for independence, but it has probably risen to the surface now as I don’t trust the CEO of the organization I work for or like the way she treats people.”

Dear Z.,

Your issue is a relatively common one among people of your age (in advanced countries of the Western world, should go without saying). Indeed, I went through something like that about a decade ago, at about the same age, a crisis that resulted in changing career from evolutionary biology to philosophy. And I am happy to report that it was a good choice. More on my own experience in a moment, if you dont’ mind.

From a Stoic perspective, though, and despite my own personal history, I would have to advice caution in making the move you are contemplating. To begin with, Epictetus is very clear about which sort of things are or are not under our control:

“Of all existing things some are in our power, and others are not in our power. In our power are thought, impulse, will to get and will to avoid, and, in a word, everything which is our own doing. Things not in our power include the body, property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything which is not our own doing.” (Enchiridion 1)

I believe getting a new job does not fall under the set of things under our control, while doing your best at your current job definitely does. Moreover, staying would afford you plenty of opportunities, from what you describe, to exercise at least two of the cardinal virtues: temperance (in dealing with your boss) as well as courage (in standing up to her when you feel it is sufficiently justified).

However, lest we risk sliding into the career equivalent of “quietism” (i.e., just shut up and put up), I hasten to say that the important thing here is to evaluate the balance of things between the two possible courses of action, an exercise in yet another cardinal virtue: prudence (in the sense of practical wisdom).

To begin with, you yourself say that people envy the job you have, and I take that’s not just because it allows you flexibility and pays well, it sounds like the sort of job you believe in, even though you don’t trust the current CEO of the organization. Those are all highly valuable aspects of your current situation, so I would think hard before giving them up.

On the other side of the ledger you have a fairly undefined and entirely conjectural situation: you are not sure what sort of job you would want, how to get it, or whether you’d be able to make enough money from it. This is where the fourth Stoic virtue comes in: justice. When they used that word the Stoics meant something like the necessity to treat other people fairly. So the question to ask yourself is whether giving up a satisfying, stable, and remunerative job for a highly uncertain alternative would be fair to your family (partner or spouse, kids, if you have them). And I’m not talking just in terms of potentially significantly worsen their financial situation, but also of likely burdening them with at least a temporarily strained relationship as a result of the stress caused to you and them by the new situation. At a minimum, you should honestly talk to them about your plans, giving them a reasonable assessment of the likely outcomes, and ask for their advice and support.

Here is where your situation seems to be different from the one I found myself in a decade ago. In my case I had few family ties at the time, and my switch from biology to philosophy was a deliberately slow affair (it took several years), during which I retained my former job until I was ready to cross over. And the new one actually paid better than the previous one and afforded me the same benefits and security.

This is not at all to say that you shouldn’t explore your options, and take the plunge, if you think it is the right move for you and your family. It is only to point out that your situation has a significantly higher degree of uncertainty, and therefore requires more wisdom to be handled.

One more thing: despite my rather “conservative” advice in this case, I wish to remind you of something that Seneca writes to Lucilius, about a situation that he attempted to endure like a good Stoic would.

In letter LVI, “On quiet and study,” Seneca complains about having to work in a noisy neighborhood, where the sounds from the street make it difficult for him to concentrate: “I have lodgings right over a bathing establishment. So picture to yourself the assortment of sounds, which are strong enough to make me hate my very powers of hearing! … Add to this the arresting of an occasional roisterer or pickpocket, the racket of the man who always likes to hear his own voice in the bathroom, or the enthusiast who plunges into the swimming-tank with unconscionable noise and splashing.”

He then attempts to use the situation as a way to exercise Stoic mindfulness: “But I assure you that this racket means no more to me than the sound of waves or falling water … For I force my mind to concentrate, and keep it from straying to things outside itself; all outdoors may be bedlam, provided that there is no disturbance within.”

Eventually, however, he simply finds the situation to be beyond his capacities to deal with. And moreover, he does have a ready alternative available: “‘What then?’ you say, ‘is it not sometimes a simpler matter just to avoid the uproar?’ I admit this. Accordingly, I shall change from my present quarters. I merely wished to test myself and to give myself practice. Why need I be tormented any longer, when Ulysses found so simple a cure for his comrades even against the songs of the Sirens?” (The latter is a reference to this story in the Odyssey.)

As you can see, Stoics are not averse to finding easier paths to their lives (a preferred indifferent), and they don’t go around seeking (too much) pain (a dispreferred indifferent) for the sake of testing themselves.

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Categories: Stoic Advice

13 replies

  1. Thank you so much for this service, and starting on this topic, Massimo. This is very relevant to me, and I appreciate what you addressed.

    I work in the defense industry in the USA. I started out politically conservative, and this was a great career to match my patriotism. But lately I’ve become more liberal and am starting to feel morally conflicted about my career.

    Having said that, I don’t think it’s a black and white issue. I think it’s naïve to assume we don’t need any of these functions. But I do think it’s way too much of the national budget. Are the projects I work on helpful or harmful? Sometimes I think they’re helpful, sometimes I think they’re just waste. I don’t often feel like they are causing unjustified harm. But I could be wrong, and feel very conflicted over that possibility.

    But it’s complicated because it’s a good salary and a stable living and I am the primary wage earner for my wife and three kids. We love where we live, and I have a very specialized skill set that would make staying here in the commercial world indefinitely a difficult proposition.

    I’ve decided I should at least look for the dream opening, perhaps if it’s a remote position. But I’m not going to hold my breath on that.

    I’ve been berating myself for my lack of moral courage to make a change. But I appreciate how you bring in other considerations as well, such as justice to my wife and kids and using prudence and courage at my current work. Perhaps I could be more judicious and take a stand about which projects I work on.

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  2. Eye,

    Glad you found my reasoning useful. Yes, a good first step for you would be to exercise the combined virtues of courage and justice and be more assertive about the kind of projects you agree to work on.

    However, your case differs from that discussed in the OP in a crucial way: Z. believes in what he is doing, you no longer do. That would seem to me to put additional virtue-related burden on you to seek a different employment.

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    • Thank you for the response. That’s a good point. Although I wouldn’t go so far as to say I no longer believe in what I do, I would just say I’m conflicted. Sometimes I do believe in it and think it’s a worthwhile endeavor (I think my company is better than many others in the type of work we do). Other times I tend to think it’s wasteful. It hasn’t crossed the threshold to something that’s obviously and completely immoral to me, it’s just … unclear, if that makes sense?

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  3. Eye,

    Yup, it makes perfect sense. So you need to rely on your prudence (practical wisdom) to tell where the fine line is between something you can, in good conscience, support, and something that you need to oppose or at the least get out of.

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  4. “Of all existing things some are in our power, and others are not in our power. In our power are thought, impulse, will to get and will to avoid, and, in a word, everything which is our own doing. Things not in our power include the body, property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything which is not our own doing.” (Enchiridion 1)

    I believe getting a new job does not fall under the set of things under our control.

    Massimo, I have some difficulty with this averment of yours. As Epictetus clearly states – getting and avoiding are both in our power. They are “up to us”. Are not exercising one’s choice to avoid one’s current job and similarly exercising one’s choice to get a new job, matters that lie within our power?

    That one had me puzzled but otherwise thanks for the thoughtful and interesting advice.

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  5. Donald,

    Epictetus says that we control the will to get and to avoid, not what we get or avoid.

    So Z. controls his decision whether to seek new employment or not, but he doesn’t control the outcome of that decision. That’s why Bill Irvine in his book on Stoicism says that we should internalize our goals: the goal of being promoted is not under my conrtrol, but the goal to do the best I can at my job is under my control.

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  6. This is very interesting and very topical since most of us confront the same issue eventually. It was very interesting to see Massimo’s Stoic analysis. When making important decisions like this one it is vital to do a 360 deg analysis, that is to view the problem from every possible angle. Massimo has shown how this can be done from the perspective of the four cardinal Stoic virtues. I recommend you write down all the main virtues and analyse the problem through the lens of each virtue.

    I have been through this process, leaving the large company where I spent the majority of my life, and starting a successful IT consultancy. This was a hugely enjoyable experience with some tough moments caused by confrontations with my bank manager over cash flow problems. Cash flow is the number one problem of start-up companies and is the reason why the majority of start-ups fail. Happily I survived those problems. My number one piece of advice is you must have a cash reserve large enough to buffer you against the inevitable cash flow problems. Borrowing is not a cash reserve, it is mill stone around your neck that will eventually drag you down and drown you.

    But I want to talk about something else. Massimo made a career change from biology to philosophy and this is the clue. Modern day life requires that we continually reinvent ourselves, just as Massimo did. We need to be continually acquiring new skill-sets and to be moving into new roles. People who are unable to do this soon become irrelevant. People who do this not only remain relevant, they become open to new and better opportunities. They become valued and they develop a healthy self-esteem. The stimulus of acquiring new skills and moving into new roles makes life hugely exciting and rewarding in its own right.

    My experience of the corporate world is that few people have the ability to continually reinvents themselves. They become staid, set in their ways and their value progressively decreases. And so they are replaced but their replacements take a long time to come up so speed since they lack the specific knowledge of the environment. Those who reinvent themselves are especially valuable for this reason and this gives them a competitive advantage.

    My advice then, in the first place, is to concentrate on radically revising and updating your skill-set. Adopt a policy of life-long learning and continual self-reinvention. Your value to the company goes up, it is hugely stimulating and enjoyable, your market value increases and opportunities increase. Then, and only then, are you ready to become a small business entrepreneur. That is because you will have developed the flexibility, broad skill-set and innovative spirit that are vital for a small business to survive.

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  7. Another point that is worth mentioning is an adverse consequences analysis. In the military we gamed this extensively because adverse consequences can be so catastrophic. Important changes in life should be preceded by a careful adverse consequences analysis. List every possible consequence. What can you do to prevent it? What can you do to avoid it? What can you do to mitigate it? How can you recover from it? Do you have a plan B? The unlikely and the unexpected do happen so you better be prepared for it.

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  8. The Stoïc virtues are an interesting point in the contemplation of mr. Z.

    Earlier this year I read the Stoïc handbook in which the following questions made a part of questioning “living in agreement with one’s own nature”.

    What’s ultimately the most important thing in life to you?
    What do you want your life to ‘stand’ or ‘be about’?
    What would you most like you life to be remebered for after you’ve died?
    What sort of thing do you most want to spend your time doing?
    What sort of person do you most want to be in your various relationships and roles in life? For example, as a parent, friend, at work or in life generally.
    You could also ask how far your own core values match what the ancient Stoïcs meant by ‘virtue’, especially character traits such as wisdom, justice, courage and moderation.

    What if these questions would give a different answer on what mr. Z currently is doing and how does this relate than to the Stoïc virtues? Which will become more important?

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  9. Jeroen,

    If Z. wishes to follow Stoicism, pretty much all those questions are going to have the same answer: to be virtuous, which means to practice the four cardinal virtues in all aspects of one’s life. Including, of course, to decide whether, when, and how to change jobs.

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  10. “So Z. controls his decision whether to seek new employment or not, but he doesn’t control the outcome of that decision. ”

    Too binary, IMO. We can’t control anything with 100% certainty, even our own will. But there is a statistical likelihood that if he tries hard enough and goes for enough interviews, he will find a new job.

    I think we need to get away from quoting Epictetus; it’s as likely to stymie progress the same way as quoting Aristotle did centuries ago. I find it much more useful to think that my ability to control things is probabilistic, rather than deterministic.

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  11. Scott,

    I respectfully disagree. If my judgments and actions are not under my control — assuming that I’m of sound mind and not under drugs — on whose control are they? And notice that “me” does, of course, include my subconscious thought processing, which needs to be brought up to the surface, engaged, and reflected upon.

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