Reflecting on Career Choices: The Wisdom of Hindsight in Quitting Jobs – Lessons from My Podcast and Work History


The following material was cut from my latest book, The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. It just didn't fit the flow of how the book turned out.

You'll hear a story from one of my podcast guests, and I share some stories from my career decisions. We all make mistakes. We only really discover if a decision was a mistake in hindsight.

Dr. Gena Cox Was Too Cavalier in Qutting Her Job

Dr. Gena Cox is an industrial psychologist, executive coach, speaker, and author of the book Leading Inclusion. Her favorite mistake was quitting her favorite job at a company she loved, working for one of her favorite leaders. Like Steve, she had good reasons — she needed more flexibility to care for her young daughter.

She recalls, “In some ways, I left this job because I wanted to just explore other pastures,” but she later realized, “only in retrospect,” that she missed that “special organization.” Gina learned it was difficult to find another organization “where I trusted the leaders as much, and where the culture was as inclusive, welcoming, and truly supportive individual desires” as much.

“You don't know what you've got, till it's gone.” – Joni Mitchell 

“I made this rather not impulsive, but now in retrospect, so cavalier self-absorbed decision that I would leave this job. And as the years have gone by, my biggest mistake is that I left a place that I absolutely loved and was never able to replicate that experience.” 

Gina realizes there are many reasons to change jobs, as we search for a fit regarding passion and purpose — as well as seeking different pay, different industries, and different managers. Gina made, recognized, and admitted her mistake, but she also learned. “What I learned about myself is that I value those relationships more than anything else. I didn't know — couldn't know that — 20 or 25 years ago.” It took time and hearing the stories of others to fully appreciate what she had left behind.

She managed to enjoy ten years of self-employment, taking care of her daughter and making a great living, later starting her company Feels Human, Inc., where she remains CEO today.

Listen to (or watch) her episode:

I Quit Two Jobs Too Soon Now That I Think About It

Taking a quick detour into my own career history, there are two times when I quit a job too soon — realizing the mistakes, of course, only in hindsight. It's not that quitting was a mistake. Not at all. But maybe I should have stuck each job out a little longer, for different reasons.

Quitting General Motors

My first job out of college was as an industrial engineer at the General Motors Powertrain Livonia Engine Plant (as I've blogged about). My first year there was pretty miserable, working in a traditional GM “command and control” management system that blamed and punished people for mistakes instead of allowing them to learn. Of course, mistakes got hidden, and that culture led to poor quality and bad results across the board. 

In that first year, there were many times when I thought about quitting, and I interviewed for other jobs. I wasn't uniquely unhappy, considering my colleagues.

One day, a small group of young engineers asked one of the older leaders who mentored us,

“What would happen if we all quit on the same day?” 

He made clear it would be a mistake to think a mass exodus would have opened anybody's eyes to the bad working conditions. Without missing a beat, he replied,

“They'd say, ‘Well, they were all [jerks], so let's go hire new engineers.” He didn't say “jerks,” trust me.

Had I quit during that first year, it would have been a mistake — and I probably wouldn't have ever known it!

Why the Second Year at GM Was Better

The second year at the plant brought a new plant manager, Larry Spiegel, one of the GM leaders who had an opportunity to learn the Toyota Production System (a.k.a. “Lean) at the GM-Toyota joint venture in California called NUMMI. Larry was a completely different kind of leader. I learned much from him about better ways to lead and engage people in improvement work.

I learned just a little about TPS during my undergraduate studies. Working under Larry turned TPS “theory” into a powerful and practical reality. If the first year there ignited a passion around the idea of “people shouldn't hate coming to work,” the second year under Larry showed me it was possible to turn a place around — that leadership styles and culture made all the difference.

Had I quit, I wouldn't have had that experience, and I wouldn't have known what I was missing. You're probably thinking, “But this is a story about quitting?” 

During that first year, I was fortunate to work closely with a graduate of the program now called “Leaders for Global Operations” at MIT. He encouraged me to apply, and I was accepted. Generally speaking, it wasn't a mistake to leave and attend that program.

But, I often think it was a mistake not to ask for a one-year admissions deferral, as that would have given me even more opportunity to learn from Larry and another year of positive experience helping to improve the culture there. I've occasionally paused to reflect on that decision, but I remind myself it wasn't a life-changing mistake, so I don't feel bad about it. Quitting in that first year might have been life-changing, and maybe not for the best.

Quitting My Job at Dell Too Soon

In my first job after MIT, the story is shorter.

I quit that job after about 20 months, leaving Dell for a software startup in Austin.

There were times when I thought joining the startup was a mistake, including when I was laid off after 9/11. But I got rehired, and I eventually left after four years.

My mistake was not being patient enough to stick it out another four months Dell to reach the 24 month mark, as I ended up having to pay back 17% of my relocation and signing bonus, which wasn't easy for me to do as I didn't have a lot of savings at the time.

But I don't know how expensive it would have been to stay another four months in a workplace I was ready to leave. It might have been a mistake to stay. In the grand scheme of things, it was not a mistake to leave when I did, now that I reflect on it more.

What stories might you share about quitting a job too soon or quitting for the wrong reasons?

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Check out my latest book, The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation:

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


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