Don’t Lose Your Edge (Knowing When to Leave)

I had breakfast today with a friend, Brent Stickels, who is a partner in YYES, an agency with offices in Minneapolis and Los Angeles. During our conversation, he mentioned another ambitious, smart friend who’s currently in a great new job at a company, unfortunately with a very disengaged culture. He’d advised her to get out “before you lose your edge.” I thought that was great advice, and worthy of a post.

When we talk about a group’s culture, there are a lot of ways it can go bad. There are toxic cultures, where there’s actively, aggressively unkind (or illegal) stuff going on and it’s unremarkable. There’s bullying and hazing. People stealing ideas, sabotaging other people’s efforts, or blind to the larger picture. If you’re in a group like this, you need to exit, as soon as possible, with some grace. (I’m not going to touch the recent blowup—I don’t have any direct intel—but I’ve been working long enough to tell you that in we’re-working-to-change-the-world conversations we universally love to romanticize an extreme work ethic.)

You don’t have to enter the workforce to encounter a bad culture within a group, it’s on even the most idyllic campus. Hazing isn’t just for the Greek system—other groups can be just as nasty in their rituals, nor are all fraternities guilty of this. Part of college is figuring out who you are and what you stand for. (There is more to these four years than getting a job—a really great school is going to help you learn how to make a life.) You’re going to get a lot to think about in the discussion of big ideas in the classroom and during office hours, but you should also be getting it in your non-academic engagements. It’s perfectly normal to join a fraternity and decide later that it’s not a fit for you—you should change a lot between freshman year rush and senior year grad school applications. By the same token, you may have passed on a sorority freshman year and then find junior year that you have a lot of friends in one who really would love to have you join. (And it’s never too late to try singing or acting—go try out, if that holds appeal. This stuff is why you are there.) If the finances work for you, go for it. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.

You can also take a job or internship and find it doesn’t work for you—either the place or the whole career path. If you’ve got an internship it’s probably 8–10 weeks long, so you’re going to need to stick it out for the sake of the reference and maybe your résumé. (If you’re unpaid and it’s a joke, you can say you need to get a paying job and bail out—though I’d give them the usual two weeks notice if possible.) If it’s a bad part-time job, you owe them two weeks notice and little more. If it’s your first or second real job, they probably figure they’ve got you for 12–24 months, but if it’s a disaster, you can safely leave after six months without torching any bridges.

If it’s a slightly bad culture, like Brent’s and my friend’s gig, then you’ll see simple things going wrong. Look for people who don’t work together effectively, do the bare minimum, don’t step up to help each other, who wait for work to be assigned (rather than volunteering). There’s just not a sense of excitement or any drive towards common goals. People disappear for hours, lunches are long, at quitting time it’s as though an invisible factory whistle just blew. You’ll see this at school, too. If people (professors or students) bail out of classes (and campus) every time they can, cutting classes is endemic, and there’s no sense of community on the weekends, you need to think about transferring (if you’re still in freshman or sophomore year). I’d expect this kind of disengagement at a community college, where you have a lot of part-timers, people juggling work and school or retirees dabbling or professionals picking up additional certifications. It’s called community college because it fits into the existing community, not because it is the central hub of a community. Make sure your target transfer school is the hub of a community, though.

If you stay too long in any complacent, low-achieving environment, you’re going to move toward the mean and become that kind of (second-rate) worker. It’s a pretty standard trope in self-improvement circles that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with (and co-workers have a leg up on logging the time with you to make that list). The community might be great but the Biology department is a really hostile environment due to all the pre-meds viewing each other as competition. Stay a Bio major, but join some friendlier groups on campus. (Outdoor programs are a pretty reliably laid-back, accepting crowd.)

There’s an art to exiting the dud environments. This isn’t the moment for you to let forth with your honest opinion. If you’re leaving Mock Trial, no matter why, just say you’ve got some other interests you want to pursue, or you’ve learned what you wanted to from this experience, but there are some other things you want to check out before you graduate. There’s nothing gained by airing a list of grievances. You’ve decided to leave, it’s too late for them to fix things and woo you back, so let it all go.* When you leave a job, it’s much the same drill. You should be saying that you’re leaving for a geographic move, a new opportunity, for a spot that will build on these skills (which you are “so happy to have had a chance to learn”). Basically, it’s a version of breaking up saying, “It’s not you, it’s me.” You just want to get out as cleanly and neatly as possible.

Why? I really want to talk a lot about this idea in a big post on networking, but the main reason is the simple logistics of lifetime job hunting. Even when you find the perfect job, you will eventually need to move again to gain new skills, get a big raise, or shorten your commute. You’ll have to conduct the hunt for this third job without telling the second job (you can’t know how long the hunt will take, and you don’t want them firing you or shortchanging your opportunities because they know you are looking). When the potential third job employers want to check references, you’ll likely have to give them names from the job before your current position—the first (bad) job. Uh-oh. Just leave gracefully—leave the way you’d like to be left: Firmly, but with kindness.

*By the way, it’s perfectly appropriate to go see campus mental health services to talk through the emotional side of leaving. You don’t have to be on the edge of a breakdown. They would love to help you figure out how to tell your freshman year roommate you don’t want to stay together as sophomores. It’s not all serious problems in counseling—lots of people are just doing a reality check or getting an objective view of a sticky issue. And if you are distraught because you were recruited and drawn to the school entirely because you thought you’d play lacrosse and those are the only people you know—every group you are in is a spoke off that hub, definitely go see them. This is why they are there. I promise you that they will reiterate that you have not ruined your life, you are not alone, you do not need to transfer, nor are you trapped forever by some wrong turns made earlier.

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