By John Coleman │Harvard Business Review│4 min
Over the last two years, record numbers of people have voluntarily left their jobs. The movement is now so broad it has a name: The Great Resignation. Some of these people have left for more flexible work in the gig economy. Some are seeking a change in lifestyle. But many have been spurred by the Covid-19 pandemic and associated social upheavals to take a deep look at their lives and what gives them purpose.
Does this describe you? Are you feeling stagnant and in need of a change that can offer you greater purpose and engagement? This is entirely natural. Your purpose will shift and change over time, and it’s right to constantly find new ways to reinvigorate it. But those periods of transition are challenging to navigate.
All of us experience moments when we must face the difficult decision to let go of doing something that formerly offered us purpose, as I highlight in the HBR Guide to Crafting Your Purpose. But big decisions, like a career change, should be approached thoughtfully. I always advise people to be thoughtful about reinventing their current work before moving on to something new, there are times where the right choice is to strike out on a fresh path.
As you consider whether to join the Great Resignation or take on a career transition, here are a few signs you might use to evaluate whether it’s time to truly move on from work that previously provided you with meaning:
- It’s no longer encouraging your growth.The best athletes will often diversify their physical training or dramatically change their routines. This is because, at some point, everything we do too consistently ceases to be a source of growth. When you notice a source of purpose is no longer helping you grow, look to reinvention or some other change. Leaving a job is a big decision, so I always encourage people to first see if there are ways to craft their work or make changes within their current professional environment before moving on. Often, reinvigorating your work can be as simple as seeing it differently and modifying it in small ways, something often referred to as “job crafting.” But if you’ve exhausted that path and can no longer grow in your profession, it might be time to move on.
- You’ve achieved what you set out to achieve.Sometimes, you may lack growth in your current position because there’s nothing left to aspire to. A former colleague of mine played in the NFL. The first phase of his life was all about football. But after he retired, he found he was satisfied with that period of his life, which had been an incredible source of meaning, and was ready to leave it behind. Sometimes we simply accomplish what we set out to achieve and are ready to move on to new challenges.
- You actively look for ways to avoid your job.I had a friend who loved writing. But at some point, she had grown tired of it and began seeking ways to avoid it — procrastinating, choosing almost any activity from laundry to yard work over putting words on a page, and getting lost on social media when she’d finally sit down to write. She realized, ultimately, that she needed a long break from writing if she was ever going to fall in love with it again. Sometimes, you need to power through something to develop a positive habit (all of us should exercise, for example, but it can be hard to get started); but other times it’s necessary to take a temporary or permanent break. A profession should be something we approach with curiosity and anticipation, not avoidance.
- You regularly approach work with exhaustion, burnout, or dread.I previously had a job that I had once enjoyed but had truly begun to wear on me, so much so that it was hard for me to leave the house to go to work in the morning. This wasn’t because the company or its people were bad; the fit just wasn’t there anymore. If you regularly feel dread at approaching your work, it’s time to seriously consider changing it or leaving it behind. Your life is short and precious, and your work should enrich it.
- It’s causing you to develop bad habits.Another friend of mine worked at a company whose culture was toxic, and he found himself — even when away from work — behaving in ways he would have previously found unethical or inappropriate. He found himself being untruthful, for example, and misleading colleagues and clients. When he recognized this, he immediately left the firm. When something you look to for purpose begins pulling you further from it and from your values, you need to let it go. Never let a professional environment change you for the worse — particularly on matters of character.
- Your workplace has become unhealthy.Workspaces with colleagues who scream at or personally insult you, for example, or where you are worked to the point of physical collapse should, of course, inspire you to seek something new (if not pursue more serious action). Some workplaces are consistently harmful to your physical or emotional health. If you find yourself in that unenviable position, it’s time to move on.
There are, of course, other signs. And again, trying earnestly to reconceive of your work and craft it to be more purposeful is always the best first course if you are feeling stagnant. But letting go of the old is part of keeping life fresh and allowing purpose to change over time. Your life is in your hands, something more and more people seem to be realizing. And the Great Resignation may be just the opportunity you need for a great reinvention.
This piece is adapted from the HBR Guide to Crafting Your Purpose (Harvard Business Review Press, 2022).