How to quit your job in a recession – and the changing definition of “career”

In the summer of 2010, I quit my job to move to Tokyo, Japan. I didn’t have a job lined up over there, or really any idea of what I was going to be doing for the next few months, years, etc. Having worked hard for the last 10 years of my life, I felt a bit more comfortable taking a career risk at this point then I did when I was say…25. If it came to it, finding a new job shouldn’t prove so difficult. Economy meltdowns aside, I’m not so sure that was true or not.

Turns out,  job searching was the last thing I started doing. Really, it was more soul searching that I was after. And there isn’t a or craigslist for that, making it a bit harder to find what I was looking for. Economic recessions didn’t really matter, I was at least temporarily immune to them. After getting settled in Japan, and signing up for a few Japanese language classes, I figured out that I didn’t really want another job. At least, not right now. Looking at how hard people worked in Japan, I felt that it was similar to a lot of ways to the US, only with the “career volume” amplified 10 times. Despite the fact that companies no longer hire people for life, like they used to, jobs were something that really defined a person in Japan, even more so than in the US. Having taken the major plunge that is quitting your job in the middle of a recession, I suddenly felt free to really examine what I wanted to do with my life. And I decided that I didn’t want to plan out the next 40 years. Or 20. Or even 5. I was going to focus, probably for the first time in my life, on the next 6-9 months. I was going to figure out the rest later. This might haven been the hardest thing I have ever done in my life.

When you stop to think about it, we are conditioned from a very young age to be a good employee, and to think about and constantly plan the future. I remember as early as 5th grade, when asking the teacher why we had to learn this (difficult at the time) math problem, she actually pointed to a list she had on the wall: Top 20 jobs that require mathematics. So it became pretty clear the reason we were in school was not necessarily to learn, expand our minds, or become better individuals. Although most of those things happen as a side effect without even trying. But the point of school, at least as defined by the school administration, and society at large to some degree, was to learn in order to get into a good college, then in order to get a good job. And of course throughout the 18 years of primary and secondary school, the most often quoted reason to be there was to get a good job.

And actually, while I would like to write a post that says that the “study hard to get a good job” is BS, turns out that was pretty solid advice. Mostly. I started seeing cracks in this theory, which I thought was globally held, in college. A lot of people there didn’t choose their major based on getting a good job, or a good career. They choose what they were interested in, assuming that somehow good jobs would follow. I mean, the people I know in school who majored in english, political science, and psychology all ended up doing just fine. But they had hard times getting jobs in what they majored in, and the honest truth is there really just aren’t many jobs possible for those kind of majors outside of teaching or academia. They had to use ancillary skills they had developed outside of college to find jobs. So the ROI on their degrees was pretty low. I think a lot of people are reconsidering the true value of a college education, especially as prices rise to over $200,000 per year. That is one damn expensive English degree. Is it really worth it? Is the future of America in college graduates with no discernible job skills and $200k of debt but loads of knowledge on just how to think and problem solve? I’m not so sure, but the alternative of hyper-trained employees who have only the skills needed to succeed in one particular job doesn’t sound all that great either.

Anyway, getting an MBA was an even more interesting study in the value of education. There are plenty of publications, such a Business Week, that actually calculate your ROI from a degree. Prospective students choose schools not only on reputation, program structure, and instructor and classmate quality, but by what the average starting salary is for a new grad! While I understand that process and way of thinking, looking back on it, I find that it a little disingenuous. Different professions pay hugely different salaries, so if you are looking at schools that are well versed in finance, where a lot of the graduates go into ibanking, wall street, etc, then those salary “averages” are going to be a wee bit higher than those schools where some people go start their own business or go into healthcare management or non-profits. Totally different worlds. Doesn’t mean calculating an ROI is a bad thing, but I think what worried me a bit was the fact that in order for those ROI’s to be positive, i.e. the amount of time to at least break even, it took quite a long time: 7-10 years on average. That is an awful lot of planning. Before I could even pay back my MBA I would be 40 something, my youth largely in the rear-view mirror.

So back to the present. I was tired of planning my career, my life, my ROI until I hit 45, as I had for the last 20+ years. It was time for a break. A little free thinking. And it turned out, I really wanted to start a business. In the next post, I’ll talk about how I came to that decision.

I also saw this article recently, and it made me think of my own situation: Are jobs obsolete?

1 Comment

  1. On a sleepless night (morning-5:50am) I came across your blog about quitting your job while in a recession. I agree that finding a job after taking, in my case political science, proved difficult, hence I am an ER Nurse, something totally different and unrelated to my original field of study. It maybe because I have turned 30, but I have those soul searching moments (fantasies) of just quitting my job and starting anew. I remember one crazy night/morning coming home from work at 3:30am (I work partial night shift) when I told the mcdonald’s late night drive through man that I want to cash in all my savings and buy a plane ticket and just move on with my life. Your blog struck a chord with me because you actually did just that by moving to Japan. Someone mentioned to me all this soul-searching I am doing is my mid life crisis. I am not sure if people really have a defining time when they really know what they want to do in life– or, those thoughts are constantly changing. I am sure as you said that from a very young age these thoughts of life goals have been drilled in our minds and continue to influence us. Anywho, I am glad you wrote about thus topic about careers/soul searching, I guess it was providence that I randomly came across your topic on one sleepless night. Good Luck Aaron on your new setting up your own business venture. –A.


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