Apropos of a beer-garden conversation I had last weekend—the umpteenth such conversation I've had over the years—about a young employee who has probably stayed too long her first job …
How many verities we endure from our elders—and how many truths our elders, for their own reasons, hold back. One of the most reliable rules of thumb I know, I had to learn for myself—because nobody told me about it. Somebody should have. So now I'm telling you.
I worked at a small publishing company from the time I was 23 until I was 31. I started as an editorial assistant, became the editor of the flagship publication, took over as editorial director and then helped the company start a consulting practice.
I learned most of what I know professionally at that place, and much of what I know intellectually. I built my whole Chicago life from people I met at there. I have hundreds of rich stories to tell about the firm—so many that its CEO thinks there's a New Yorker piece in it if I'll only sit down and write it. Maybe he's right.
But by the time I left, I despised the place. Despised the CEO, disdained the CFO, loathed the marketing chief and mocked my colleagues and myself for having given over so much of our minds and souls to this small-time outfit. Every meeting was the same bad, ad-libbed play, day after day. At 31, I felt 60—bored, unmotivated, cynical and over the hill.
Leaving wasn't easy, because in my demoralized state, I couldn't have anticipated that I would regain enough youthful energy and courage to make a go in an unfamiliar place. A colleague implored me to stay. I remember my blood turning into poison as I told him through clenched teeth, "Haven't you ever just soured on a place?"
The day I left, I despised the place.
The day after, I despised it no more. It was suddenly just a publishing company, with its strengths and weaknesses, its odd culture and nutty personalities and market realities.
The company wasn't out to smother my dreams. It was out to survive. And if my dreams were being smothered by working there, it was up to me to survive.
All this came so crystal clear so quickly—and has only become more so in the 14 years since I left there, as I've gotten to know other companies and noted that they all have foibles: some are all sales and no product, some are all product and no sales, some hire dumb amiable people, others hire brilliant crazies, some cater to the phistine masses and others to the arrogant elite. Some are more agreeable to work for than others, but all are what they are: And what they are has nothing to do with me.
But one company's foibles, when they are all you have known in your whole career, are personal affronts, terribly unjust and outrageous stunters of your growth, crimpers of your style … cheaply made and arbitrarily set governor switches on your limitless professional potential!
You cannot separate your disappointment in your own career from your dissatisfaction with the company that has both spawned and contained your career.
Until the day you leave the company, and go to work for another one—or a number of other ones, as a contractor. You will never loathe (nor probably love) another company like the first one you gave your heart to. You'll be a cooler and wiser head. This one extra point of reference will transform your view of work from two dimensions into three, will double your emotional intelligence quotient.
The trouble is, there is no other way to learn this. I'm not saying, "Stay at your company because the grass isn't necessarily greener on the other side." I'm saying just the opposite: You'll never know anything about the color of grass until you've seen at least two different fields.
So, Twenty-Something Who Hates Your Company: Leave!