Career, family, friendships… the pressure to make every aspect of our lives appear flawless has never been greater. But when recovering perfectionist Charlotte Philby decided to fold her successful start-up and walk away from 'having it all', she realised that quitting is a game-changer
Two days before I folded the digital business I’d spent two years slogging my guts out to build, I hosted an event on women and work. A sparkling panel of guests spoke passionately about jobs, start-ups, and the highs and lows of growing a meaningful career at a time when security is a thing of the past and salaries are at a standstill. The event was part of a series we’d announced in the national press, and we had big brands clamouring to be part of it. With offers flooding in for collaborations and sponsorships, you could say business was booming. So when I announced the closure of my online magazine, Motherland, via social media on the Monday, the response was one of horrified bemusement. Was this a joke? Was I OK? Was I really quitting? What in God’s name had gone wrong? But the truth was, I had never felt so relieved. Quitting felt good.
As with all stories, there are two versions: one long, one short. The short version of mine is that after a near miss with a potential investor who tried to drastically change the terms of our partnership at the eleventh hour, I was forced, without warning, to let go of the staff I’d recently appointed on the basis of the investment. Even now, this still makes me feel physically sick. But on reflection, it also feels like a narrow escape. Because while there is sadness and a stinging loss of face in admitting defeat, the truth is my life just wasn’t sustainable. In a bid to forge a career while earning enough to keep a roof over my family’s head, I – like so many of us – had found myself on a treadmill of long days and sleepless nights. Quitting wasn’t an option, and it was making me miserable. Two years after I had left my full-time job in a corporate environment to set up on my own (in the belief that I was taking more control of my life), I had to walk away. After all, 90 per cent of start-ups ‘fail’, according to Forbes magazine. The reality of running a business was a real shocker.
So there I was, one concerned husband, three kids under five, no proper childcare and utterly burned out. Often, I was so tired and anxious that I wept at regular intervals, snapped at the sound of my kids’ voices and dreaded texts from friends. On a base level, I knew something had to give. Yet every time I heard my doubts, they were swiftly drowned out – in part by my own fear that if I ever said no, all further opportunities would vanish, or I was giving in. I have to admit I was also motivated by the cries of ‘superwoman!’ from the sidelines, as well-meaning friends and clients saw me juggling wildly (with apparent success) and asked, ‘How do you do it?’ The real question, I think, should have been ‘Why?’
Yes, there was a sense of panic about our financial future, which remains today. But the liberation I felt when I finally had the courage to ask myself what I really wanted from life (answer: to work, spend time with my friends and husband and enjoy my kids, and be able to pay bills without crying all the time) was transformative. It’s a question that’s increasingly on the lips of a generation of over-stressed millennial women, in response to the pressure to be constantly ‘digitally on’ while the gender pay-gap refuses to shrink, expectations from employers and clients rise, and rents soar. ‘Working hard used to be the norm – boastable, even,’ says chartered clinical psychologist Dr Jessamy Hibberd. ‘But I’ve noticed a shift. Women are starting to recognise that killing yourself for the sake of it simply isn’t a good enough reason.’ In her book Drop The Ball: Achieving More By Doing Less, Tiffany Dufu makes the case for quitting – not as a sign of defeat, but as a step towards greater fulfilment in every aspect of your life. Once a poster child for the do-it-all generation, Dufu is a launch team member of Lean In and chief leadership officer at Levo, the fastest-growing millennial professional network. After realising she could no longer do everything she needed to do, she says she’s learned to embrace imperfection, re-evaluate her expectations of herself and shrink her to-do list to achieve a rich, rewarding life.
Similarly, two years ago, Aliya Young, 35, walked away from a lucrative role as head of business affairs for a company that finances films and TV shows. After training as a lawyer, it was a job she had strived for. ‘But in reality, it was too many hours, too much stress and constant pressure,’ she says. ‘I couldn’t switch off and didn’t have enough time for myself and those I was close to. I became more interested in the idea of working for myself. I wanted to change how I lived before I had children and became dependent on a high salary.’ Now working as a freelance consultant, Young says she doesn’t have the same financial security, but has much less stress and works far fewer hours, and feels more fulfilled as a result.
Quitting or ‘letting go doesn’t mean giving up completely,’ explains Phanella Mayall Fine, an executive coach, development consultant, and co-founder of the Step Up Club, which helps women move ahead in their careers. Rather, it’s about redefining our approach ‘We know women have more complex career trajectories and a broader, more nuanced definition of success than most men,’ she explains. ‘We place value on achievement, pursuing a passion, receiving respect and making a difference. Burnout, anxiety and lack of a personal life used to be accepted by-products of a successful career, but that’s changing. We’re under more pressure than ever, and lots of us are saying, “I can’t do this any more”.’
And burnout isn’t reserved for those at the top of their game. Lara Denton moved from Doncaster to London two years ago to build a career in marketing. At 27, she has found herself stuck in a rut, working as a nanny by day and in a bar at night to cover the rent. She never has enough time, or energy, to forge a path to where she’d like to be. ‘I don’t want to admit defeat and move back home, where there isn’t much work anyway,’ she says. ‘But I’m in a catch-22 situation. Some days I want to cry. I don’t know how to get out of the cycle.’
While holistic self-appraisals might seem indulgent when you’re struggling to pay bills, Dr Hibberd says you can’t afford not to prioritise a balanced life. ‘Working in the wrong way can cause chronic stress,’ she explains. ‘This can lead to anxiety and depression, and chip away at self-esteem.’ Signs something needs to give include dreading work, increased sensitivity, feeling on high alert, irritability, low mood, or feeling unable to cope. Having less energy and motivation, and not feeling able to engage in the other parts of your life (such as seeing friends), are also warning signs.
To move forward, Dr Hibberd advises: ‘Take a step back to gain perspective. Perhaps you just need to have a day off and give yourself time to think. Talk things through with someone you trust. Look at all the demands on your life, both external and internal, and ask “Can any of these change?” Often, it’s the pressure we put on ourselves that creates the stress.’ Work out what’s important to you – do your values match up with how you’re living your life? Finally, give yourself a time limit: if things haven’t changed by X, you will do Y.
For me, the moment came when I decided not to look for a new investor. I wasn’t in a position to continue the magazine as a passion project. Yet in order for it to be financially viable at the scale it had grown to, I would have had to make it so PR-driven that it would have been unrecognisable from the free-thinking, smartly designed, honest platform I’d set out to create. I drew up a simple list of pros and cons – just like I had when I decided to quit my ‘dream career’ on a national newspaper to launch Motherland in the first place.
In the end, it wasn’t the fact that making money from a new venture is tough that made quitting OK. When I compared my reasons for starting my own company (a more flexible working schedule, better work-life balance, job satisfaction, the potential to make a lot of money) with the reality (an endless workload, no divide between work and family life, building something that wasn’t fulfilling me professionally when I could be making a good living doing something else), it was a no-brainer. But I’d been so caught up in the ‘quitting is bad’ narrative that I couldn’t let go.
Six months down the line, I can confirm that this wasn’t about achieving the perfect work-life balance. Juggling the daily realities of existence with a new writing job is still a constant challenge, but it’s one I relish, because I love it. Quitting isn’t about giving up, and it isn’t weak. It’s about being brave enough to accept that something in your life isn’t working, and saying, ‘OK, let’s try something else.’
Quitting: is it time to let go?
Executive coach and co-founder of Step Up Club Phanella Mayall Fine reveals how to tell if you should drop the ball – and how to go about quitting
1 You feel disengaged from work, lacking the motivation you once had and performing your job less well.
2 A general feeling of exhaustion – either physical or mental – on most days.
3 Difficulty concentrating or trouble recalling things you’d normally remember.
4 More arguments or less communication, both with your partner and in other relationships at home and work.
5 Trouble falling asleep, or waking up at night and feeling unable to switch off.
6 Turning to unhealthy coping strategies, such as alcohol, on a daily basis. the action plan
7 Take control of your work-life balance.
8 Where possible, leave the office on time and aim to switch off most evenings. If you’re finding it difficult to get away from your desk, try scheduling a ‘meeting’ in your calendar
for 6pm to prompt you to head home for some much-needed rest.
9 Make time for exercise. Leaving your desk and getting out in the fresh air at lunchtime or mid-afternoon has been shown to reduce stress. Be strict about going to buy lunch or stretch your legs – just 20 minutes will make a big difference. Find a nearby park or open space and notice the trees and greenery, or go with a friend and talk about anything except work.
10 Find a non-work focus. It might sound counter-intuitive when you’re exhausted and pressed for time, but taking up a hobby can be a huge stress-reliever. You’ll gain perspective on your career, your mind will get a break from job worries and you’ll be forced to leave the office on time or skip weekend calls. Meeting others outside your industry is an added bonus.
11 See your doctor. Left unchecked, burnout can be serious and lead to a host of other physical and mental problems. If you’re struggling to shake symptoms, see a professional.
12 Speak to your manager. We know communication with the boss is one of the biggest influences on happiness at work. Try talking about how you feel. Your boss might be under pressure too and unaware of how bad things are for you. Re-jigging the allocation of tasks, or the way your team interacts, might be all that’s needed.
13 If you have an unsympathetic boss, talk to HR.