My father tells the story of how at the tender age of 11, he left his widowed mother in a small village in East Africa to go into town in search of a job.
He had never gone to school, had no money, and to many he was just another destitute child with no future. At the time, all my father knew was that he had to find some money to buy his mother food.
My father, a strong ambitious African man with the most amazing laugh you will ever hear, looks at nothing in particular when he tells this story and adds, “I had no idea what was going to happen. I had no plan – I didn’t even know if anyone would give me a job but I knew that it was the right thing to do. I knew that I did not belong at home in the village.”
Last Friday, I quit my job because I didn’t belong there.
Unhappy and feeling as though I was not adding anything of value to the team, months progressed in a silent self-inflicted emotional jail as I entered into a deeply problematic cycle of anxiety, apathy and sadness.
Once, while having a regular lunch with two of my colleagues I shared that I knew of a person in the building who upon crossing the busy street that led to our office, started to suffer from a panic attack because she could not fathom another day at her desk.
The heartbreaking thing about that story is that I was that person, but I was too scared to admit it to my colleagues, let alone myself.
As I look back on that lunch, I realize that that was my final “cry for help,” a hope that my colleagues would see the real pain beneath my facade and tell me to get the hell out. I never thought I’d be the kind of person to seek out validation from others, but here I found myself succumbing to the perceptions of those at my workplace, praying they would unearth my secret and send me home with a pink slip. At least then, it would be them, and not me with the problem, right?
Alas, that is not how life works out.
Weeks prior, I received a regret email from a media company downtown for a job I knew I was overqualified for, but because I wanted out of my current situation, I talked myself into believing it was the “perfect job” for me. If life has taught me anything, it’s taught me that it will continuously strip away all the unnecessary distractions in order to sit you front and center with your truth.
By ignoring my unhappiness at work and instead focusing on scoring a new role where my current disposition would ultimately follow me, I refused to acknowledge that the one thing that was right for me had been in front of me all along.
Such a feeling is not regulated to just me. I know that there are millions of men and women who struggle professionally because they don’t want to admit that what they are doing is not right for them. We operate in a western focused society that values stability, a 401K and a suitable health care package. A lot of us are moving around with daily anxiety and silent frustration because we cannot flex, even a little – we cannot be our real selves.
A week after that lunch with my colleagues, I was seated at my desk at about 5:15 pm as a flood of emails poured into my inbox; with my heart pounding and a pool of sweat forming around my temples, I burst into tears. It was the second time in my entire professional career that I had ever cried at work and I decided it would be my last.
It’s easy to cite issues at work, office politics, and other personal/professional situations as reasons to leave one’s job. The hardest thing to do is to admit to yourself that you’ve had a role to play in all of it – simply because your life is a reflection of the choices you make. I do not feel like using this platform to delve into unnecessary details, but I do want to say this: you only do yourself and your colleagues a disservice by being unhappy and staying in role that is not fit for you.
This is what my father’s brave story ultimately taught me, and for which I credit the strength to leave a stable job in a prominent field – all to do something that I know is right for me.
I’m not ashamed to admit that even as I write these words, I feel bad that quitting my job has given me so much happiness. I’m uncomfortable when caught laughing heartily, shy when someone mentions the “glow” that I have, and dreadfully anxious at the silence of my colleagues in my last meetings.
The reality is that most of us live in a world where one’s respective happiness might be mistaken for malice towards the larger group. When you’re not “going with the flow” or being a “team player” and instead prioritizing your dreams, it can be seen as selfish.
And maybe that’s exactly what I am—selfish.
During a formal conversation with my supervisor to discuss details of my resignation, she asked if I had a plan – a solid question that required a solid answer.
“I’m quitting my job to pursue the one thing that I know I was born to do, and for which I love more than anything else. I’m a storyteller, and I’m going to write” I replied.
I told my supervisor and my colleagues that my plan was very simple: I was going to travel the world and write stories. From Spain to Egypt, Malawi to Senegal, Colombia to Madagascar all I wanted to do was talk to people about their lives, learn from their experiences and then share those stories.
Months from now, I will have sublet my 1 bedroom apartment in Manhattan, said goodbye to my friends and boarded a one way flight to Barcelona, my first stop. I have absolute confidence that it will end up being a shit show; places to stay will fall through, flights will be redirected and delayed, ATM machines will be broken when I need them not to be, I won’t speak the local language and some women won’t want to be interviewed. I will cry a lot. I will miss having a steady income.
These are all givens when you choose to enter into a serious relationship with uncertainty. However, I am also confident that the most miraculous happenings will also ensue.
I’ll have the opportunity to sit with women and listen as they share their experiences with intolerance, sexual identity, religious persecution, and migration. I will learn to value patience. I will laugh openly. I will give of myself every step of the way. I will fall in love again. I will write.
Merriam-Webster defines the word belong as the ability to “be an attribute, part, adjunct, or function of a person or thing.”
On the day I quit my job, I realized that I didn’t belong there because I belonged to the world. Believe me when I say it sounds irrational, highly idealistic and maybe even cheesy as hell.
By knowing that I belong to this world, I free myself from the societal norms of having to do things a certain way. By knowing that I belong to this world, I free myself from the “us and them” mentality and instead adhere to an interconnectedness that defies religion, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status or even location. By knowing that I belong to this world, I free myself from thinking I can only have one job or perform one function, and instead open myself up to the endless possibilities of what is around me.
On Friday, a woman at my office who I greatly respect came up to me and said, “I think what you are doing is courageous. Many people your age sit in jobs like yours and stay there for years, even when they are visibly miserable. There is a world of opportunity out there and what you’re doing is brilliant.”
In my experience, when you don’t know where you belong, you can’t know your true purpose, and when you don’t know your true purpose, you will never be able to walk away from that which no longer serves you.
Sometimes, courage is all you need to figure out where you belong. Just like that little 11 year old boy from the village.
Joan Erakit is a Kenyan-Ugandan born writer based in New York City. Her work has been published by Cool Hunting, The Huffington Post, The World Post, and Marie Claire among others. She is currently shopping her first book, Meet Me In The Village, a collection of non-fiction short stories about reproductive health and family planning. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram or her website: joanerakit.com