Quitting is a dirty word in academia. You’re not really allowed to quit: a paper you are writing, a project you have signed on for, a job, a doctorate. Quitting can be seen as implying weakness, giving up, dropping out, slacking off, flaking out – all things no one wants to be accused of. However, over the last two years especially, I have been reading more and more social media posts by people who have quit, who have said: ‘No, thanks, this is no longer for me’. Many of these posts express sadness and shame, but many also express liberation, relief, joy even. These posters have grappled with the seemingly inevitable shame of saying ‘I can’t/don’t want to do this anymore’ and have pushed through it to actually say ‘No’. I wonder what the process was to get there – how did they make it okay for themselves to quit?
I have been thinking a lot about quitting: less about actually doing it per se and more about why and how we might need to quit something and how to make it okay to do that and move on. For myself, I have been reflecting, firstly, on whether and in which situations I allow myself to say ‘no’ or ‘not anymore’, and secondly, what happens before I get to that point. Historically, a ‘No’ or an ‘I can’t do this anymore’ email or conversation has come directly on the heels of crisis. I have taken on so much – for a range of reasons; things I am interested in, things I feel guilted into, things I am scared to say no to, things I have to do because they are part of my role – that I literally cannot do it all and some things have to be stopped, let go of, quitted.
But because I wait until crisis point, I inevitably feel I have failed. I have not been able to do All The Things and I should have been able. I should have been Wonder Woman and not Ordinary Human Woman. On the converse, I tell myself I should have known better than to sign up for all those things in the first place. Because now look what you have done: all those people and projects counting on you and you have let them down. For a lifelong people-pleaser, that baggage gets heavy and creates all kinds of internalised expectations and pressures that are hard to see, let alone let go of. That word ‘should’ can be pernicious: it has been behind many of my less wise ‘Yes’ answers to requests to get involved in work things (you should do this, it will be good for your CV; you shouldn’t back out of this, it’s bad form). It has also been behind too much of the pressure I have put on myself to do and be too many things. Crisis is then created where perhaps there didn’t need to be one.
Hindsight, though, is 20/20 and it is easier to look back on a different part of your career from where you are now and see what you should have done but probably didn’t do. However, I do believe in learning from crises and mistakes (or at least missteps). I have, therefore, been thinking about how to take more accurate stock of my energies, interests, must-dos versus can-dos and would-like-to-dos, all the other things I need to do (like mothering, partnering, self-caring). I’m trying to pay better attention to the shoulds: is that word pushing me into energising territory or the opposite? In taking more accurate stock, I am hoping I can become better at saying ‘No’ earlier in the process so that crises and negative self-talk and feelings can be mitigated or even avoided altogether. Or, if I cannot say ‘No’, working out how to do the Thing without it leading to everything becoming too much and then collapse.
The other thing, alongside working out what to say ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ to, and how to manage my own time and energy and others’ expectations and demands of me, is wondering how to actually make ‘No’ a complete sentence. This means, for me (the people-pleaser and overachiever), not apologising for not being interested in, or ready and able to take on a project, paper or task that I just cannot do right now. This means not over-explaining myself. It means not obsessing about what I should have done instead and rewriting the script of the conversation or email over and over to change the outcome. It also means allowing other people to feel their own feelings without making those something else I have to take on and worry about to the point where I undermine the energy-savings of saying No in the first place. I don’t have to be disappointed in myself because others may be. I can be proud of myself, let this go and move on to the next thing.
This sounds very healthy and wise as I write it, and the truth is, I am sometimes these things in how I make decisions about what to give my time and focus to and what I bow out of. I’ve been doing this career for a while now and I am a bit better at working out what I can do, what I have to do, and what I can get on without doing. Having signed up for the wrong things, missed out on some great things – if you’re keeping track and reflecting periodically on where you are, what drives you, and where you want to go, you can get better at managing your own and others’ expectations and your choices. But that doesn’t mean you don’t get pulled into things you may not actually want to do or have time to do: when you work in academia you always have to manage the ‘game’ – papers to publish, grants to write, funders, line managers and VCs to appease, students to consider and care for, and on and on. If you have chosen this career, chances are good that at least some or much of that will be what you actually care about. I have learned, though, that to get the time I want for the things that really matter to me, I have to give some to the things that matter to others. Compromise, negotiation.
Sometimes you can’t say ‘No’, and maybe the trick to being okay with that is to work out how to make the things you have to say ‘Yes’ to matter to you enough to not mind them. But when you can say ‘No’ and that is the best choice for you, try making it a complete sentence. You don’t owe anyone lengthy explanations and hours of worrying about whether you’ve done the wrong thing or burned a bridge. Chances are they have already moved on. So should you.
* Jane Fonda said this in the documentary, ‘Feminists, what were they thinking?‘ on Netflix (UK).