Career Change: Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

People often ask me how you know when it's time to leave your job, if there is a fool-proof questionnaire lurking on the Internet somewhere whose results will offer them an answer that is unequivocally right. My reply is no. And if there is, it is a very well-kept secret. Leaving a job, or in the case of people like me, a career, is sort of like breaking up with your guy: On some level you know when it's time to leave but that doesn't mean you do it. We let our vision get clouded and choose not to stop long enough to notice that the blur is being caused by the fumes seeping through that window we closed. Being alone is far scarier than being a part of a couple, or in the conversation we are having here, an organization.

Remember "The Pilot's Wife?" In Anita Shreve's novel she tells the tale of Kathryn Lyon, whose husband is killed in a plane crash. The story tells us how Kathryn learned not only that her husband was cheating on her, he had been leading a double life. I remember being struck by all those moments in the flashbacks we are taken through where I wondered how she hadn't figured it out. The signs were all there. To me, it seemed so obvious. But the truth was she hadn't wanted to. She was in a relationship in which she had taken a vow and assumed that the other person had her best interests at heart. So she didn't see what she didn't want to see.
That happens for us in our jobs too. Especially the kind we have invested ourselves in. The ones that are part of a career for which we took a vow. The ones that we were madly and passionately in love with at some point. The kind that one day we are dragging ourselves out of bed to get to.

I'm always dragging myself out of bed. It doesn't matter how exciting a day I have to look forward to, I don't wake up easily. I never have. Since I was child, I've moved slowly and painfully when an alarm goes off. So when the reasons became more to do with my job than just who I was, it was pretty easy to look past them.

... Until the signs started to pile up. Being happy you need a root canal because that means you won't have to be in the office until 11, for example. Stopping inside of every church or temple you can find to pray that you will be included in the next round of layoffs. Hyperventilating, feeling dizziness and/or nausea within three blocks of the office. Biting the inside of your cheek until it bleeds to stop yourself from screaming because you have to listen to the same people say the same things at the same meeting they have for years while nothing changes. Forgetting what a good day at work actually feels like.

I wasn't brave enough to leave on my own, so the Universe gave me a giant kick and eliminated my position. When I got courageous was when I decided to use that severance to reinvent my career. It took me a while, but eventually I found the person who had been living beneath the mask of "it's okay, what other choice do I have?" and "what will I do for money?" Until I was laid off, I had no idea how much I had been faking it.

With job dissatisfaction at an all-time high, I imagine many people are "faking it" to get by at the office. This is as exhausting in a boardroom as it is in a bedroom. The only way to know for sure if that's what you're doing is if you put a mirror up to yourself. We can get really good at ignoring our body's internal mechanisms to discern the truth, but our faces never lie.

So go, right now and stand in front of a mirror and tell me what you see. A happy person glows from their inner satisfaction with no prodding. Their body is relaxed. There is no tensing of their shoulders and creases in their forehead. A happy person is more likely to be smiling, genuinely, just because they can.

Now ask that person in the mirror if they love or even like their job. Ask that person if the prospect of doing whatever it is they are doing in the same place for even the next year makes them feel really good. If it fills them with energy and purpose. Your words might concoct a good lie, but your body won't be able to.

The only way to decide if you should stay or go is do something I did not, take a long, hard look in the mirror, literally. That is a better indicator than any data supported reasoning. Those who tell you otherwise are most likely faking it themselves.

Joanne Tombrakos is a writer, business coach and speaker who blogs on living and working after corporate America at She is also the author of a novel, The Secrets They Kept.