Should I stay or should I go?  How to know when to make the leap

Change requires courage, courage is part of any journey of reinvention, any decision to stay or go

Should I stay or should I go

There is much to be lost in pursuing new roles – loss of security, connection, status, finance – but also so much to gain. Debating whether to stay or go is a decision with particular nuance for leaders.  Focused on clients, teams, performance and the integral part they play in directing and managing those close to them can mean that their own priorities and development are not front and foremost. 

There is a Japanese principle that we can call out to that is at the heart of reinvention.  Your attitude to change can shift, it is not something that is externally imposed. Yes, we can face extraordinary events that force adjustments to our lives, and we will inevitably experience personal disappointment but ultimately we have the power to think differently about these changes.  The Japanese philosophy of ‘genchi genbutsu’ encourages us to ‘go and see for yourself’ to observe conditions candidly and make decisions about the obstacles and struggles we face directly.

When we reflect on the choices we have made in our working lives the pain of regret can tell us so much about what matters to us.  The human ability to feel regret depends on two complex mental abilities – time travel (going back to an event or incident or experience) and storytelling (how we narrate that experience to ourselves and perhaps others). Effectively overwriting the present by reconfiguring the past.  Regret employs ‘if only’ thinking, adopting comparative terms that usually sting because so much regret is caught up in self-blame.  

The world regret survey (Pink, 2023) found an overwhelming number of people regretted things that they didn’t do, rather than things they had done. Pink found that ‘regrets of omission’ outnumbered ‘regrets of commission’ by more than three to one.  So, failing to attend an important event such as a funeral was deemed as a regret more often than taking up a new opportunity. Some of the specific regrets he identified were:

  • Missing last opportunities to connect with loved ones
  • Pursuing higher education
  • Not travelling when the opportunity was there
  • Not getting out of a bad marriage/relationship
  • Behaving with questionable morals when younger, for example bullying kids in school, cheating, shoplifting
  • Movingly one of the key early findings from Pink’s study was the regret people felt about ‘living someone else’s life’ and not being true to themselves.  Perhaps this is part of your decision to stay or to leave, are you fulfilling someone else’s ambitions or dreams rather than your own? 

Could being too comfortable be one of the reasons that you hold back from new opportunities?  It is an irony that feeling at home, being at ease is one of the ways in which we can be stuck. We may have been in our job for some time, we are known, perhaps we are liked and respected leaders.  Perhaps we are well rewarded and autonomous, we know what to expect, we are trusted, there is security.  This safety blanket may protect us from risk and danger but can also prevent us from the chance to flourish, to push boundaries and to be seen as capable of working in a different way.  It is only when we don’t feel entirely at home that we are alert to learning and to developing new skills, the magic space between comfort and danger. 

Learning how to quit is a skill.  To take control of your destiny, to have agency, the term social scientists adopt to describe the degree to which people believe that they have the power to shape their world. There is of course luxury and privilege in such work choices.  When you are desperate for work to survive, the idea of quitting might seem abhorrent.   We are also programmed for cognitive bias that makes change difficult, the preference for the status quo that steers us away from the path of change.

‘Revelatory autonomy’, the moral right to discover ourselves and who we can become after making transformative choice examines the idea that we will never know our future desires, values, and preferences without the capacity to make those transformative choices. Such decisions might mean taking a pay cut to pursue a career change, there also may be many interested parties who might be impacted by that choice and who therefore try and influence the person making the decision.  Such influences might relate to concerns about status, a rejection of lifestyle choices by peers or family members who benefited from the lifestyle.  

Annie Duke, a cognitive scientist turned poker player, turned academic turned author, turned consultant and speaker.  She speaks and writes eloquently about the thread that runs through all her life occupations, learning under uncertainty. She has written extolling the unsung benefits of leaving and endings. In examining the science of quitting Duke says poker is a game that thrives on quitting, she thinks we should quit a lot more. Her writing both reveals her own story grappling with quitting as well as guidance on how to make fine decisions that may lead you to quit. We might imagine people’s negative response to our decision to leave, yet much of this negative chatter might live solely in our heads. 

When deciding whether to leave we should remember:

  • Situations & context can change we don’t need to stick with a bad choice
  • Our own preferences, lifestyle or circumstances can change
  • We can always get some help
  • You can draw boundaries, to decide when you will quit (a time, a target etc)
  • Goals can be set with an ‘unless’ clause
  • Decisions are not absolute, you can return and change course, or get back to ideas previously rejected.  We can adopt a more exploratory mindset; we can be creative and courageous.  
Dr Susan Kahn
Dr Susan Kahn

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