Leave if you must. But leave when you are strong, not weak. Leaving should be a choice and not the only option.
― Ram Mohan
The previous entry, if you need it.
Later on Wednesday, after things have quieted down around the office, I jump on the treadmill. It’s around four o’clock in the afternoon and I need a boost of energy. Between the meetings and everything else, I’m drained. Running usually fixes me.
Fifteen minutes in, and my body is hot, my mind relaxed and loose. The belt hums below me, and my feet fall in rhythm. I’m finally where I want to be.
When I’m in these states it’s as though I’m drifting through the database of my life, all experiences available, accessible, and accounted for. This is where I go to think. This is where my life lays open, end to end.
I query myself:
Why are you still conflicted? Do you really feel connected to this job? Your function? The people?
The response comes through quickly.
I’ve made it through life by serving others. It’s how I’ve achieved everything I have. People tell me what to do, I do it, and then money appears. It’s not that I care about them. It’s that I’ve needed the means to live. I associate approval from management with drawing breath.
But you don’t need the money anymore. Why do you still feel connected?
The connection is my link to security.
You know you’re secure now, right? You have more than anyone could possibly need. Some people retire successfully on a third of what you have.
So what’s the issue? Why the hangups?
This time the response is slow in coming. My arms pump, my legs move, and I wait for the blankness in my head to take some form. Then, finally, there’s a shifting: a new viewpoint into my past.
I’m young again, seven or eight years old, and my family doesn’t have enough. My parents are fighting about money. I’m wearing my older brother’s hand-me-downs and they don’t fit. At school, I am different. My so-called friends have limitless quantities of cool toys. GI-Joes. Transformers. The Star Wars Endor Forest set — Ewoks and everything. I, on the other hand, have a sock puppet of Kermit made by my mother.
Several years later, my parents are divorced. When they do manage to speak, they’re still fighting about money. Some nights we don’t have any food in the house and I jump on my bike to pedal through the darkness to the Stop N Shop to get spaghetti, paid for with earnings from my bakery job where I scrub sheet-pans over sinks full of boiling hot water. I arrive home breathless, cook and feed my younger sister, and do homework until I fall asleep.
I don’t have enough. I will never have enough.
Because there’s a part of me that’s insecure. Even after all of this, I still feel poor sometimes.
<<I’m shivering on the treadmill. Goosebumps line my arms. I’m barely conscious of the body moving somewhere beneath me.>>
But you know you’re rich, right? What, do you want to die with the most toys? Since when has that been your goal? Are you still fucking six?
No. I’m a man who recognizes I have plenty. More than enough. I’m unbelievably fortunate. I’m ready to stop working and pursue things that actually make me happy.
Then why are you angling so desperately for a sabbatical? How would you actually feel coming back?
I picture it. September. I’ve just spent an entire summer away from my desk job, doing whatever the hell I pleased.
But that’s over now. I’m sliding a badge past an electronic reader, opening doors into a building that consists of sections partitioned off into offices and cubes. The offices house insane overlords. The cubes house the workers. But the variations in quality and spaciousness of the specific work areas make no difference: The employees are all slaves.
I find my own cube and sit down, logging into my workstation. Then I’m running reports against servers, staring at pie charts and alerts and emails and the blinking red light on my desk phone that indicates I have voicemail. I am surrounded by synthetic, mass produced products that plug me into systems and applications. My job is to create these abstractions, link them together, watch them grow, care for them. They are my virtual babies. My silicon children.
A manager’s voice becomes audible in my head, giving instructions for the day. This task is urgent. That stakeholder’s request is critical. It is imperative that we complete project X on time and under budget.
Nausea hits me first, then anger.
And it suddenly strikes me that it would be infinitely more difficult to come back to this place than it has been to leave it. It’s impossible.
And with that, the sabbatical charade has come to a conclusion. I am not sure how I’ve been so blind to this truth.
You still there? Repeat: How would you actually feel about actually coming back?
I’d feel like shit. I’d feel like I failed. Like I was nothing. I’d rather die than return to this.
With that, there’s an instant lifting. The dull ache that had been following me since the beginning of the week disappears, and every trace of guilt, irrational loyalty, and inexplicable indecision departs with it.
And then I’m roaring forward on the treadmill, strong and weightless, another force powering this thing attached to me, this body. The machine shakes underneath, unable to contain the energy.
I jump off, head out of the building and into the cold March air.
And I run.
I’ve made it through the remainder of a week that included additional meetings with higher-ups. I met with my Chief Information Officer. I met with the president of Information Technology Services.
Each time, the scene played out the same way. Why am I leaving? Family. Where am I going? Nowhere. Don’t you need the money? No.
I don’t vary the story because I know they’re all talking with one another and my responses should be consistent.
In the morning, I have a meeting with my manager and he asks me if anything has been clarified in my picture. He wants to know if I will accept a sabbatical with a commitment to return on September 1st.
I tell him I can’t commit to anything. That I cannot, in good faith, promise to return on September 1st. I go further, saying that I know it’s in my own best interest to sign an agreement to come back, knowing that my job will still be available, even if I am not sure whether or not I can follow through. Because there is no risk on my part; If I can’t return, nothing bad happens to me. It’s the sort of agreement where the entirely of risk is shouldered by the employer.
But I will go against my own interests and not sign. I say that we all need to move on.
My manager is confused.
Didn’t we agree that leaving the door open is the best approach?
Yes, but I’m not willing to commit to something I think will not happen, even if it’s clearly to my advantage.
How about a terminate-to-rehire clause? It basically means that if your position isn’t filled and you’re looking for employment, you’ll be at the top of the list.
Okay, that sounds reasonable. Thanks.
<<I don’t care. I won’t be back.>>
If we do it this way, and you’re rehired, you won’t be eligible for the working arrangements we’d discussed before. No 3-day workweeks or part time. No work-from-home.
Yep, I completely understand. I think this is the right way to handle things.
<<I don’t care. I won’t be back.>>
How about your leave date on April 3rd? We could really use you around until the 10th because of <<final implementation of project X>>
I will be leaving on the 3rd.
What if we paid you through the entirety of April — through the 30th, including all benefits — if you work the one extra week?
That’s two weeks of free pay?
<<I decide on the spot to put the extra 3 weeks of post-tax salary into a charity founded by an old friend of mine. It’ll come out to several thousand dollars and would make me feel terrific.>>
Okay. Sounds like a deal. Let’s put it in writing and sign the paperwork.
Half an hour later I’m in another meeting with my manager and an HR rep and we again go over the details. There’s a multi-sheet printout in front of me, bound by a fat silver stapler.
I cast a glance at my manager, who is chatting with the HR rep as though I’m not there.
This time I barely recognize him. He looks like a combination of people from different jobs I’ve held at various points in my life, the faces blurred together, features mixed. My CEO from a startup? My first superior at my very first software company? I see something around the eyes that strangely reminds me of me.
I sign the document, banishing them all to my past.