Lessons Learned From Leaving My First Job

As a fellow, I made a list of what I wanted in my first job. I dreamed, prayed, and wished for the contract to finalize. It did. I went to Ohio hoping that this was my first, last, and always job.

Eight years later, I left feeling completely broken. On my first anniversary of leaving, here are the major lessons that changed my life.

1. It’s not my job’s job to make me happy.

For years, I thought that if I only produced more (RVUs, papers, lectures, books), my institution would see my value and then deliver the academic schedule that was in line with my ideal vision. This thought was the cause of all of my drama.

It’s easy to blame the system for feeling miserable because the blame points outwards, but that made me a victim in my own life. It’s not our job’s job to make us happy. That’s our job.

While it is was painful for me to realize that I was responsible for feeling miserable, this thought also empowered me to see that I could be the heroine of my story, save myself, and choose to be happy.

2. You don’t need to move to be happy.

Believing that everything will be better just because you change jobs is an expensive lie. It is essential that we are happy wherever we are. If we aren’t, we will bring our mind drama to our next job and find ourselves unhappy again, just in new circumstances.

I certainly was happy at my first job: that’s why I stayed for eight years, and that’s, in part, why it was painful to leave. I loved that my first job had no ceiling on opportunities. I had a wonderful mentor who encouraged me to make my dreams a reality. The material was amazing. I helped created a phenomenal pathology student interest group and a faculty mentoring program. I wrote two books and dozens of papers.

3. Incompatible values are incompatible. 

At some point, I realized that I wanted more than what was available for me. Right out of fellowship, the intense service schedule was appealing because my goal was to be diagnostically confident. As I advanced, I realized that I didn’t want my academic time to continue to come from my family by working long days, weekends, and holidays. I wanted a schedule that had built-in academic time during the workweek so that I could be the mother and wife I wanted to be. I was replaceable to the institution (as we all are), but I was not replaceable to my family. I wanted to be an academic pathologist AND a wife and mother. I did not want to be an academic pathologist at the expense of being a wife and mother.

Of course, it was OK that I wanted more, and, of course, it was OK that the institution wasn’t able to provide that support. With experience and time, we evolve and acquire different interests and needs. My first job was the perfect job in 2012, but in 2019 I realized that our values were incompatible. If our values aren’t aligned with our institutions, we need to change our values or change our job.

4. Believe what you see, not what you hear.

To be clear, being happy where you are doesn’t mean become a doormat. You can do two things at once: you can choose to be happy while negotiating for a better fit. I suggest trying to make it work because job-hopping is an ineffective way to grow a career.

I certainly tried to negotiate for a better schedule. Every annual review, I was told “yes,” and they agreed that I should have a more flexible schedule, but it never actually materialized. While it is tantalizing to believe the word “yes,” realize that it is only a word. If the “yes” never comes with a deliverable, then the answer was “no.” It’s no one’s fault; it’s just reality. If you fight reality, you will lose 100% of the time.

5. Your worst-case scenario is missing out on your best-case scenario.

The process of looking for a job was frightening: what if we risked everything to only end up in a worse situation? Recognize that fear is a normal reaction to anything new, and fear will never take you anywhere extraordinary. Staying in a job that doesn’t fit is hard, and so is moving to a new job. Both are hard. Which do you choose? Pick the option that moves you forward to living your dream life.

I have learned that the worst-case scenario is not moving to a worse job because I know when a job is complete and how to find another job. The worst-case scenario is missing out on the best-case scenario. Because I didn’t let fear hold me back, I am now living my life’s purpose on purpose at my dream job in my dream city with my dream family. Because I didn’t give in to fear, I am living my best-case scenario.

I share this very private part of my life’s journey because I know my story is not unique. Medicine is filled with people who feel miserable at work, who are waiting for their institution to change, who are hoping the “yes” turns into reality next year, or the next year, or the next year. Instead of hoping others change, take back your power, and look around you. What are your values? How can you make asks that help align your values with your institution’s? What thoughts are holding you back? I went from feeling broken to living my dream life in less than a year by changing my thoughts from “it’s my job’s job to make me feel valued” to the new thought that “I define my value and it’s my job to make me happy.” Thoughts and feelings are optional. Choose the ones that serve you.

To hear the full audio diary of this post, listen to the Your Path In Focus Podcast:

Your Path In Focus Podcast – E10: Lessons I Learned from Leaving My First Job