I’ll be honest, it’s kind of hard to think of topics and perspectives to write about that aren’t layoffs. Perhaps I’ll tackle that again at some point, because man, have some companies levelled up on ways to do that badly.

But layoffs are not the only story in the work world. I’ve been seeing one that’s much quieter, but in a number of ways much more interesting.

Over the last while I’ve seen people in a number of roles, industries and geographies announce they’ve quit their jobs. Interestingly, they’ve also announced that they don’t yet know what’s next. Bold move. And they’re not all sitting on a mountain of savings or have a high net worth spouse or whatever.

Also over the last while, in completely unrelated contexts, I’ve seen comments about how life tends to work out better when you run toward something instead of away from something.

I think that’s key to why these people are making the leap.

Conveniently for study purposes, I have conversed with some people making such leaps. Now, do some people still leave jobs (or managers or companies…) because they’re unhappy? Sure, and that is pretty clearly running away from something. But is that the whole story? More on that in a bit.

Others, however, leave because of a restlessness, a feeling of something missing. What they’ve been doing is fine, but it’s not it. It’s not their life’s work. Now, might some of these people quit buttoned-up corporate gigs to become llama trainers or landscape photographers or gluten-free bakers? Maybe. But for most folks the change isn’t quite that much of a 180, at least not on the surface. But even changes that don’t necessarily seem to be that radical can be, in practice. 

Ultimately, the only person who truly understands the scope of the change (and the granular reasons for it) is the person making it.

A lot of the people I’ve seen leaving jobs, who don’t yet know what’s next, also plan to take a break before figuring it out. I am pretty confident in saying they’re at a point where they very much need one, and needed one a long time ago. In fact, I am pretty confident in saying that they likely need a fair bit more of a break than they realize. They’ll figure that out when they actually start resting. Sometimes you’re running away from burnout, but what you’re really running toward is your own sanity and peace.

Now, with all these layoffs, things are certainly in a state of upheaval for many. You’ve been affected or you’re dealing with the fallout or you’re worried when it might happen at your company or you’re just kind of anxious in general. Totally normal.

There is a range of responses people can have to these situations. On one end is the urge to move as little as possible, to be as useful yet unobtrusive as you can. Doing whatever you think is best to avoid the axe. At the other end are the people who choose to leap. Even if it seems like really bad timing. Even if, as noted, if they don’t know what they’re leaping toward, or into. They just know it’s time.

Knowing it’s time could be tied to the upheavals, losing a sense of stability and security. You figure… if it’s going to be a bumpy ride, might as well make sure it’s MY ride and MY hands on the wheel. Perhaps not running toward something, specifically, but steering it and providing the push. Life’s too short. Upheavals other than work-related ones can catalyze people to run toward big change, too, of course. Just ask a cancer survivor.

Plus, I’m not sure stability and security exist anymore. Anywhere. For anyone. Not in the traditional “retire with a gold watch” sense. I saw that in Google’s most recent layoff, people were let go who’d been there for 20 years. In tech time that’s practically centuries, especially given the degree of growth and change Google’s gone through since the early 2000s.

There are kinds of corporate upheavals besides layoffs that can be a trigger, too. Mergers and acquisitions can bring undesirable changes in culture, or people who just aren’t your people (though that can happen just moving teams). Or the company makes decisions about products or the direction of the business that you just can’t support and don’t want to work on.

There’s a bit of running away if you leave that environment, but you’re also running toward a lot, and really important things: the culture, team and work that you DO want.

Knowing it’s time to move on may have nothing to do with upheavals. It could have been brewing longer than that. Maybe you’ve just done what there is to do at that job or company. Maybe you’re done with that career or industry altogether. Maybe you’ve been doing your thing for a long, long time, and you just need a break.

Or maybe you’ve always planned to leap, and you’ve finally achieved what you felt you needed and planned for. A certain amount of savings, your kids out of the house, your divorce finalized, your shares vested, whatever. No one said that an absolute lack of preparedness into complete chaos was a requirement for a big leap.

Again, yes, you’re running away there, too, but it’s incidental and definitely more about running to something. Running to what’s next. Running to what you’ve wanted for a long time.

Perhaps that’s the key distinction between running toward and running away: How long has it been actively in the works?   

Again, what looks like running away to the outside observer may be nothing of the sort in the mind of the person taking the leap. There’s probably a lot you don’t know, and even what you do know will be coloured by your own mindset and experiences. Say you hate your job, but you’re still there (perhaps you’re one of those held in place by fear). But then a co-worker quits their job. There’s a good chance you’d chalk their quitting up to them hating their job, too, even if that isn’t the case.

Ultimately, there is rarely a perfect time to do anything, especially make major life changes. And yet there will be people starting businesses when interest rates are high. Or quitting jobs when layoffs abound. They usually manage, all right, though. Certainly, good risk tolerance and flexibility help. But running toward something just tends to provide stronger motivation and direction.

Fear does have an unfortunately strong ability to keep people in place. Even more than habits or complacency. It’s pretty simple logic to think that rampant layoffs are going to discourage plenty of people from quitting their jobs, even if they’d been thinking about it seriously for a while. Over the last three years or so, polls have pretty consistently revealed a high percentage of people planning to quit their jobs in the next 6-12 months. I bet those numbers are going down.

And that’s fine. If your household relies only on your income, you don’t have savings, you live in a country where no job equals no healthcare, or you don’t have in-demand skills, you’d be perfectly right to worry about losing your job, let alone leaving it intentionally for something uncertain. Even if you WANT to leap, it just may not be a safe time to try it.

Fear can make some people run away from perfect, good and reasonably safe opportunities, though. They’ll never learn if they might have been happier or more fulfilled at a different job, company or entire career (or, hell, relationship) because they refuse to make choices to try, and thus those other opportunities never open up.

By refusing to run toward something, sometimes you send yourself backward and away from good things by default. Which is unfortunate, because a lot of those people are miserable and exhausting to work with and don’t make their teams better. But some people cling to misery like a barnacle to a ship’s hull. They make it, as the kids say, their whole personality. To the point where they can’t even see or consider anything else.

Those people also tend to have the roughest time if they’re knocked out of their ruts involuntarily, like with layoffs, because they have no risk tolerance or ideas or dreams. Or at least any notion that their ideas or dreams just might be reasonable and doable.

Now, sometimes there are systemic issues afoot where, no matter what the specific circumstances of people involved, there is a strong running-away element. Like the “leaky pipeline” for women in STEM and tech. There are myriad contributing factors there that make people head for the door, and none of them is failing at meritocracy.

At the same time, one could look at it as these people running toward jobs they’ll like or companies where they won’t get discriminated against or passed over or harassed. Choosing to work toward being happy and finding work fulfillment and using their skills is running toward something, just something and somewhere that wasn’t in their original plan.

Years ago, after the second time I was laid off, I bought a copy Dr. Seuss’ Oh, the Places You'll Go! In that circumstance, I hadn’t run toward or away from anything, yet, but I had decisions to make and directions to choose. It felt good to read that book. It helped me think and it felt like it was helping me lace up my runners.

You have brains in your head.

You have feet in your shoes.

You can steer yourself

any direction you choose.

You're on your own. And you know what you know.

And YOU are the guy who'll decide where to go.

M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached on Twitter at @melle or by email at me@melle.ca.