You’ve undoubtedly heard about “quiet quitting,” the supposed pandemic workplace trend of “doing the least amount of work, just this side of being fired,” as journalist and author Julia Keller puts it in her new book, “Quitting.”
You probably haven’t heard of something Keller calls “quasi-quitting.”
That’s a kind of precision quitting, when you leave a full-time job with the intention of going off in a different direction. It’s about letting some things go, but not letting everything go.
As Keller told me when I interviewed her by Zoom in her Ohio home, unretirement — when you quit a job in your 60s or so to work part-time and use newfound free time to do other things — is a great example of quasi-quitting.
“Almost everybody I know now who is of age, that’s just what they’ve done. There isn’t this line of demarcation where you turn in your keys for your desk at IBM and go home and sit around the house and play pickleball,” said Keller, a Pulitzer-winning journalist, novelist and former Chicago Tribune book critic. “It’s doing many different things, instead of just one thing. People I know who are ‘retired,’ and I’m using dreadful air quotes there, do more now than they ever did during their so-called working lives.”
Here are highlights from our conversation about quitting and retirement:
Richard Eisenberg: What made you want to write a book about quitting?
Julia Keller: My interest came from some personal times when I’ve just given things up — and not always to the betterment of myself.
You’ve quit jobs a few times, right?
The very first job I had was at a small newspaper in Ashland, Kentucky, and they were paying me less than a quarter of what they were paying the man who’d done the exact same job before me. And I was like, ‘What?’…
So, in a great fit of bravado, I quit that job — didn’t give notice, which I think is a terrible thing to do. I would never do that today. The quitting was good, the method of quitting was bad.
Other jobs, I’ve left maybe a little bit before I should have or maybe stayed a little bit too long. So, my own quitting history is like all of ours.
You interviewed 150 people about their quitting experiences. Give me an example.
One of my favorite interviews in the book was a woman who was the head of the cardiac unit at Cleveland Clinic. It was a job of great prestige. Great salary. And she was doing lifesaving work. But she just wasn’t quite there.
And she had been volunteering at an animal shelter. To cut to the chase, she now is a director of one of the large animal shelters in the Cleveland area. She gave up a job at Cleveland Clinic and said her family was just aghast. It was like: ‘What are you doing? You’ve trained for this! You have all this!’
But she’s really very happy and credits one dog she adopted, a stray she found who was near death and who she nursed back to health.
So, it’s often small things upon which our lives can turn. It’s that moment of quitting when we go from one thing to another.
One of the people in the book was a college classmate of mine, Michelle Weldon; we went to Northwestern together. Tell me her quitting story.
Her first book was a memoir about leaving her marriage. The marriage was disintegrating; it became very toxic. She knew she had to leave. But she had three children and said: ‘I know the statistics about single mothers raising children, what happens to them economically, socially, culturally.’
Things have worked out for her, but it’s been a great struggle.
What were the themes you heard from the people you interviewed?
Most people I interviewed regret the things they should have quit but didn’t, rather than the things that they did quit.
What else did you hear?
Everybody has a quitting story, but people hate the word quitting. They hate it. I interviewed people who said, ‘Well, I wouldn’t call it quitting. I changed my mind. I pivoted. But I didn’t quit.’
Why do we hate the word ‘quitting?’
It gets under our skin. There’s definitely that connotation: You’re a loser.
I really think that started back in the 19th century when material success was connected to hard work. We were told explicitly that if you worked hard, you would be successful. If you didn’t, you’d end up rolling around in the gutter with a bottle of gin.
That was the message. It was sold to people, like cars and cornflakes and smartphones.
But you also talked to people who said how happy they were as a result of quitting, and how it changed their life.
Oh yes. That seemed to be how the interviews were going far more often. People were happy they’d made a change.
You write that the new science of giving up can set you free. What’s the new science?
I discovered in my research that an emerging focus of neuroscience is the science of quitting. What happens inside our brains when we make a decision to abandon one path?… What are the chemical and electrical triggers that initiate stopping one kind of behavior and doing another?
While there might be a great cloud of history that goes before we quit something, there has to be that moment of decision. You might contemplate quitting your job for years, but there has to be that one moment when you do it. So, which neurons fire to propel you into that quitting moment?
I call quitting aerobics for your brain.
You also call quitting an ‘act of love.’ What do you mean by that?
Quitting is an act of self-love. It’s a way of saying: ‘I deserve better. This job may not be a Dickensian workhouse, but I deserve better. I deserve to have deeply satisfying work. I deserve to have deeply satisfying relationships.’
That’s one thing quitting can give you. Because quitting says, ‘If it’s not working, try something else.’ The change is a way of loving and valuing and cherishing yourself.
What’s the right way to quit a job in your 50s or 60s to start your next chapter?
I think that is so dependent on the kind of relationship you have with your boss. If you have a good relationship, you’re able to have conversations about leaving.
What would you tell people who have a full-time job and are thinking about quitting to start whatever version of retirement they’re going to have, but are nervous about giving up the job security, salary, colleagues and the things that they’ve done for many years? They want to explore the next thing, yet they’re sort of frozen in time.
The phrase ‘frozen in time’ really resonates. Stuck was a word I would hear a lot from people I interviewed. They’d say: ‘I can’t move ahead even though I want to, but I don’t want to stay here.’ That creates a terrible cognitive dissonance, I think.
Quitting is the hardest thing we ever do. And I think sometimes it helps to acknowledge to yourself: This is hard.
Before I quit things, I always get really sick. I thought I had the flu before I quit the Tribune, where I’d been for about a dozen years. I was sick to my stomach. I had a pounding headache.
It’s been really hard for me at times when I’ve ended friendships, too.
So, how can people get unstuck?
It’s kind of important to know what it is you want to do.
One man I interviewed, at Northwestern University Hospital, said that during the pandemic he would have a line out the door of physicians and other people in the medical field who wanted to talk to him because they wanted to quit. They were burned out. His question to them was always a simple one. He’d say: ‘Quit to what?’
Meaning, what’s on the other side of the quitting? He’d say: ‘If you can answer that question to yourself, then maybe you’re ready. But if you can’t…’
I’ve heard financial advisers say a lot of people think about what they’re going to retire from, but not what they’re going to retire to.
That’s a wonderful way of stating it. It’s not what you’re rejecting, it’s what you’re embracing.
Some people get rid of toxic relationships in retirement and as they get older. Any thoughts about that?
Oh, absolutely. People can be such battery drainers. They can undermine your confidence…. Sometimes, even family members can end up being very detrimental. I talked with one woman who realized there was no benefit to her to have a really close relationship with her family.
It’s so important to cull the people you have in your immediate circle because they can have such an influence.
You tell readers to give others in their lives permission to quit. What do you mean?
I think we really get in people’s way sometimes. I know I have done it.
I was a bit of a mentor at the [Chicago] Tribune with some of my other writing colleagues and when people wanted to quit, I was pretty judgmental about that.
This attitude of mine toward quitting has really evolved.
After I read your book, I started to think about the times I’ve quit jobs. The first time, I’d been there for many years and was bored. The second time I quit after six months because I felt the job was a bad fit. The next time I left after a little over a year because I thought the job was bad for my mental health. The last time was when I left my job as managing editor of the Next Avenue site, in 2022. It was because I was excited to try new things.
I love the fact that you could identify that each was a different thing. They are quite distinctive, but they are all quitting.
That’s why I think quitting stories are so great. I love them.