Should I quit my job?
October 14, 2017 11:13 PM   Subscribe

Feel like I am in a never ending crisis; should I quit my job?

I have been at my job 20 years; I am in my mid-40s. I am grossly overpaid by any measure. Top 1%, etc. I earn enough that, if I stay for even another ~3 years, it would make a material difference to retirement. If I leave, I would likely have trouble finding anything that paid more than 1/3 of what I make now. I have no idea what else I would do.

I used to love my job and I still love aspects of it. The problem is that I am on a project that feels like a never-ending ride to doom. The project is completely messed up and it is largely my fault for wrong assumptions/estimates in getting the project going. The project has another 6 months in it and all I can see is failure after failure on the project until the end. I can't sleep and, when I wake up, I am fine for like 1 minute until I remember the project and all of the things that are going wrong. The project is for a client that does not understand how messed up the project is and has a strong determination to go forward with the project no matter what. This is really adversely affecting my life with my family and children because I am in a state of total panic and depression at all times.

It has gotten to the point where I fantasize about simply walking out the door. Which would be totally stupid on so many levels; I would destroy my reputation and referrals for another position. The project is basically "my fault," so leaving the project behind would mean leaving it for others to deal with, which is unprofessional and my colleagues would be angry. Also, even though this is a total hell-scape, the fact is that they are paying me the most money I will ever earn in my life to do it - perhaps I should take a "fuck it" attitude, do the best job I can, and take the money and smile until it ends. That is, maybe I can "quit" mentally even if I don't quit in real life - just try to be zen and do what I can while the ship sinks. I just haven't been able to get there mentally.

I also fantasize about telling my boss and the client that the project is doomed and we should stop it. This would cause a huge problem and likely result in the client not paying us for a huge amount of work (a material financial loss). I would be in all kinds of trouble at work, probably have an income cut, lose the client, but likely not get fired. I would probably then be on a downward trajectory at work for ~3-5 years with less income, etc.

The other thing that's important, I suppose, is that the project may be salvageable - not a great success, but maybe not a total wipe out either. It is possible I can land it at "disappointing." But it it takes a ton out of me to work on this sinking thing.

Also, it's only 6 months. If I just drag myself through this, I will still be alive in 6 months and can go back to the aspects of the job I actually like. Then I could work another few years and be in a good financial position.

I know the normal way to think about this is probably - if it makes you so unhappy, it isn't worth it, find a way to quit. But what if it is "worth it" in the sense of the most money I can ever earn? Five years from now, ten years from now, it might really matter to me and my family if I could just "hang on" and save a bunch of money now.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (21 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
This is a hilarious situation. I would trade places with you in a minute. You're getting paid an enormous sum of money to work on a presumably difficult project that presumably that can't be ruined (because it's already ruined). Whoever your boss is, they have signed off on it. I'd say strap in for the ride and see what happens. Personally, I'm so sorry about the stress levels - I can not imagine them. It would help to find someone who could reach inside this maelstrom - can you talk to your spouse about this on a daily basis? Or hire someone? No way would I quit, no way. You need to forgive yourself for the initial mistake, but otherwise, please, just practice self-care as effectively as possible. Sorry for the standard Metafilter advice but maybe you need therapy with someone understanding. Don't be hard on yourself, it's rough enough out there.
posted by karmachameleon at 1:28 AM on October 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

What do you do? Are you a consultant?

Please remember that for any given project that its failure is not able to be the fault of any on person. Presumably your estimates and assumptions were checked by others. Other people besides you saw the plan. Nobody raised the red flag (including you) and blaming yourself to this degree is probably not very helpful. As I read your Ask, you actually like your job-- it's this project which is making you want to quit. Accordingly, I'd take steps to try to get yourself out of the situation you are in right now.

1) Conversation with your Boss: "Sally, we need to talk about Project ShoeHorn. At the beginning of the project, we had the following assumptions: 1) Key assumption A 2) Key Estimate B 3) Key Assumption C. Unfortunately, it seems that of those assumptions, only Assumption C has turned out to be correct. There's a good chance we're not going to be able to deliver to the time or quality promised, and I need some help in thinking this through. I feel really terrible about this since I was a part of developing Assumption A and Estimate B. I feel so much responsibility to make this work I am concerned I'm not objective about how to fix it. Can we sit down and look at this?"

Most managers really want and need to know when their team members are in this kind of situation. You may be surprised and pleased at the response if you 1) Honestly acknowledge the problem and 2) Take responsibility for trying to fix it if only you can figure out how. It's also an essentially unassailable position, since unless there is malfeasance involved, it's difficult to blame someone who comes with this kind of news in this way.

My guess would be that part of why you feel so awful is carrying this burden alone. It may be that you are in a situation where you completely mistrust your boss and don't feel you can have this conversation. In that case, I might first try to find a peer who can serve as a sounding board with a similar script.

Good luck. This too shall pass.
posted by frumiousb at 1:30 AM on October 15, 2017 [20 favorites]

You would be making a huge mistake to quit your job. Do the Zen thing, get therapy, and ride it out. Also quit taking on absolutely ALL the responsibility and stress for the project going badly. Your boss should have given you more help and support and presumably there are others on the project who could have seen this coming as well. Stop feeling so guilty - really think about the fact that there are tons of people out there making more money than you who are grossly incompetent at their jobs and couldn't manage their way out of a paper bag. Do not quit! Or you're likely to end up in a way worse position. Get therapy, get meds for anxiety and/or take some sick leave if you need to but DO NOT QUIT! Everyone has some things that go disappointingly at work, this is yours, and you do not have to be perfect to stay in your job!
posted by hazyjane at 1:37 AM on October 15, 2017 [6 favorites]

I really feel for you, I too have been stuck on doomed projects (without the fabulous pay, I grant) and they just seem to suck the very best you can give while offering nothing in return.

However. I think your stress is impacting your decision-making capabilities a little here. I feel like you are probably catastrophising a bit, and also your thinking seems to be very black or white.

In terms of catastrophising - I know you think this is a huge failure project. I don't know where you work or what you're working on, but do you know how many corporate projects are failures? I worked on a project that went over eight figures over budget. I was convinced the exec sponsor would be fired, along with half the leadership team. Actually, no. None of them - astoundingly - were fired (even people I thought really deserved to be), and many went on to better and bigger things.

Failure sucks, but it's also way more common than corporates want to admit. You are working on a big fuck up project. TBH if you've made it to your midforties without working on a few distasters, I'm amazed. And if you haven't - those other failures haven't irretrievable damaged your career or reputation have they? Everyone with a skerrick of maturity knows there are a lot of reasons why things fail, even why they don't succeed despite the best efforts of people. This might be a train wreck sure, so try to do the best you can, whilst subtly gifting the client with insight as to why it's a fuck up.

Secondly, black or white thinking. E.g, quitting is the only way to get this to work. I must totally stop giving a shit about this at all to regain some sanity. No, and no. Give less of a shit, especially in areas you can't really control. I've often got to the point with some work where I'm like "fuck it, I'm just gonna have to half arse it, I can't do anything else." Often, people didn't even notice; no one's standards were as high as mine. When they did notice, they work was still fit for purpose, or they understood. Note: I didn't "no arse" it. I still gave some of a crap, just less of one.

Secondly, what can you do that would help you, that isn't quitting? Can you get some more resources to assist? Can you get help from an experienced exec? Does your employer have an employee assistance program offering free counselling? Can you see a Psych yourself?

If you did leave (to another job, don't just quit!), what would Actually happen? People leave jobs all the time, most people don't take it personally. If a few do, who gives a shit, will you ever work with them again?

I'm not saying these are things you should or have to do, or the only things you can do. I'm saying - you feel like you have no options, but you have options. Take some time to plan them out and think them through, and what you might do and what's important. Approach this challenge methodically, creatively, flexibly; don't be reactive, fear-based. Don't take this project on the project's terms, take it on your terms. Find out what those are.

Best of luck, hang in there bud.
posted by smoke at 1:40 AM on October 15, 2017 [13 favorites]

The project is completely messed up and it is largely my fault for wrong assumptions/estimates in getting the project going.

If there's one thing I learned from 35 years in IT, it's that estimates and assumptions made before a project gets started are usually wrong - ambit claims, at best - and that the C-suite fully understands this but regularly signs off on stuff anyway.

Every death-march project exists because somebody at top executive level has made a judgement call that it is in their personal best interests for it to go ahead. Technical considerations usually run a very, very distant second place to political ones.

So what you need to do is get your head down, and keep doing your best to make the best decisions you possibly can within the framework of increasingly contradictory constraints you now understand to be inevitable, while continuing to lift as much remuneration from the pockets of the congenitally oblivious shareholders as you possibly can, as a hedge against the actually fairly unlikely outcome that you're going to be held personally accountable for this farce in any meaningful way.

Heading up a death-march project only feels like a career-limiting move while you're in the thick of it. In fact it very rarely is. There's a fairly good chance you're actually going to end up promoted on the back of this thing, especially if you've been canny enough to keep that huge stash of ignored emails warning those upstairs about its potential failure modes.

Personally, I walked away from the industry when the stress of feeling millions of dollars of other people's money riding on my ongoing ability to supply unfailing competence got too much for me. But then, I was only ever a lowly engineer. Near as I can tell, management consists entirely of people who have simply decided not to give a fuck about that kind of thing. Go thou and do likewise.
posted by flabdablet at 2:15 AM on October 15, 2017 [10 favorites]

Also, there's a name for people with the hard won experience to be able to say "yeah, well I thought X and Y because Z but actually that turned out to be wrong, because as it turns out, before doing something like this you really need to be thinking about A and B and C as well".

Those people are High Priced Consultants, and they're in the 0.01%.
posted by flabdablet at 2:21 AM on October 15, 2017 [5 favorites]

I agree wholeheartedly with frumiousb's advice. Talk to your boss. You're not in this alone, and your boss has a vested interest in making sure you (or the company at least) succeed. The fact that youre so worried at least shows you care.

When we are in the middle of our own problems and going through them alone, we get tunnel vision and go into a spiral of despair. Talk to your boss, make a plan, and spend time with your family and take care of your health. You'll live through this.
posted by watrlily at 4:16 AM on October 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

Heading up a death-march project only feels like a career-limiting move while you're in the thick of it. In fact it very rarely is.

This is so true, which makes it both comforting and frightening.

At any one time, there are at most 1-3 things you can truly focus on and affect change in. Pick one of those, and attack it for a while. Then STOP and move to the next one. Don't ever think about finishing one. If you happen to finish one, GREAT! But it's not about that. It's about moving through time until time passes, and not losing your mind in the process. You can do this for 6 months. Just put out one fire (or at least dampen it), move to the next, and repeat.

Always Be Closing. Meaning, get really good at presenting yourself in a way that sends the message, "I am working hard on some relevant aspect of this project." Chances are, no one else knows as much about it as you do anyway.

After the fact, you will be remembered as the one who worked his ass off. The one who knew how to prioritize, how to identify the hottest fire at any given moment, and how to plan to put it out. (The fact that it may never have gotten put out will not seem that important, later.)

- Work is not life. It feels like life, but it's not.
- You are not your work. It just feels like you are.
- Other people are responsible for themselves.
- The illusion of dedication does not depend on true dedication. It depends on people recognizing the markers of what to THEM indicates dedication.

What do your bosses and other key people value most? Demonstrate the markers of those things. Make them see you through the lens of "valued employee" and nothing else will matter. This is about GETTING THOUGH IT, not any more or any less.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 5:47 AM on October 15, 2017 [22 favorites]

Worst thing that happens if you stay: the project fails but they pay you anyway; you might take a professional hit but you won’t lose your job. There is a chance you salvage the project.

Worst thing that happens if you leave: you don’t get the money AND you take the professional hit of leaving suddenly and not finishing the project. There is no chance of salavaging the project.

The professional outcome is likely the same, but in the “stay” scenario you make a boatload of money. Also, you can say you tried to salvage it— don’t worry so much, stay and take the money.
posted by blnkfrnk at 6:52 AM on October 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm in a similar situation. As stated above, the project's failure is really unlikely to be entirely your fault. If it's a big enough project, which I assume it is if they are putting a highly-paid employee on it, then there are so many levels of support that need to be there for it to succeed. My own project is tanking because executive support never materialized. Yes, there are plenty of things I could have done differently but I'm not going to be on the hook for the VP not coming through like she promised, you know?

So I'd say, really try to look at it objectively and see what you can personally do to right the ship or else to close out the project and try again. But don't quit now if you can help it. Figuring out a path forward for the current project will look a lot better than cutting and running.
posted by cabingirl at 8:07 AM on October 15, 2017

perhaps I should take a "fuck it" attitude, do the best job I can, and take the money and smile until it ends


I just haven't been able to get there mentally

Exercise, therapy, take at least one day a week 100% off
posted by Kriesa at 8:18 AM on October 15, 2017 [7 favorites]

I had a professor in law school who said "they call it compensation for a reason." That doesn't help with the anguish of stress etc., but it some ways the calculus is simply - can you bear these very stressful circumstances in return for what you say is a large sum of money that will be important for your family. Lots of people who make not a lot of money have to do that calculus every day and put up with stress and bad circumstances for not a lot of compensation.

That said, it's hard for a successful professional-type to work on a "failure" - not that it's easy for anyone, but when you are a more senior lawyer or consultant or whatever, you're not so much an "employee" as you are something more like the captain of the ship or the project or whatever - or at least that's what you are expected to be. There isn't a big hierarchy of bosses etc. So I can understand why someone would feel the that whole weight of the project is on them personally.
posted by Mid at 9:10 AM on October 15, 2017

I skipped everything after this:

I earn enough that, if I stay for even another ~3 years, it would make a material difference to retirement.

This clarified your situation in a way that several paragraphs of clarification can't touch. What you're asking is "how can I make it through a tough three years?" The rest is distantly subsidiary to that central question.


The overwhelming majority of human beings throughout history have done backbreaking labor, day after day, year after year, to fill their food plate. And even today, with all our improvements and comfort, and even in the rich world - there are people who would literally kill for what you'll bring in in these three years (I'm assuming very high 6-figures or a bit more). Virtually every criminal caper you've ever heard about, perpetrated at risk to life and freedom, was hatched for a similar amount of money. People rob banks, and live on the run for years, for these sums. They destroy lives, they feign love, they betray friends and family and hurt themselves for these sums.

Forgive me for opting out of hearing how rough and upsetting the job is. Stay in the damned thing, make the money, then go enjoy. Or else decide you have higher values, take a shitty job, and live frugal. But you're not going to do that. So stay in the damned thing, make the money, then go enjoy.
posted by Quisp Lover at 9:39 AM on October 15, 2017 [4 favorites]

Treat the depression, anxiety, panic, and perfectionism! I promise you there people in your situation or worse who sleep like babies, either because they have no scruples, or because they have great coping and centering skills. Try for the latter— and make that money.
posted by kapers at 10:13 AM on October 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Also, if you call a meeting ASAP to say the project has xyz flaws but I have abc suggestions, you’ll be the hero. And you’ll feel better because you won’t be shouldering the burden of failure alone.
posted by kapers at 10:16 AM on October 15, 2017

I’m on my phone so apologizes for typos. I’m in a similar situation as you, you need to learn how to protect yourself and distance yourself from this project. I work consulting-ish and this is a hard lesson to learn. You need to delegate and make sure the failure at least doesn’t bubble up. In the end the bosses will say the project is bad, but as it is not their problem it will make a good case study. Emphasize what went right and motivate your team. Don’t lie to them, acknowledge what is right and wrong and have a plan to mitigate the disaster or they will check out. A failing project that really fails will be your fault.

Look for a new job, this will help you with your self-worth and that you’re not cheating anyone by your paycheck and you have options at the end of the day.

I’ve been through this too many times to count. Again, the hardest part was protecting myself. I wanted to take responsibility for everything and felt stupid blaming people even after I have clear directions. Don’t be a dick but call out people early and often before things implode. When the project fails you can show it just wasn’t you and not too late. If people aren’t performing have a formal mitigation plan documented. This is a double edge sword as people will stop taking initiative and stick to the plan like robots.

Good luck, it will end at some point.
posted by geoff. at 10:29 AM on October 15, 2017

Also, if you call a meeting ASAP to say the project has xyz flaws but I have abc suggestions, you’ll be the hero. And you’ll feel better because you won’t be shouldering the burden of failure alone.

I strongly disagree, you should have a standing weekly meeting outlining risks. Being alarmist will bring about questions of why it wasn’t brought up sooner. You will also be micromanaged by upper management which in my experience helps nothing. Look how your organization handles these projects.
posted by geoff. at 10:32 AM on October 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

The project is completely messed up and it is largely my fault

This is, when you boil it down, one of the most normal & human things ever. Shit went wrong, it's your fault, and you don't know how to fix it on your own. It's eating at you. Aw, OP! I feel for you.

When stuff like this happens, some want to blame others (which you haven't), some want to run and hide (which you are now considering). It's hard to acknowledge it (but you have!) and it's even harder to get the help you need to battle it (but this soon won't be hard as it feels now, I promise).

If this challenge seems impossible, it's because you're facing it with less-than-your-best self. You are unslept & self-doubting & panicked & depressed.

Your #1 job right now is not ruminating on how to tackle the problem.
Your #1 job right now is re-building yourself into the strong human who can tackle the problem.

It won't mean the situation is any less shitty. But YOU will be stronger. More able to dive in and deal; more able to accept what can't be undone; more able to make the best decisions you possibly can and let go of the rest.

Do 3 things right now.
1: Write to (a) friend(s) and make a plan to meet 3-5x this week for 30-45 minutes of cardio. Spin class, jog, swim, whatever. Enough to get winded & get your heart pumping, hard. This will transform you psychologically, and help you get the sleep that you need.

2: Sign up for therapy ( is a fast/easy/digital version, you can message + do phone/video calls).

3: Write to someone in your industry and ask to discuss this over coffee this week. If approaching your boss seems too daunting at this moment, try for a respected peer or mentor. Discussing the situation out loud with another human who "gets it" will take away some of the power of this thing. Ask for advice. Make a little plan for one small step you could take to move forward.

My heart goes out to you. And also: you got this. Take good care of yourself. The rest will come!
posted by red_rabbit at 11:37 AM on October 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Can you privately hire a personal assistant with relevant knowledge and get them to help you slog ahead? Make them sign NDAs out the wazoo and basically pay them for the emotional labour of cheerleading and project managing you along til the project is done. Use your best judgement in how to communicate with them so you don't breach your company's disclosure and confidentiality rules either.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 12:56 PM on October 15, 2017

Oh man, I think I asked a similar question anonymously in some ancient era. So I have some sense of the mental pain, panic, etc., that you describe.

I think your expectations for yourself are unrealistic. You cannot foresee the future or control all the elements of project success. You cannot be infallible and make no mistakes. They're paying you to give it your best, and that's what you're doing. You have to find peace with your conscience on this.

One thing that helped me get through the two times I went through this was (wait for it...) therapy. A therapist helped me sort out what was unreasonable self-blame and shame, negotiate a settlement with my overactive sense of personal responsibility (e.g., I felt like I hadn't worked hard enough, so she got me to clarify that working two Saturdays would catch me up to my unreasonably high work-hour expectations) so that I was able to feel like I'd done my best and turn toward solutions that involved other people, think through how could I get help from others, and so forth.

After that, it's pretty much all about damage control, primarily via communication. E.g., alert people to the risks and slow progress and challenges. I agree with the advice to frame things like -- These Things are The Problem / I Am Working to Find a Solution. You can't control everything. But create mechanisms for transparency (like a running list of challenges or a progress bar or something) to keep the challenges / barriers / slow pace / your previous warnings / etc. in front of all parties so that they cannot say they were not warned, and so that the problems feel like the background context and their interactions with you feel like efforts to find a solution.

There is also definitely a damage-control challenge here around how you save face and protect yourself while helping your client and or upper management do so as well. I'm sure I don't have to say that after you've been in the business twenty years, but just, don't let this situation leave you feeling so cornered that you forget how much it's about relationships, politics, and perception.

To the extent you can, I'd try to switch your effort away from running in place or whatever, toward getting this situation to a place that feels manageable to you. I know it can be really hard to get your arms around a project that feels this messed up. The suggestion to meet with someone in the industry to get advice is a good one.

I learned a lot the two times I felt the way you describe. Getting through it (and one was legitimately a complete failure) did a lot for my self confidence -- in one case because the project was completed (after extending the timeline a lot), and in one case because I learned how to not beat myself up (along with a bunch of professional lessons).

Anyway, good luck. I'm sorry this feels this way. Hang in there.
posted by salvia at 1:55 PM on October 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

Also, it's only 6 months. If I just drag myself through this, I will still be alive in 6 months and can go back to the aspects of the job I actually like. Then I could work another few years and be in a good financial position.

There's your answer. Your personal #1 goal is to figure out how to get yourself through to the end and then things will be much, much better. (Maybe not great but so much better than they are now)
When we get into trouble, the first, fastest, strongest reaction is fight, flight or freeze. (Quitting now counts as flight). The trick is to step back, calm the panic and get your logical brain engaged. Lots of logical advice above. I would start with what helps you calm down and get perspective - exercise, therapy, talking to a friend or mentor and then go from there.
posted by metahawk at 7:09 PM on October 15, 2017

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