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The Great Resignation And Conscious Quitting With Sara McElroy

The great resignation is always bound to happen. The pandemic just accelerated it. People, especially women, are not happy with their careers. With a combination of toxic workspaces, housework, and burnout, it just isn’t easy being a woman in the workforce. Now is the time for women to truly find their purpose and what they want in life. Take a leap of faith and go out and try something different. If you stay stuck on a job you despise, you are never going to live a happy and healthy life.

Join J.R. Lowry as he talks to the Founder of Raze to Rise, Sara McElroy, about the great resignation and conscious quitting. Discover Sara’s career journey and know that it wasn’t a linear path. There was a lot of uncertainty and struggles, but it was all worth it in the end. Learn why women are more likely to quit than men. Understand why you should be conscious about your decision to quit and how you can prepare for the next step in your journey. Start making bold career choices today!

Check out the full series of "Career Sessions, Career Lessons" podcasts.

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The Great Resignation And Conscious Quitting With Sara McElroy

On Her Mission To Uncover How Women Make Bold Career Moves

In this episode, my guest is Sara McElroy, former Chief Marketing Officer turned journalist, who was on a mission to uncover how women make bold career moves. She is the Founder of Raze To Rise, which is amplifying the powerful voices of women from the Great Resignation. Sara started her career as a journalist for a local paper in Gillette, Wyoming. She then moved into public relations and marketing, and was involved with brands such as Friskies cat food, Red Bull, Cold Stone Creamery, and Applebee's among others. 

She also did a stint as a press assistant for Senator Mike Enzi of Wyoming, and she was a marketing specialist for the Prince George's County Maryland Parks and Recreation Department. She then spent several years working for the IHG Hotel chain and working on a PE-backed wellness concept before launching into her current work. Sara earned her Bachelor's degree in Journalism and Mass Communication from Arizona State University and her MBA from Georgia Tech. She also did some coursework at USC and Johns Hopkins. She lives in Boca Raton, Florida. Sara, welcome. Thanks for being on the show.

Thank you J.R. It's great to be here.

It’s great to get a chance to meet you and hear about the work you're doing. Tell the audience about Raze to Rise.

Raze to Rise is a journalism project and movement amplifying the powerful voices and stories of women from the great resignation across diverse ages, walks of life, industries, and career functions. The idea is to capture what women are experiencing behind all of the statistics that we see splashed across the internet all the time. I was a Journalism major. For me, as I'm seeing all these numbers and having my own personal experience with the Great Resignation, not once but twice, it was like, “These are stories.” Every data point is a story, and I wanted to find out what other women were experiencing.

You mentioned you speak from a position of personal experience, not once but twice, having hit overload and dramatically affecting your health. Describe what you were doing before that time and what led to that pivotal moment of burnout for you.

My first Great Resignation class of 2021 came in April of that year. I was a chief marketing officer at the time of a small company, but private equity-backed and scaling nationally. There was a lot of pressure and I was proud. It was the perfect on-paper job that I had always wanted and felt that I needed to prove myself.

I am the youngest member of the executive team. I'm treated as a kid sister, sometimes even worse than that, if I'm really honest. It was like I need to show them that I deserve to have a seat at the table there too. I was hired for a reason. A recruiter from an executive search firm came to find me for a reason. I have all that pressure to outperform at work. I'm also juggling an Executive MBA program at the same time. To keep all of the plates spinning, I am at times clocking up to twenty hours of work per day between the job and the school program.

It was one of those things where I thought I had to hold on through graduation. I got the job in July. The graduation was in December and I was thinking, “I can do this. It's five months. It's going to be pretty terrible for a while, but it's going to be okay.” My body was telling me that it wasn't. I had an episode of throwing up blood about a month before I started that job. That was borne out of working on the COVID response team for a global hospitality company.

They furloughed seven of the team members. My boss and I were the only two who were still on and working during that time. It was one of those things where you're grateful to have the job and the work, but I'm like, "Everybody else is getting furloughed. I'm the one person who's in the MBA program right now with the extra hours. I don't know how I'm going to do all this." That was when it started building and it continued as I got into that new culture.

In January 2022, I had a second episode. I had already graduated at that time, but the damage was done as far as my stress levels being high. Finally, in April 2021, I had shingles that hit. That was my wake-up call moment of like, “No more. This is unsustainable.” I was sitting in a doctor's office and I was diagnosed. I was overjoyed when the doctor told me I was going to have ten days off from work for shingles recovery. I was like, “This is so amazing that I'm going to be able to hit the pause button, and nobody at work can say anything about it.”

Because I'm the kid sister, I don't want to have to tell anybody I'm struggling that much. I don't want to have to raise the white flag. It's a socially acceptable reason for me to slow down. I looked back on that very lost and confused version of me. I have so much compassion for her and I'm also proud of her because that was like, "Sara, this is not working. You have to do something different.” That's when I decided to hit the life reset button completely.

I found a new job. I moved down to Florida. I'm close to the beach down here. I even went to Peru and did a wellness retreat. I explored holistic healing modalities, anything. I was desperate to feel better. Down here, I started cutting back on hours and being better about self-care. Ultimately, I found that my burnout wasn't completely healing for other reasons that I'm sure we'll talk about here. It's been a heck of a journey for sure.

You switched gears and you started focusing on talking to other women who have hit this point of burnout. What do you think it is over the last few years that has led so many people to rethink where work fits in their lives?

It was not after that CMO role. It was the job after that which was the genesis of this project because I came down into an organization that had a toxic misogynistic culture. In my mind, burnout was overworking. Burnout was not culturally related. Even though I am working normal hours, I have better boundaries than ever, I'm doing yoga and meditation, and all of the things, it's not completely healing and I can't figure out why. I was dealing with a situation of sexually harassing comments that were not addressed for months.

Finally, when they did an investigation in January, even though a member from HR had heard one of the comments in October, and I had to fight for an investigation, it was such a performative farce of an exercise, at least in my opinion. There was nothing new coming out of it. I got back the readout. The woman put an hour on my calendar for the readout of the investigation findings. She read back to me what had been run through legal ten bullet points because it was a lot of boilerplate.

We have a professional workplace that ensures respect for everyone, an open-door policy, this needs to be confidential, and stuff like that. That was a big chunk of four minutes. It's like, “This is just to get you all off my back. With the OC, what I came to find is because they did an investigation, it doesn't matter that there were real outcomes or true accountability. It doesn't matter how long it takes, as long as they do an investigation and they say that they've done it, that's it. The OC was like, “There's nothing to be done with this.”

That's what inspired me to talk to women because it was like, “I cannot be the only woman,” knowing there are millions of us right now as part of the Great Resignation, men as well, but women too. Women are leading the Great Resignation. I can't be the only woman experiencing these things, getting mired in these spin cycles of burnout and toxic cultures and things like that. I was like, “I'm going to talk to women.”

Studies have come out since then. That was the end of January. We now know from a Deloitte survey in April, they did a survey of 5,000 women around the globe, 50% of women intend to quit their jobs in the next two years. On a five-year horizon, that number skyrockets to 90%. Only 10% of women plan to be with their current employer in five years.

CSCL 38 | Great Resignation

Great Resignation: 50% of women intend to quit their jobs in just the next two years. But on a five-year horizon, that number skyrockets to 90%.

 

The Women in the Workplace Report from McKinsey and Lean In that just came out a couple of weeks ago has found that women leaders are quitting at the highest rate they've ever recorded at 10.5%. To put it at scale, they said, “For every female director being promoted into senior ranks, director and above, there are two walking out the door.” The Lean In CEO says, "This is disastrous because we're going to have a pipeline problem now. We know that there's no equal representation in leadership. If two are walking out for everyone promoted, this is a recipe for disaster.”

Did the Deloitte study happen to measure men's likelihood of moving jobs in 2 years or 5 years?

No.

People are changing jobs more regularly, in general, and I wonder how the data would compare across genders.

It was specifically for women. It seems though and we can extrapolate out that McKinsey did another study in July of 13,000 workers, both women and men, and that came out to 40% of individuals intending to quit their jobs. In the near term, it was in the next 3 to 6 months. My guess is that it is probably a bit lower because the Women in the Workplace Report found that the gap between women leaders walking out and men is the biggest that it's ever been. My guess is it probably does tie back if you were to do that study just for men too. It would be fascinating. You're right. It's an unprecedented time of re-evaluating, re-prioritizing, and right-sizing careers in our lives.

In the Washington Post, they did profiles of eight people from the Great Resignation. I opened the article hoping that it was a quantitative research survey because the question that I keep wondering in all this is, where are all these people going? The vast majority of people can't just up and walk away from the workforce. They need an income. Are they going to something else? Are they just taking time out? What are they going back to? That's the piece that to me still isn't very clear about this whole thing.

I totally agree that I've not seen good aggregate data on that as well. My guess is we'll start to see that probably next year in a look back in a retrospective, but from my data points and the women that I've interviewed, I've actually not even interviewed a woman who has completely stepped out of the workforce at all. They're either doing their own thing, and it could be even that some women, the ones who are spending more time devoted to childcare, are still doing a little bit of work along with the care of their kids. They're either doing that or they are switching corporate roles.

I probably have an equal breakdown of women who are doing their own gigs and women who are switching corporate roles. It's an interesting misconception that when you hear Great Resignation, the way it's portrayed is that people are completely stepping out of the workforce. I have not found that to be the case with the women I am speaking to. However, I hear what you're saying because some people did pause and we do know that the numbers don't matter. There were people out of the workforce for a period of time.

With women at one point, back in February 2022, there were still a million women out of the workforce. The hypotheses around that were more around childcare and the lack of having those safety nets that we had pre-pandemic. Those had still not come back completely. It was more in line with that because the Women in the Workplace Report from 2021 found that 1 in 3 working mothers was considering either downshifting or leaving the workforce entirely.

You've talked about a few of the challenges. Sexual harassment, sadly, has been around for a long time. Toxic work cultures and misogynism have been around for a long time. The daycare thing is certainly one thing that you hear an awful lot about. The pre-pandemic daycare system has not come back. People are struggling with daycare options. From your interviews, what are the other things that you hear from women about the particular challenges that they've faced in being placed and happy in the work?

It's all of these things. What's so interesting is it has been this perfect storm of a confluence of factors that have woven into this crazy upending of the workforce that we're seeing. It is very much burnout. From that Deloitte study, over 50% of those women were saying that they were experiencing some level of burnout, and 40% of women said that their mental health was either poor or very poor. That's part of the situation.

CSCL 38 | Great Resignation

Great Resignation: Women are leaving their jobs because of this perfect storm of factors that have woven into this crazy upending. You have a mix of burnout, toxic work culture, and housework.

 

Definitely, the toxic cultures came to bear in the Women in the Workplace Report that came out a couple of weeks ago, where women are talking about microaggressions, discrimination, and being passed over for promotions. It's even office housework. I'm the woman and I'm expected to order the lunches. The same old that we knew was happening pre-pandemic, but it didn't grind our gears as much as it does now.

Everybody had this elevated collective level of stress. We lose our safety nets. We're still expected to show up and perform the way we always have, if not more, at times with some organizations, and rallying the troops to get the company through the pandemic. You also have all the extra slack that women are picking up at home. That is too much for everybody to do.

You've talked to 125 women or probably more by this point. Some of whom you describe are making bold career moves, and you've tried to get underneath that. What have you learned so far?

The way it has expanded is it started out as the Great Resignation and Great Resignationers. I've also ended up talking to women who made bold moves in years prior. What I came to realize is that this has been bubbling under the surface for a long time, but the pandemic and these conditions brought a light. The bright light of crisis shows the frailties or the cracks and fissures in our systems.

These things have been bothering people for a period of time, but we didn't have that same opportunity to pause collectively and stop on the hamster wheel. It’s almost like a short-circuiting of our systems that happened during COVID lockdowns. Everybody's got to change and figure out how to work from home or do things differently, etc.

It became that we started looking at people around us not knowing if our family and friends are going to make it through. If you think back, it's a weird thing to say still, but we forget. That's the way it was in March and April. We were not sure what was going to happen. You look at it from that standpoint. We start to have this awakening and realization that life is super short. Maybe some of these work rules that we've been taught like I have to go into an office five days a week are a little more arbitrary than I thought.

That questioning that we're able to do as we start looking outward then becomes an internal reflection of those same questions. It’s like, “Is this making me happy? Is this how I want to spend my time?” I think it's the right sizing of work, at least with the women that I've talked with because they still want to work. It's just they want to not have their career have to be the epicenter of their lives, which was the expectation where it was like a career here, and then you fit everything else in and around it.

Also, make sure it's compartmentalized neatly because we don't need to know all the things we have to do as a mom and stuff. We show up as our professional selves and check our personal baggage at the door. It's been such a fascinating thing to see all of these women coming to this realization of like, "I don't want a career in the center anymore. I want me, my life, my family, what matters to me, and my values. I want that at the center. Career can be over here. It's an important part. If it's a hub and spokes kind of thing, this spoke is coming off of it, but it's not going to be the center of my universe anymore.”

Do you feel like the things that you're learning from your conversations with women are also applicable to men?

I do. What I think is that there are societal expectations and things that women have been taught from a conditioning perspective that have made it more difficult for them in this situation. For example, women are bearing more of the responsibilities of caretaking at home and housework, which that's what the 2020 Women in the Workplace Report found. Women were spending on average an additional three hours per day. It's about twenty hours per week in school and caregiving duties.

The study the next year found that number held true, and they were three times more likely than men in the household to be doing that extra work. With all of those extra expectations, they do create a bigger pressure cooker. I absolutely think that men are having the same awakening too as far as, “Do I just want to be a cog in the economic wheel or is there more for me? What are my values and priorities?”

Do you just want to be a cog in the economic wheel, or is there more for you? Find what your values and priorities are. Click To Tweet

You mentioned that you have to be in the office five days a week. What are some of the other things that you think are untruths or fallacies about how we generally believed we should approach our careers?

If we look at the way that we were taught to approach our careers, to begin with, the conventional playbook is to find the one thing when you're in your teens that you're going to do for the next 40 years and commit to it. For the most part, it should be anchored in security, stability, climbing the ladder, chasing fancier titles, and bigger paychecks. That was the conventional playbook for careers.

If we think about it, I did a podcast for this awesome woman who has created a podcast for young people and their families to listen to together. It's all the things that she wishes as an immigrant growing up here in the States that she had learned as she was a kid, but she didn't learn until she was an adult. She's like, “Let's do this as the 1st Mentor Podcast and share this with kids or young people and their families so they can learn these things now.”

It was so crazy to think that before our prefrontal cortex is fully developed, which is where we are getting executive function, behavior, and personality, we would ever be able to figure out what we want to do with our lives. I think we set ourselves up for failure by not allowing careers to be more of a journey, messy and circular at times. With this idea of a linear career path and climbing the ladder, we're finding that it's not the right fit for everyone. For some people, that works, but the fact that we prescribed that to all kids, at least when I was in high school. They write on a prescription pad, "Sara, here's the roadmap to a happy life." It's like, "No."

You're setting yourself up for failure by not allowing your career to be more of a journey and less like a linear path. Click To Tweet

That's what we're starting to see as far as career agility, and being able to take more of your skills and expertise in industries, and parlay it into other types of jobs and portfolio careers, where you're doing a lot of different things or even gig economy type of work. To me, it's refreshing because if I think back to the pressure that I felt, it wasn't necessarily coming from one person. It was from a lot of different messages. To figure out the one thing that young is a lot. That expectation doesn't even make sense when we look at it from a purely biological neuroscientific perspective.

That model has been dying for a long time. Workers of the '50s started their careers and worked for 1 or 2 companies in their whole careers. In my generation, we probably have 5 or 7 jobs over the course of our careers. Now, you see all sorts of things. As you say, it's the gig economy. It's people going into business for themselves. It's people going in and out of the workforce. To me, it's fascinating watching this play out. At the same time, it's still operating on the fringes in terms of broad numbers.

The reality is that most companies are still out there looking for somebody who they think was going to come and work for them for as long as they want that person to work for them. That to me feels like we’re the rubbish right now. As I said, it's interesting watching it play out and companies are having to adapt.

It's one of those things of the old way. If we think about it, once those as rare as a unicorn these days evaporated, the incentive for us to dedicate our careers to a single employer or two went away along with it. If we think about the model of the long-term stint in these jobs, who does that benefit most? It benefits the company the most. I'll caveat this by saying that for some people, you may love that and you may have awesome opportunities in a place. You may be growing and ten years in a job is awesome for you.

That's fantastic, but at least from the women I've been talking to, they're hitting a point of, "This doesn't fit anymore. I'm expanding more. I'm growing more. I know that I need different. This doesn't work for me anymore." When you have people having this common experience of expanding beyond the bounds of their employer, you're absolutely right, employers are going to have to learn and figure it out. That is going to be the name of the game.

As we watch more people do it, seeds become planted and more people are following suit. That's why I think this is Sara's hypothesis, but we saw the Great Resignation was led on the front by Gen-Z’ers and Millennials, but then we saw that more Gen-X’ers and Baby Boomers were coming into the fold as time went on. I completely agree that companies see that this is changing.

McKinsey said in a study they did that came out in July, "A structural change to the workforce is not an episodic blip." The co-author, Bonnie Dowling said, "We are never going back to the way things were in 2019 work-wise." I know that they want to put the binders back on like, "Let's get back in the box," because it worked well for them, but this burgeoning grassroots movement around having more control and flexibility in how and when we work and all of those things are changing the game.

CSCL 38 | Great Resignation

Great Resignation: People are never going back to the way things were in 2019 workwise. Having more control and flexibility in your work is really changing the game.

 

Let's talk a little bit about people who are quitting and who aren't. There's a lot of buzz in the media about this idea of quiet quitting. In some ways, it's a new thing. If you look back at Gallup data, it has been saying for decades that only 30% of employees in the United States are engaged at work. I would argue that quiet quitting has been going on for a long time. What do you think?

I completely agree. I also had come across a funny post that the original quiet quitter was Ron Livingston from Office Space. If we were honest, that was quiet quitting. It was almost even like loud quiet quitting as bold as he was with it. It's not a new thing. Disengagement has been an issue for a long period of time. What is interesting too is that quiet quitting is a spectrum. It has been 100% right because with any buzzy trend or media term like this, there is no specific definition that says exactly what it is.

For some people, quiet quitting means, “I'm putting into place regular boundaries around my work.” You'll read the anecdotes in the media and that's what people are saying. On the other side, it is more of that extreme checking out. For me, on this side, if you're setting boundaries that you've needed to set for a long time, good for you. You do that and take care of yourself.

As somebody who has been through health crazies and realized that it's not worth it, then good for you. If you're on this side of the spectrum and you're going to continue showing up to a job every single day that is breaking you down and wearing you down with increasing force, to me, that's not the solution. That's where I'm taking this work from Raze to Rise. It's becoming a book and more of a guide to conscious quitting, which is being very intentional about walking away from work, but knowing that is in your career tool belt when you need to use it.

The fascinating thing that came through in my interviews with women is that the red thread woven through all of them was that women were saying they knew. They knew they needed to quit and walk away. I was so fascinated because this goes against everything we talked about as far as logic, rationality, and reason in establishing our careers, security, stability, and all those things that we had been taught, this conventional wisdom.

Women are making these major decisions on more of a gut instinct. Even if they did spreadsheets to build budgets, crunch numbers, pros-cons lists, or talk to people to get their opinions, those were secondary exercises and more of mental gymnastics that were not as important as they just know it. That was fascinating to me. If we know so much that we're quiet quitting on the far end of the spectrum, why would we want to keep showing up day after day spending our fresh time and energy at a job we've quiet quit that badly. To me, it's an opportunity cost question of, “What could we be doing if we chose ourselves and walked away even though it's hard to do?

It is a sad state of affairs. Recognizing that a lot of people don't have the financial freedom to walk away. They can't afford even a week without work. Other things factor into play, but it's a sad thing to think that you have people out there who are miserable at work and still showing up every day and grinding their way through it.

We know the toll of that kind of stress. You're living in a way that you're so unhappy and experiencing, especially with toxic work cultures. The Surgeon General came out with guidelines around toxic cultures and the impact it has on our mental and physical health. That's a choice that is robbing you potentially of good healthy years later on down the line.

The thing that fascinated me too is when I put out my call for stories for Raze to Rise, I had an equal or nearly equal number of women reach out to me during that time who have not quit their jobs already. They were stuck and curious about this movement in the conversation and wanted to share their career struggles. These were women who hadn't quit yet but felt stuck. These were women who didn't even feel like they could quit a corporate job to find another corporate job. I'm talking about there is no even gap between what women were running up against. I could see them talking and telling me the reasons.

To your point, I 1,000% agree. There are times in our lives and our careers when circumstances are gravity. Money gravity is very real. This is no encouragement to be whimsical about it and to not care for those responsibilities, and be fiscally responsible at all, but watching brilliant women who I know could get a job somewhere the next day. They tell me all the reasons that they couldn't and they weren't even financially related.

It's like there's something to this that we're missing if we are so unhappy and we're going to stay and we don't think we can make that leap, and it doesn't have anything to do with we're afraid we won't be able to pay the bills next month. This is an erosion of female potential that is happening when we're quiet quitting and staying disengaged somewhere.

There is an erosion of female potential that is happening when women just quiet quit and stay disengaged. Click To Tweet

For the people who do take that leap, what have you learned from them in terms of the process up to the point of quitting, the process of quitting, and what happens after quitting and all of that?

It's been so fascinating because what I started to see as I talked to people is that we all go through a very similar journey. It's a bit like Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey. For the purpose of Raze to Rise, I call it The Heroine’s Journey. I did a TV interview for a national TV show called The List. We talked about it from the standpoint of women and men because we all go through these stages. That's what the producer was saying. He and other people in his office are having these conversations.

These are universal stages that we go through. The first is that rumbling. This is where we're starting to see the misalignment and starting to get little signs that maybe we're not in the right place than can manifest physically for sure. That's where we're starting to think like, “I think this may not be where I'm going to be able to stay. This might be a situation that I'm going to have to change.”

The second step is knowing. That is where we do come to that realization of, "This isn't going to work out anymore." You can have a lot of little rumbling signs, but then you do come to this point of knowing. What happens though is that we can know and feel like we don't have the capabilities, resources, etc. to move into the third stage, which is the decision.

What we can see is that people will sometimes end up bouncing around in these stages on the front end of this journey. I go from knowing and then I bounce back to rumbling because I think I can fix this or I'm not ready to look at that, etc. You end up caught almost in this bit of purgatory even where you can get to a decision and say, "I'm not going to leave. I can't." You bounce around. What we start to see from a physical standpoint is that has come through loud and clear with burnout being as high as it is during the pandemic. When something isn't good for us, our bodies and even our emotions know when things are not working.

The first three steps are rumbling, knowing the decision, and then we have action, which is the definitive quitting of the job. The important thing to know is between decision and action, what you're doing if you're consciously quitting and not knee-jerk quitting, which we need to be careful of. There have been various surveys that have found anywhere between 20% and 70% of Great Resignations regret their move to the other side.

There is a hypothesis from her research that it's not so much born out of quitting itself was the wrong thing, but more that we hit a breaking point and we're making decisions not to go to the thing that is next in our careers that's aligned with what we want work-style wise and culture from a values perspective. The type of work that people were seeing big dollar signs as other people were switching jobs and getting a bunch of money and stuff like that.

I believe that when we don't make conscious decisions about where we're going next, we are more likely to have that caveat emptor on the other side. It’s buyer’s beware and buyer's remorse. We have to be thoughtful about planning and what that's going to look like. We have to think about timing, our exit strategy, our next move, how we're going to tie loose ends, leave in a graceful way, and all of those things. Action is putting it into play and quitting the job.

CSCL 38 | Great Resignation

Great Resignation: When you don't make conscious decisions about where you're going next, you're more likely to regret your decisions. You have to be really thoughtful about planning what your career is going to look like.

 

You then have the after-effects. This is a thing that I think also comes into play with the regret. With this linear idea of careers and things like that, we have not shown ourselves or taught ourselves a model in which you may go to the next place that can get you closer to ultimately where you want to be. If you're being a conscious architect of your career and you're making intentional decisions around those things I talked about like lifestyle, values, type of work, etc., even if you're doing those things, you can end up in a job that isn't good for you.

I'm a perfect example of that. I went from one organization to another. I could sit there and say, “I wish I hadn't moved to Florida. I wish I hadn't made that move,” but I don't regret it. What we have to remember is we take that step. We can't control the fallout, and the aftereffects can be good, bad or ugly. Planning and knowing that there will be after-effects is an important point of recognition before we go on this quitting journey.

The final stage is assimilation. That's where we're on the other side. The dust is settling. We can look out and up from the rubble, and we can see what has come from the decision. Even if we don't like where we've landed, it's like, “I've built some skills and some resiliency. I know myself better in what I want. I can start to figure out that next step even better because I have more data collected as far as what I like and what I don't like, etc.”

It's important to look at it like a journey, as with any big thing in life. Anytime you make a major life decision, it's a gamble from a risk standpoint. We can do only so much to mitigate the risk and that's okay. I deeply believe from these conversations that if we're following our knowledge and we're being conscious architects of our careers, even if it's a messy, non-linear path, we will be moving in the direction of greater fulfilment.

Let's talk about the other side, the people who don't quit. Why do so many people stay at jobs that they don't like, financial reasons aside?

The number one most ruthless constraint is financial reasons. You absolutely don't want to ever discount that. It's important to know that for many people, that is number one. If you pull that out, I found essentially three categories of roadblocks that can keep us stuck. The first is fear. Fear is very cunning because we can take fear in one avenue and see it pop up in another.

It's like a game of Whack-A-Mole because it could be that maybe I did have financial concerns about making the leap, but I was able to crunch numbers and I feel good either with the new salary and the comp package at the new job. I have enough of a cushion to start up my business or whatever it is so I contain the fear there, but it could also pop up as imposter syndrome, for example. Fear is a biological response to keep us safe and to keep us from not having a paycheck and being able to feed ourselves. It's a survival tool. It's very real, but it's fascinating that it can show up in many different iterations.

The second is around conditioning and societal expectations and what others will think we can be worried about, especially for women. For example, a lot of the female conditioning or good girl conditioning is around being obedient, rule-following, taking care of others first, and putting your needs last. Those older perspectives are not so overt these days, but even those covert messages have long-tail undercurrents that we're still managing.

We can get in our heads about, “My family wouldn't want me to leave this job I've worked on to build everything here. My family is proud and I don't want to let them down.” It could also be, “What will my team do without me? They need me. I can't leave them behind.” It's the conditioning and the shoulds. All of it makes us feel like we can't take the leap that we want to take, and then the third category is the limitations of our biology. Our bodies and our brain have cognitive limitations like biases and fallacies that could keep us stuck.

It could be some cost fallacy, “I've already got the degree in nursing. It would be stupid of me to quit nursing and do something else because then I lose all of that.” It can be choice overload, for example. It’s that cognitive fallacy that's like, "There are too many choices. I'm just not even going to do it. It's paralyzing me so I'm going to go back into rumbling for a while." It's also our bodies when we're in stressful situations.

I was talking to a doctor who experienced this herself. She specializes in workplace stress and experienced a situation herself in which the pressure rises or the stress rises. Our bodies adapt because they're brilliantly designed to help us survive stressful situations so we can stay in a stressful situation, and not even realize that our baseline level of stress has gotten so high. Until we hit that real breaking point like me and the shingles thing, we can still think we're managing.

She gave the example of the increase in blood pressure that can happen from stressful situations. She said, “That's why in the medical field, heart disease and heart attacks have a moniker of a silent killer because you don't know how much your blood pressure has risen until it hits a bad level or a critical point. Of course, if you go to the doctor, you can find out. If our body is trying to adapt to keep us safe in these stressful situations, it can also hold us back because if our body was freaking out a lot sooner, we may have more awareness quickly that we need to leave.

You describe Raze to Rise as a movement. It sounds like you're working on a book. Where else do you see this movement going? What are your plans for the future?

As I had these conversations with women, it became so clear that the toolkit is missing in this space. When it comes to quitting, for the most part, talking openly about quitting a job can be seen as uncouth or taboo for those outside of the TikTok generation. It's amazing to me that during the pandemic, we've now seen people live quitting on TikTok, which is just bananas. For a lot of women, that permission hasn't been there.

For example, I had an awesome conversation with two women. Both of them are still working in their 60s and 70s, and they feel the same thing too. Even close to retirement, they're sick of the toxic cultures and feeling joyless because one woman was talking about workplaces and jobs that break our spirits. This is a trans-generational thing even that is happening here with women in their twenties. I talked to women in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and even 70s now.

It became abundantly clear that a toolkit is needed. With the book, there's a toolkit I'm working on that will be an online toolkit. That's the starting point because it became like this is what I wanted and needed when I was feeling so empty and alone, and being like, “I did all the things. I checked all the boxes. I got a C-level job. Why am I so miserable?” I want to help other people not to feel like that or if you are, know that you're not alone. You're absolutely not alone.

Let's go back and talk a little bit about your background. Clearly, it didn't sit in your childhood years envisioning that you were going to become the conscious quitting guru. What did you foresee yourself doing when you were coming through your teenage years in college at Arizona State and maybe in the early years after?

When I was very young, there were many young women around that time that wanted to be marine biologists. I thought that would happen. I had a big deadline the other day. I was like, “I'm going to go to the nature center nearby.” It’s right by the beach. It's a nature center with all these fish. I had this moment when I was there when I was like, “I’m not a marine biologist, but I now live within seven minutes of a free aquarium marine place where they rehab turtles and stuff like that. That's pretty cool. We're checking off that childhood dream for Sara.”

The other thing too is that I love books. That's the thing that's funny too with the book here is that I love to read. I love stories. Where that went for me then in my teens was journalism. There was one point in time when I wanted to be a TV journalist. My aunt was my role model from a career standpoint growing up. She talked me out of it for a number of reasons. It's a hard job to do. Her example was, "Sara, if somebody's child has just been killed and you have to go knock on the mother's door and put a microphone in her face, would you want to do that?” That sounds terrible.

I decided not to go that route, but I was enjoying print journalism. I worked for a little daily newspaper when I was in high school in Northeast Wyoming, the Gillette News Record. They were great for $5.15 an hour minimum wage. I got to lay out pages, but they also let me do byline stories as a writer, not an intern. I get to do community and feature stories.

That's what I went to school for. I went to the University of Southern California first to be a print journalist and then switched to PR because I think that might be a little bit more of the direction I want to go. I also love marketing a lot. I then ultimately transferred to Arizona State. I still got a Journalism degree but wound up doing a lot of PR. It has now come full circle though because what goes back on after quitting that job was the journalism hat.

When you look back now, having been through this pivotal life event that you've described, and you think back to your first years out of college, were there signs that you were heading down a bad path for yourself? Do you look back and still say, “Those were happy years. It just went wrong later."

My first paying job out of college was with Cold Stone Creamery Ice Cream. I'd been an intern for them in Arizona in the PR and marketing department, which was the greatest internship on the planet because of not only free ice cream every day, but they were so good to me. They saw that I was hungry and curious. For example, the VP of Marketing couldn't do a sponsored segment with Jimmy Kimmel's paid skit for product integration. It was out in LA. It was going to be filmed and it came through last minute and she couldn't go. They sent me and I went.

The guys on the set asked me how long I'd been with Cold Stone. I was like, “About two years.” I wasn't telling them that I was even still an intern at the time, but it was so amazing that they gave me that opportunity. I look back so fondly on those experiences. I think it's a cool thing when we as adults can look at those people coming up through the ranks and can see what they're passionate about and give them great opportunities. That is the most amazing thing that we can do in giving it back.

CSCL 38 | Great Resignation

Great Resignation: Look at the people coming up through the ranks, see what they're passionate about, and give them great opportunities. That is one way you can give back as an adult.

 

I don't see it then so much, but where I see it is more so, I'm going to be going wrong with my overachieving and overworking from high school if I am honest. I was valedictorian in everything. My parents cleaned out their storage when they retired a few years back. I found my high school planners. We are talking about notes in the tiniest little corners of the pages that filled the page up completely. It's not like they were notes for class. It was all the things I needed to do because I felt like I needed to do all the things.

It has come full circle to have to raise a mirror to Sara and say, “This isn't only about being a person who's passionate about life and wants to have an impact. This is deeper,” and to have to look at that and be like, “Overworking is coming from a place of identity, worth, shame, and all of these things that I'd been running from for years if I'm honest.

A lot of people go through that. You've mentioned rumbling and shame. I hear Brené Brown underneath there. You're doing a different thing right now than what you were doing in the years leading up to your double resignation. What are the things that you still draw on from those earlier years other than the journalism background that is helping you in what you're trying to do right now?

I love that question so much because it was nine months ago that I left. In those months I have had so many moments of like, “That random thing that I did in my career is coming in so handy now.” I'll give you an example. I worked for a global hospitality company. I was in marketing. I was on a brand experience team, but the program that I was putting together was a service training program so that we could teach frontline colleagues how to bring the brand to life. It was essentially creating branded service behaviors, and then teaching them through video training how to bring them to life.

I ended up doing these shoots going on set at hotels in Nashville and Charleston for ten days. I filmed in Scotland. I filmed in London. I was doing these big productions and coming to have an awareness of things in the video production space that I never would've had, and now using that for Raze to Rise. It’s those things that are so amazing. If we look back at these things that didn't necessarily make sense at the time, all of these threads can braid together to create a beautiful tapestry when we're getting to where we are meant to be and doing the work we're meant to do.

All those jobs you took that didn't make sense at the time helped you get to do the work you're meant to do. Click To Tweet

It's funny that you describe it that way. I will sometimes say to people, “Do you remember the movie Slum Dog Millionaire? It basically draws back on all of these random things that happened in his life that allowed him to be able to answer the questions.” I feel like that in my job now. These seemingly random things that I ended up doing over the year all get strung together into a tapestry that is helpful to me in doing my job.

I definitely didn't appreciate at the time that all those things would eventually come together in that way. You get a sense of self-satisfaction that all those things that you're probably thinking at the time like, “Why am I doing this,” or “This feels random.” They come together and you're like, “Now, it makes sense.”

As much as I realize, there are some hindsight biases when I say these things or when I've had those moments. To your point, it is very empowering and helps you as far as if we think about self-trust, and the ability to do these kinds of things, to move in the direction, to blaze new trails that you haven't seen other people go on or you've been afraid to do for yourself. It is an amazing thing if we are collecting data points that can point in the direction of like, “You've got this. You have what you need. You've been moving in this direction for a long time. You didn't just know it.” As much as maybe that is me telling myself a story about it, it's been brilliant. It's been incredible and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Who's influencing you besides Brené Brown? Whose work is particularly having an influence on you at the moment?

A few years ago, I downloaded on Audible Glennon Doyle's book, Untamed. It's very much in the space of women, conditioning, societal expectations, and doing what we need to do. It was not something that resonated with me a few years ago. I didn't even finish the book, honestly, but it's so amazing. I listened to it a few months right after I quit and it was like, "I actually understand this.”

That's a fascinating thing. As we grow and we start to give ourselves permission to ask better questions of ourselves related to, “Is this what I want? Is this the right thing for me? Why do I want that job? Why do I want that title or that salary?” If you dig into the motivation behind these things, we can start to see, “Was that something I picked up from somebody else or is that something that's true for me?”

If it’s me, then let's go get it. If it's not, do I want to head in that direction? Oftentimes, it's not true for you because we can be taught things or be told we should do things and there can be alignment between those. It's like, “It does make sense for me. That feels good. I'm going to do it.” However, anything that was told to us that we're blindly doing because that's the expectation, those are the things that get us off track.

For me, my blinders were fully on when I downloaded that book at first. As they started to come off and I've had this awareness of the prescribed life that I thought I wanted, I honestly think I built a bit of a house of cards. We're able to grow. We unlearn more of the things that perhaps worked for others but didn't work for us. We question and become conscious of our decisions or choices or desires. The more we do it, it's honestly like pulling a little thread on the sweater and there's not much sweater left anymore because it's a journey and an adventure. It can be very destabilizing to do this kind of thing, but it's powerful.

The way you're describing that book, sometimes you come across things that are not at the right time for you. You come back to them later and you're like, “Now, I get it.” How far are you along with the book and when's it going to be published?

A book proposal is what I just finished. We're ways away from that, but I'm thrilled at the opportunity to find the book a good home with my agent. We'll see where it goes from here. I'll definitely keep you posted.

Any final thoughts you want to share before we break?

This has been amazing. If you take anything from this conversation, there are a lot of different opinions on quitting and all of the things that are happening right now. I would say the last piece we talked about. Get to know you and what you want out of all of this. It doesn't matter what anybody else is doing or what's happening in the zeitgeist and the numbers of the Great Resignation. If you are where you're meant to be and it feels good to you, do that.

Get to know yourself and what you want. If you are where you're meant to be, and it feels good to you, do that. Click To Tweet

If you're not, do something else. That's what I think is my biggest takeaway from the interview. Whether we're women, men or however we identify gender-wise, we know what's best for us. We do. It's hard to hear it sometimes or to act on those knowings because of all of the cacophony of other people's opinions voices and things. That's what I would say.

My first two beliefs in the career stuff that I've written about are one, you have to own your career and the second one is to start by knowing yourself. As you say, there's a lot of advice around you and not all of it is helpful, even the advice you get from your family and your friends. To some degree, they're projecting their wants and value onto you. You've got to figure it out for yourself.

There are a lot of things that come from other people that are very well-intentioned. Think about that with the linear career path like climbing the ladder and chasing bigger titles and paychecks. That's coming from a well-intentioned place, but it can be unconsciously fast and absorbed. We think it's our belief, but when we get to know ourselves, that's where the magic begins. I love that it's at the heart of your work as well.

Thanks for doing the show. I appreciate it. I look forward to seeing the book when it comes out, and I'm sure you'll continue to have enriching conversations with women as you continue to do your research. I look forward to hearing and seeing more about what you're up to in the coming months ahead.

Thank you, J.R. It's been great to be here.

Thanks to you as well.

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It was great having Sara on the show. I'd like to thank her for joining me and diving into the Great Resignation, sharing her own story and those of the many others with whom she's spoken. If you're ready to take control of your career, visit PathWise.io. If you'd like more regular career insights, you can become a Pathwise member. It's free. You can also sign up on the website for the Pathwise newsletter and follow Pathwise on social media on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. Thanks. Have a great day.

 

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About Sara McElroy

CSCL 38 | Great ResignationSara McElroy is a former Chief Marketing Officer-turned-journalist who is on a mission to uncover how women make bold career moves. She is the founder of Raze to Rise, which is amplifying the powerful voices of women from the Great Resignation.

Sara started her career as a journalist for a local paper in Gillette, Wyoming. She then moved into public relations and marketing and was involved with brands such as Friskies cat food, Red Bull, Cold Stone Creamery, and Applebee’s, among others. She also did a stint as a press assistant for Senator Mike Enzi of Wyoming, and she was a marketing specialist Prince George’s County Maryland Parks and Recreation Department. She then spent several years working for the IHG hotel chain and working on a PE-backed wellness concept before launching into her current work.

Sara earned her Bachelors’ degree in Journalism and Mass Communication from Arizona State University and her MBA from Georgia Tech. She also did some coursework at USC and Johns Hopkins. She lives in Boca Raton, Florida.

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