I hate to quit. But sometimes you need to.
"There are two things economists love to talk about that will help us understand quitting. One is called “sunk cost” and the other is “opportunity cost.” “Sunk cost” is about the past — it’s the time, or money, or sweat equity that you’ve put into something, which makes it hard to abandon. “Opportunity cost” is about the future. It means that for every hour or dollar you spend on one thing, you’re giving up the opportunity to spend that hour or dollar on something else — something that might make your life better. If only you weren’t so worried about the sunk cost. If only you could quit."
- Stephen Dubner - The Upside of Quitting
Last month I walked away from my businesses, everything I had worked for in the past seven years, I sold it back. I’m done.
This wasn’t sudden. I had been planning it for nearly a year. I had been thinking about it for much longer than that. I repeatedly tried to find reasons to not quit. I hate to quit things. I’m scared of quitting things. But I had to do it.
I had to do it but… Financially it didn’t make sense. Career wise it also was arguably foolish. It put a strain on important relationships in my life. And it left me feeling like I was starting over.
So why did I do it? Great question. My therapist and I will be working through that question for a while I imagine.
I could tell you all the things I was trying to get away from, and there were plenty of those. But there will always be things in life that are difficult, and I can’t run away from them all, nor should I. What really got me to quit was what I am running towards. It is the thing I’ve been running towards for a long time now.
From Pastor to Explainer
After college I was working at a church as a Pastor. I was twenty-four, newly married. I was in charge of about a hundred or so people who didn’t quite fit into the church but still wanted to hang around and figure it out. I loved that group. I also loved, as the leader, to learn about important things in life and try to teach those things so we could somehow wholeheartedly follow God together. But as a Pastor I felt looked to as more than just someone exploring the world and explaining it to others. I felt looked to as having answers and needing to model a godly life. The problem was I knew I didn’t have answers, and I saw myself trying to be someone I couldn’t live up to. It scared me. So I quit. It was a hard decision. I decided not to lead. I was too young I told myself.
While I was leaving, a mentor at the time, the man who was taking over my job, asked me while we sat in my half-packed office, “If you could do anything and money wasn’t an option what would you do?” I didn’t have to think about the question. “I would make documentaries” I said.
In my mind, a documentarian doesn’t have to pretend to be anyone. He gets to be himself. He doesn't have to have answers. He helps people by asking questions. It was a pastoral hack. A way to help people without responsibility. A way to lead without really leading.
He hired me, right there, to make an explainer for his ministry called Skate Church. He bought a camera. I bought a computer and Final Cut Pro. I started watching tutorials online about how to use these things. I spent a few years learning by working on any video project I was entrusted with. I found I had a knack for helping people understand things visually and ultimately found success in the craft.
However, I didn’t know how to build a company. And I had no real desire to lead one. So I gave what I was working for over to some friends. Over the next seven years I built two businesses with good people who had very different visions than me.
Both of these businesses grew rapidly. It was a thrill. I worked harder than I ever had. I walked into rooms I felt I had no business being in. I learned to make decisions I felt no business making. I had to learn how to negotiate. I had to learn how to sell. I had to learn how to hire people. I had to learn how to fire people. All these things scared me. And I’m glad I learned them.
All the while the work we were doing drifted far from the kind of work I wanted to do. This irritated me. So much so that I wanted to quit. However, I soothed myself with two facts: First, I was making money and secondly I was learning business. These are two tools that I might as well seize. Strike while the iron it hot. Right? In the meantime I believed I could somehow instill my values and vision into the company.
I advocated for what I wanted in the business. But it wasn’t understood, which was weird from me, I mean I’m good at explaining things, that is what I do. But I didn't explain it well enough, or perhaps it didn't matter how well I explained it.
I got depressed. I started to fantasize about leaving the country. In fact, at one point I did leave the country, for an entire month, me and my family in a beach house off of a beaten dirt road in Costa Rica. It was a magical time. I thought I had finally gotten myself out of the business. I was ready to begin what was next. I was wrong.
The business needed me. Or so it said. I obliged to come back and jump in again.
Things never really got better. I got more depressed. At one point I began to fantasize about getting hurt. Nothing so bad that I would be in any real danger. But bad enough that I would be hospitalized and couldn’t work anymore. What a dumb fantasy. I would wake up in the middle of the night with my mind racing about things I didn’t want to care about but couldn't stop thinking about. I started asking Tristen if I was having a mental breakdown yet. I was waiting for, hoping for something dramatic to happen that forced me to quit. But nothing like that came to be.
I'm painting a bleak picture here. I know. It wasn’t always so bad. There were seasons I felt like things could change. I was still learning a lot. I heard what I wanted to hear. I held in there and kept working to grow the business. At times it was even really fun. And I hate to quit things. I think I mentioned that.
I wanted the business to care about my convictions but I didn't want to lead. This is a joke. About two years ago I became convicted of this passivity and realized it was a problem. I asked to become chairmen of the board, which happened, and I even advocated that I be made CEO of the company, which wasn’t taken very seriously, but I believed I was ready and that was a big step for me.
When I stopped being passive I started to see things more clearly. During this time it became undeniably obvious that what we had built was not compatible with my vision for my vocation. I also learned, more importantly, that while I can’t be passive I shouldn’t try to change the company to fit my vision. I decided to let my partners have the business for their vision and not mine. I felt content with this decision. But I didn't know what that meant practically.
I was complaining to one of my good friends, a gentle creative man who knows me better than most, and he looked at me sternly and said, “Jon, go to the mountain and be with God.” So we went together, up to Mount Hood and stayed at a small cabin with a wood paneled room heated by a wood stove. I turned off my phone for the first time in years, and I spent two days with God.
Surprisingly, or I suppose I should say unsurprisingly, God met me there. It was a rich time. I sat at a river bank trying to figure out what to pray. My mind kept wandering with relentless distraction and unease. And suddenly it occurred to me that I should pray about what I was grateful for. I did, and it made me break down in tears of joy.
That weekend God told me I was afraid of leading and that he wants me to lead. I needed to stop being afraid. I decided to believe Him. And I knew I had to quit.
The Next Chapter
That was eight months ago. It takes a while to step out of businesses wisely. But it finally happened. I have to say goodbye to people and ideas that I once held very dear. To my partners, I am very grateful for everything and sad I can't be in the trenches with you all. To the creatives, I wish had truly led from the beginning.
I'm starting over. But really, I am not starting over. I’m just starting again. I have the same vision I’ve had from the beginning. This time I start with more than just passion and grit. This time I start with the resolute (if still yet timid) conviction to be a leader.
I don't know exactly what I'm doing with my career. But right now I'm working on a crowd-funded non-profit called The Bible Project. Feel free to check out the work we are doing on our YouTube channel. It is my way to explore the world through the perspective of an ancient book many believe is God's word to us.