“Should I stay or should I go?” Career insights from Seth Godin and The Clash

When should you hang in there, and when should you pursue an exit strategy? This question confronts a lot of people who feel stuck in frustrating or even toxic work situations. And given the realities of a tough job market, the dilemma of what to do becomes even more pronounced.

I have no easy answers, but perhaps these insights can help to sort out options:

Seth Godin: Dip, Cul-de-Sac, or Cliff?

In The Dip: A Little Book that Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick) (2007), Seth Godin identifies three stay vs. go scenarios regarding projects, jobs, and affiliations:

The Dip “is the long slog between starting and mastery” of something achievable and worthwhile. After an optimistic start, you encounter resistances, but they are surmountable, and the ends justify your perseverance.

The Cul-de-Sac is “a situation where you work and you work and you work and nothing much changes.” You invest tons of time, energy, intellect, and emotion into trying to change a status quo that is determined not to budge.

The Cliff is a thankfully rare, but addictive situation that can end badly, the work equivalent of taking drugs. Think the folks who mastermind Ponzi schemes and subprime housing deals.

Dips, says Godin, are worth fighting through. Cul-de-Sacs and Cliffs, however, call for escape.

The Clash: Always tease, tease, tease

Like a manipulative individual, a dysfunctional or exploitative organization can mess with your head. It may be especially adept at fooling you into thinking it is capable of significant change. (Oh, but s/he will change — just give him/her time and encouragement…) To borrow from The Clash’s hit single “Should I Stay or Should I Go” (1982):

Always tease tease tease
You’re happy when I’m on my knees
One day is fine, next day is black
So if you want me off your back
Well come on and let me know
Should I stay or should I go?

Bad organizations often are a tease. One day is fine, next day is black. They mislead you into mistaking a Godin-esque Cul-de-Sac or Cliff for a Dip.


Ultimately, three major choices emerge:

Stay and engage — Maybe the challenges you face are Dips. You can stick with it, push forward, and prevail — and feel very good upon doing so.

Stay and detach — When something better comes along, you’ll be happy to go. However, a difficult economy, a tough job market, and personal circumstances may counsel in favor of staying for the time being. But if staying and engaging is a recipe for insanity or mountains of stress, then staying and psychologically detaching may be the best coping mechanism.

Go — You’re stuck in the Cul-de-Sac or about to go over the Cliff, or you realize that the perpetually unfulfilled tease of change is too maddening. You assess the situation and once again hear The Clash: If you go there may be trouble, but if you stay it will be double.

If you go, you may experience a freeing sensation like that of an East German who made it over the Berlin Wall during the Cold War. And having made it over that wall, I hope a better opportunity beckons, or perhaps you will create one.


Related posts

Dealing with “gatekeepers” at work: Beware of Dr. No

Is emotional detachment an antidote for a nasty workplace?

Possibilities (resources for those considering the “Go” option)


5 responses

  1. Kachina, the kamikazi approach is a possibility, but true martyrs for the cause — i.e., people who made a difference by falling on their swords — are rare. I’d rather have someone live to fight another day.

    • I would agree. If, however, your professional reputation and career have been irrevocably damaged, there’s nothing to lose by starting over.

      • If you’re talking about people in, say, whistleblowing or bullying type situations. If then I think it’s important to assess if the damage is truly irrevocable, vs. “merely” feeling that way during the immediate moment. Easier said than done, indeed.

        For the vast majority of others whose job and career decisions are fortunately not so dire, however, I don’t think it’s advisable for the most part to leave by burning bridges or tossing bombs on the way out.

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