I quit my job 2 years ago and I don't regret it

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2 years ago today, I walked into my boss's office at NASA and told him I was quitting. I still remember that gloomy October day - I was absolutely terrified and absolutely excited at the exact same time. I loved the people I worked with, and when I spoke to my boss, I had to hold back the tears. After all, I was leaving a family, of sorts, and also leaving the opportunities and career path I would have had with them. But I knew I was doing the right thing. Day in and day out, my skills and talents collected cobwebs. I went through the motions to get that paycheck every week. I tried hard to convince myself that I was doing the right thing for so long. "They have great benefits", I would say, or "it's a really low-stress job and the people are great". Or even, "the job security is awesome". But I couldn't change how I felt - job security did not equal job satisfaction.  At the time, I had plenty of excuses for why I was leaving. I used my startup as an excuse, and as true as that was, it wasn't the real reason. I wanted to make a difference - I knew I wasn't cutout to be isolated in a lab somewhere running tests. As much as I respect the people that thrive on that type of work, I knew it wasn't me. I realized that even though I always had high marks on performance reviews, I got lazy...professionally. I wasn't involved in any groups outside of work because I didn't care. I was disengaged. I stopped trying to learn and challenge myself. This was a dangerous place to be, and I see now that I had to leave to discover my true potential So I quit. And I never looked back.

I was fortunate to have a strong network. It's no mystery, my network is the reason I've been able to survive on my own. I made a relatively easy transition into a another job with a small consulting firm. Even though I'm no longer with them, I'll be forever thankful, because that job is where I got to discover my strengths and where I fit in the workplace. I discovered I had the skills, talents, and passions to fit in the role of a relationship builder and advocate (the dirty word for that is sales). But I found that I could make sales my own. It's not a dirty word for me - I loved building relationships and trust with customers and the employees that I worked with. I had found my place in the world, and now that I knew that, I could move-on to another job where I could use those skills to support a field I was passionate about - startups.

So I quit again. I realized that you can only discover your true potential when you let go of the safety nets in your life.

I think our generation has trouble with patience. We feel uneasy in a place of uncertainty so we tend to jump from one job directly to another without thinking about it. I did the opposite, and I am so glad I did. I took months doing nothing but networking, exploring, and learning about the field I love (entrepreneruship). I scheduled hundreds of meetings, and met hundreds of new people. I was a sponge. I wanted to know everything I possibly could about the field I wanted to work in, and it paid off. I eventually found a way to use my skills and talents and also work in the field I am passionate about (supporting entrepreneurs).

But I never planned for it.

I am a big fan of knowing what you want in life and what you're good at, but I'm not a big fan of plans. I find plans restrictive. Had I attempted to plan my career, I would have missed out on just about everything I've done since I left my job.

I let go of my financial planning. I know that sounds like a horrible idea, but to clarify, I let go of my obsession for investing I had acquired while working a regular job. I learned that like most things, you have to invest in the present to get a payoff in the future. So I invested in my career and myself. I drained my savings and my Roth IRA to take the time off I needed to find my next role.  Since I let go of the safety net and discovered my own potential, I am confident I can manage my finances. But I don't have to make a career of it. I was investing in myself today so I can live 70+ fulfilling years rather than investing in myself in 70+years and not living the way I want until then. I don't regret it.

I let go of my obsession with my pay rate temporarily, understanding that the payment I'm getting from the job I do now is worth more than millions. Being truly satisfied with your work and getting the non-financial payouts from the people you help is priceless. I let go of the high-paying salary I had after I left NASA and took a massive pay cut. I could barely survive, but I learned from that. I learned what is really important to me. And I'm happier. I don't feel like I'm working for money, I'm working for a greater purpose. And I know it will pay off. I know if I needed to I could go get a job. And I know one day I'll climb back up that salary ladder. But for now, I don't regret it.

So, if I could summarize these past 2 years and give advice to those reading this, here is it:

1. Decide what you're good at. What are those talents and passions where when you're using them, you feel absolutely fantastic.

2. Decide what you're passionate about and what you want to work for. Is it a particular industry? A special cause? A unique people-group? Find a way to work in that field and use the skills from #1

3. If you're not in the job from #2 using skills from #1, leave your current job, take some time off, and invest in yourself. It will be worth it

You won't regret it. :)

 

5 Things I’ve Learned Since Leaving my Full Time Job to Run a Startup

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For a short period of time after you make the ridiculous decision to leave the safety of an aircraft to tumble into the sky, you feel as though you’re in free fall. No control, just falling. Then, just as the weight of that decision to jump hits you and you realize how crazy what you just did really is, you remember something: you have a parachute. You remember that you’re not alone, that you’re not the first, and probably won’t be the last person to do this crazy thing. You can do this. And all of a sudden, it’s exciting, it’s thrilling, it’s the best thing you’ve ever done. You pull the cord and you drift back down to safety, if not landing directly on your feet, at least something close. And now you’re hooked. This is what it has felt like to leave my full time job to start my own company. Today I’m here to talk to you about what “falling” feels like, and what I’ve learned so far on the way down.

  1. The Importance of your ‘Why’: The first, and arguably most important experience I went through after leaving the security of a full time job was the opportunity to clear the clutter in my head and focus on me. Sometimes when we work for other people, we don’t have time to stop and reflect on ourselves and remember why we do what we do day in and day out. We are unhappy and we don’t really know why. We blame our bosses, we blame our coworkers, we blame our workplace. But we don't stop to think about ourselves. After I left my full-time job, I took time and was able to identify my strengths, passions, and gifts – the things I loves doing. With these in mind, I set new boundaries for my next job so that whatever I did, I would make sure my role revolved around my gifts. Now, I can serve the organizations I support better, and find lots of happiness in the day-to-day “grind”. I highly recommend reading Simon Sinek “Start with Why” if you’re at this point in your career.
  1. Potential without a Paycheck: Maybe this sounds obvious, but having a traditional job is limiting. The scary part is that I didn’t realize how limiting it was until I left. The comfort of a regular paycheck sets your own glass ceiling. Knowing that you only have to do “X” things to get “Y” direct deposited into your account every week is stifling, even if you consider yourself an ambitious, hard working person as I did. Once I left, I had no regular paycheck. I get asked all the time if this is scary. The logical answer is, well, of course, I have to be careful and have a plans for that, but scary? Absolutely not. It’s challenging, yes, and challenges bring out the best in people. All of a sudden my personal value is not defined by the numbers on my paycheck. My self worth is a product of what I actually do, not what time I clocked in and out of a building. My motivation shifted, I had energy and drive to go after everything and anything. Once I released limitation from a regular paycheck, I was open to re-defined who I am, what I do, and even what I’m worth.
  1. You Aren’t Falling Alone, You Have Your Network: I know what you’re thinking. Courtney, this all sounds great, but living without a steady income is still really scary! Remember what I said about jumping out of a plane? You do have a parachute, and you’re not the first person to do this. Jumping out of a plane without a parachute isn’t just stupid, it’s suicide, wouldn’t you agree? On the same note, I wouldn’t have left my full time job without having a solid network of people to support me first and break the fall if I needed it. (if you’re here, I highly suggest You Network is Your Net Worth by Porter Gale). When I left my job, my initial response was not to go looking for part-time work. I went after my network. I had meetings set up nearly every single day. Sometimes 2-3 per day. I’d meet with one person I knew, told them my situation, and they would refer me to two or three new people to talk to. My network grew exponentially in a matter of a few short months, and that network is valuable. Not only could I lean on that network to get a regular job if I had to, but within that network I’ve connected to potential investors, mentors, partners, and customers for my startup. Even more fulfilling, I’ve been able to make valuable connections between members of my network, and help people I never would have been able to help before.

“It's not about knocking on doors till the "right" one opens: it's breaking them all down until you reach your goal.

  1. Creativity Unleashed: I left a full-time job to work for a pre-revenue startup that can’t afford to pay me. I had two choices: opt for a part-time job, or look for creative ways to make a living doing the things I love. Of course I chose the latter. Following my passions, I’ve started consulting and speaking for an income. When you have the guts to leave a job and go after creating your own income, you automatically have a story worth sharing. I’ve found a way to use the story of my startup to do things I love for an income while supporting that startup.
  1. Instant Qualification, Now You’re ‘For Real’: whether or not you’re successful with your startup, when investors, friend, family, customer, etc hear you’re doing this full time, you are instantaneously qualified. There’s no longer any questions of your devotion to your idea. People trust you, and they trust you’re a safe bet to be leading a startup. Investors invest in people, not products, so the fact that I can now say I’m full-time with my startup is having an incredible impact on our ability to attract investment.

Today, I wake every morning both absolutely excited and absolutely terrified at the exact same time.

I’m not writing this to say leaving your full time job is easy, but I am saying that it’s the best decision I’ve ever made. I love what I do day in and day out, help more people than ever before, and am accelerating my startup in ways I never could have otherwise. My advice to you: grab your parachute and jump!

 

The day I left NASA, and the reasons why

“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” – Henry David Thoreau

For an inaugural blog post, I feel as though one should start at the beginning.

I’m sure you’d like to know what motivated me to leave my job at NASA. In fact, maybe some of you are reading this blog just to understand why on earth anybody would leave a secure job from an exciting, loved organization. And it’s true - I’m a classic NASA-geek. I will always be a huge supporter, and am incredibly proud of the work I did during my time there.

So why leave?

Entrepreneurial Training

Because I was trained to be an entrepreneur, not an employee. 

In the “About Courtney” page of this blog I go into my “training” to some extent, describing how I was brought up homeschooled. My day-to-day life was different – I had no routine. Each day, I went somewhere different, studied when I had time, and learned through experiences, not just books. Without knowing it, my mother was training me to have an entrepreneurial spirit - to learn and work differently.

This training spilled-over to my college career. Once I made it to a “traditional” educational institution, the first thing on my mind was: “how can I do this differently?”. I found I was passionate about what I did outside the classroom (robotics projects, research, conferences) and was always looking for something new and different. So who would expect my mentality to change in the workplace?

The Start(up)

I found an opportunity to start a company while I was in college. 4 years and 5+ people later, the company is pushing along through the quintessential startup-“valley of death”. Just as exciting as it is, it is equally terrifying. Finding funding at this stage of development is difficult, and timing is everything. Market opportunities come and go.

The Realization

Days at my NASA-job would go-by, and while I was excited about the projects I was working on, I was still antsy. I was carrying a burden with me day in and day out, and my mind would wander-off to the startup, thinking: “what could I be doing right now for the company?”. I thought about my business skills, the type of work I was truly passionate about (which I've discovered can be boiled-down to: enabling talented engineers to do their job with minimal bull $#!%), and how I wish I had more experience to lead the company effectively. But how does one do that? I considered an MBA….for about a week. I thought about going part-time, or leaving my job, but like all other recent-graduates, I needed a steady income. Perhaps you’ve faced the same dilemma.

My homeschooled days taught me well. Always be on the lookout for opportunities, and never discount something just because nobody else is doing it that way. In my experiences, I’ve always found the things that intimidate you at first such as publishing papers, presenting at conferences, running a marathon, starting a company, or entering your first fast-pitch competition actually aren’t so bad once you get going. The key is just getting started, and sticking with it..

So wouldn’t you know, one such opportunity came about for me. My startup was looking for firmware-development help, so we reached-out to local consulting firm. It turns out that at the time, we couldn’t afford the companys help, but wouldn’t you know it, social media kept me in contact with the CEO. Around October, this same CEO messaged me on LinkedIn and asked if I had some spare time to help out as an engineering manager. I had the same reaction most (sane) people would: “Hah! Leave my secure government job for a part-time position at a small consulting firm? Who does that?”.

Initial reactions from family and friends were negative – “how can you take that kind of risk?” The interesting thing I’ve learned is that life, in general, is much riskier than people think. Stock markets crash, the government has furloughs. You can attempt to avoid all risk in your life, but chances are, you’ll waste more time worrying about minimizing risk then going out and living your life. For me, at some point, the decision became clear:

  • I wanted to learn how to run a small company – here was opportunity for me to do that.
  • I needed an income – here was a way for me to continue to live comfortably.
  • I wanted to have more time to spend on my startup – here was a way for me to gain 20 hours of my work-week back.

Contrary to popular belief, I had just discovered that no, you don't have to dropout of school/become homeless to start a company. You just have to keep your eyes open for the right opportunity at the right time, and for goodness sake, be a little patient!

“Breaking Up” with NASA

So I did it. For some reason, when I went to tell my boss about my decision, I had the same feeling you get when you break-up with somebody. You know how it is. I was a good employee, and I knew they didn’t want me to go. I also really loved the group of people I worked with, so it wasn't an easy thing to do. (“it’s not you, it’s me!)

To my pleasant surprise, the whole process went significantly smoother than I expected. The reason is very simple – I have always been honest and upfront about my entrepreneurial endeavors at work. I find that many people try to “hide” their side businesses. What they’re really doing is writing a death sentence to either their side business or their main job, because you can’t have both (insert an analogy to relationships again). So I broke it off with NASA, no hard feelings. In the end, it was a mutual agreement, and we wished each other our best. Too bad all breakups don’t go that smoothly. ☺

New Beginnings

And so, here I am – 3 weeks after diving into the deep end. I am absolutely overwhelmed, and am absolutely loving it. I am busier than I have ever been at a job, have more personal responsibility, and am learning something new about business every day. It’s akin to taking at least 8 or 10 MBA-classes all at once…but no reading, only class projects (the homeschooler in me is loving it). I am wearing three hats: engineering manager, project manger, and even a little bit of sales (but those details are for another blog post!). And of course, I have ample time and energy to devote to my startup.

Just what I wasn’t looking for (but wanted all along).