The Paradox of Progress: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

The year was 2003, and after nearly two years of unemployment, I had just gratefully accepted a full-time position with a non-profit organization in Los Angeles. After two years of doubt, confusion and the gripping fear that I would never see the light of a new job again, two years of wondering where I would possibly fit with my newly acquired Master’s degree in Theology, salvation had finally arrived.

Not only did it arrive in the form of a good job with a decent salary, but it was a position I was excited about, with an organization whose mission I heartily embraced. My heart expanded with a depth of gratitude rarely experienced before.

If you’ve been unemployed for any significant stretch of time, you know what I’m talking about.

I dove into the job enthusiastically and earnestly, knowing that I had been given a chance to break out of the cycle of fits-and-starts that had defined so much of my career to that point. During those dark days of joblessness, I had learned a lot about myself. I came to terms with who I was and acknowledged that I had some work to do if I wanted to grow.

The issue standing front and center: responsibility. Yuniya, you have to take responsibility for yourself—your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. You can’t always just pick up and leave when the going gets tough. You can’t just act impulsively without giving any serious thought to the consequences. It’s time for you to grow up and take responsibility for your life. For YOU.

This message lodged itself in my mind and heart even as I set foot into my new office on my first day. No more playing around, I determined. This was real. I would learn to stay put and grow. My life depended on it.

But six months into the new job, that message began to lose its zing. I had crested the learning curve and was starting to feel the threat of boredom. Not a good sign. For me, boredom often became a portent of doom, gradually unleashing the demons of restlessness, distraction, decreased productivity on the job, and ultimately, the impulse to leave the old behind and find something new. To my dismay and frustration, six months after my enthusiastic start, I found myself poring over job advertisements for hours on end, looking for yet another new beginning.

But the new grown-up voice spoke up: Yuniya, it’s not time for you to move on yet. If you quit now and take another job, you’ll only stifle your growth; you’ll just drag the same issues with you. You’ll never get past Go if you don’t stay. I felt the truth of this admonition; I had to stay on.

Months later, however, I found myself putting as much effort into daydreaming about new experiences as I put into the daily tasks of my job. When my boss noticed my performance had diminished and subsequently put me on a performance improvement plan, the impulse to run consumed me. The pain of failing tore me apart, and proved that a) I didn’t belong there, b) I was doomed to a life of mediocrity and underperformance, because c) I was a deeply flawed human being. How could I be expected to stay with this job when faced with these self-evident truths? I just didn’t fit. I had to escape!

But the voice spoke again: Yuniya, it’s not time for you to move on yet. This pain is a good pain. You have to stay with it. The worst thing you could do at this point is run from it. You must stay with it. Work through it. Then when you get to the other side of it, you will truly know satisfaction. What you’re looking for isn’t out there in another job. It’s right here, on the other side of this pain and discomfort.

In my mind’s eye I saw an image of a small plant, barely a shoot, struggling to push itself up through the soil. That shoot was me. If I chose to obey my impulse to run, I would effectively rip that shoot out of the ground before it even had a chance to grow some roots. I had to stay on.

I buckled down and tried as much as possible to set aside the impulse to run. I focused on embracing my here-and-now, uncomfortable as it sometimes felt. Months later, I looked up and looked around and was taken aback by what I saw. That little shoot had grown and sprouted some leaves without me even realizing.

To begin with, I acquired my first car ever, and overcame a multitude of fears about driving in Los Angeles. I bought my first laptop computer and started writing again. I finally, finally, realized a dream I had held since high school: I traveled to Mexico to immerse myself in Spanish for 16 days. I visited London, another dream destination I had ceased to believe was possible, and vacationed in Mazatlan. I drove through the streets of Manhattan for the first time, in the middle of a drenching downpour, in a mini-van packed with high school students (not a task for the faint of heart!).  I met my father for the first time.

And guess what else?

I stayed at the same job for well over two years—a record for me—despite my occasional tantrums.

All experiences I would have missed out on, had I turned tail and run.

And when it was time to move on, I felt it. I knew it to the tips of my toes. Everything in me and around me seemed to jangle in a chorus of victory. When I turned in my letter of resignation, my boss looked at me with such pride that it brought tears to my eyes. She knew how I had struggled to push through all that pain and discomfort. “Doesn’t it feel good,” she asked me, “to know that you worked hard to overcome so much, and that you succeeded? To know that you’re leaving on a victorious note?”

Indeed. Talk about satisfaction.

What I couldn’t see clearly then, I see clearly now: this season redefined and redirected my life more than any others that had come before it. It set me on a different track and gave me back my sense of hope and purpose. It helped me believe in myself again.

Good thing I stayed.

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