On Being a Quitter in 2011

by Ann Friedman

I quit my job in December. After spending the past four years at The American Prospect, where I was an editor about 90 percent of the time and a writer the other 10, I decided I wanted to flip that ratio. Since then, I've been on a 5,000-mile road trip--a tour of friends' couches across America--from D.C. to the Midwest to California and many places in between. Right now, I'm in Phoenix. I plan to spend the rest of this week writing about the difference between reading about the rest of America and actually visiting it.


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Today I want to talk about quitting. Folks in different parts of the country react very differently to news that I have voluntarily left a stable job. Back in D.C., the response was very you go girl. And that was the narrative I adopted, too. Probably because it's a happy one: Finally taking some time for my writing! I don't even need a whole room--just a laptop and Honda Accord of one's own! So gutsy and modern!

My tone started to shift when I was home in Iowa for Christmas. I ran into three women I hadn't seen since high school and watched their faces cloud with confusion when I proudly told them I had left my job to be a freelancer. "So you're looking for work?" one asked. Well, yes, I attempted to explain, but not, like, a full-time job. One-off writing assignments and part-time editing gigs, that sort of thing. At least for awhile. She looked at me like I had two heads. I was describing the sort of work that folks in and around my hometown use as a stop-gap during unemployment. Work they are grateful for after months of waking up and scrolling through job listings.

The month I packed up my office, 6.4 million Americans were long-term unemployed. Of course I was aware of the numbers--and the paucity of stable, full-time jobs in my own field--before I put in my notice. But I hadn't fully come to terms with what a privilege it is to be able to quit a reasonably secure job. The truth is that while freelancing is no walk in the park, it is typically creative work for people with the luxury of taking a risk.

One of the reasons I've been able to take this risk is that I've convinced myself it's a feminist act. My decision to make a living as a freelancer means that I think my ideas and my skill set are good enough. That I am aggressive enough. That I can bring myself to ask for more money--not just at an annual performance review but every time I accept an assignment. In many ways, it is the opposite of quitting. It's agreeing to step up and do things that I've long told other women they're capable of. It is committing. And recognizing this is a risk that not every woman (or man) has the privilege of taking--especially in this economy--means I am that much more determined to make it work.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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