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How I decide whether it’s time to stay or go

Some of my coworkers and I are dealing with a crossroads in our respective careers. It’s caused us to have some conversations. And since I’ve moved around a lot more than anyone else in my office–I work with a lot of people who’ve spent their entire adult lives working for two or fewer employers–I’ve taken some questions.

I’ve never really had to think about whether it’s time to move on. I just seem to know. But I think now I realize how I know.
One former colleague I admire and respect tremendously has an arbitrary rule: Two years. He says if you stay in one place more than two years, you’re stagnant and you’re not advancing.

I agree completely with the second part. I’m not comfortable assigning a two-year length of time to it though.

Not that arbitrary lengths of time are always wrong. I’m pretty comfortable saying it takes six months to learn how to do a skilled job. That’s been true of every job I’ve had that paid benefits. You’re just not going to see everything in the first few weeks.

I did leave my first full-time job after about two years. But that was fairly typical. In that shop, people tended to either stay two years or ten, and I fit the profile of a 2-year-guy.

I stayed at my second stop for seven years. During that seven years, I entertained the thought of leaving several times. I didn’t fit in with the culture of that shop, and now that I’ve been gone almost as long as I was there, I realize that.

My third stop lasted right about six months. I really didn’t fit in there, and knew it pretty fast, but staying any less than six months is a bad career move.

My fourth stop lasted about 3 1/2 years, and didn’t end on my terms. I was a contractor, and the company that signed my checks didn’t get its contract renewed.

My fifth stop lasted eight months, and it was really a continuation of the fourth. I was doing the same work, sat in the same desk, and had the same phone number. The new contracting company hired most of the people from the old contract. Eight months isn’t a long time to stay, but was it 8 months, or 4 years and two months? Four years and two months of doing the same thing was enough.

That brings me to the present, where I’ve been for about three years.

I’ve looked back at the points in time where I’ve wanted to leave, or the points in time where I really have left, and there’s always a common thread. Always.

I was at a dead end. I wasn’t learning anything new, and I wasn’t getting any better at what I was doing.

To me, that’s what growth is about, rather than an arbitrary length of time. One time I reached that point in six months, and another time it took four years.

In any job, there are forces beyond your control that you have to deal with somehow. If I’m still learning stuff and getting better, it’s worth dealing with those forces beyond my control. If I’m not learning anything new, dealing with the stuff beyond my control becomes a hard sell, and that’s when I become a lot more open to those unsolicited e-mail messages that begin with something like, “I see you are an experienced IT professional and I have an opening that might interest you…”

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