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Write A Resignation Letter, But Don’t Deliver It

by | Collaboration

If you’re doing work that matters to you, conflict is inevitable. And it’s also invited. Conflict, as Jonah Lehrer points out in his new book Imagine: How Creativity Works, is one of the primary ways we internalize, process, and add value to the ideas of others. Rather than seeing conflict as the enemy, we need to recognize that it can – in many circumstances – be a platform for brilliant collaborative work.

That said, there are certainly a lot of disproportionately unhealthy workplaces. In these settings, conflict isn’t progress, it’s just conflict. (I’ve been invited into more than a few of them to help sort things out.) When there is a lot of conflict over a long period of time without a clear understanding of the context for the conflict the end result can often be apathy, disengagement, frustration, and poor work.

The natural response when conflict becomes the norm is to entertain the thought of moving on to greener pastures. Maybe you hear the stories your friends tell about how wonderful their boss is, and how noble their work is, and you think something better is awaiting you “out there.” Maybe something better does await, but it’s important to recognize that many people leap from job to job in search of the perfect one, but fail to account for the internal problems they carry with them. They never work on their own issues, and as a result they quickly find that their new job has also lost its luster.

Before moving on, here’s something you can do to parse your motives for wanting to leave your job: write a letter of resignation, but don’t deliver it.

Convey all of the reasons you need to move on, all of the frustrations you experience daily, and all of the ways in which you feel underutilized. Talk about how disappointed you are with how things are going, and how you would change things if you could. Get it off your chest. Be as personal as you’d like, since no one will ever read it.

Once you’ve written your letter, ask yourself a few questions:

1. How much of what’s in this letter could I change if I really wanted to? (In other words, where am I abdicating my responsibility for the situation rather than embracing my contribution.)
2. Am I looking to my job to provide something a job cannot ultimately give me? (Identity, self-worth, etc.)
3. How much of what’s in this letter is recent frustration, versus old wounds that haven’t healed?
4. How much of what’s in this letter have I experienced in other workplaces as well?
5. Are there any patterns I see within this letter?

Please understand that I’m not implying that all faults rest with you, I’m simply trying to help you become more aware of what might be motivating the frustration. I did this exercise myself once, and realized that much of my daily angst was the result of very old wounds that hadn’t healed, and that I’d been viewing ever encounter since through the lens of distrust. It allowed me to return to my role with a clear perspective and with a new level of self-awareness. (By the way, an alternative exercise is to take some time to write a letter of gratitude for what you’re thankful for about your work.)

Don’t allow latent frustration and hurt to derail your best work. Your days are short, and you only have so many of them to give. Own your engagement, and if the time is right, move on. But don’t live in the twilight. Be aware of your own contribution to the problem.

Question: Have you ever left a job out of frustration, and if so, what was the root of it?

Todd Henry

Todd Henry

Positioning himself as an “arms dealer for the creative revolution”, Todd Henry teaches leaders and organizations how to establish practices that lead to everyday brilliance. He is the author of five books (The Accidental Creative, Die Empty, Louder Than Words, Herding Tigers, The Motivation Code) which have been translated into more than a dozen languages, and he speaks and consults across dozens of industries on creativity, leadership, and passion for work.

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  1. Brett Henley

    Todd – love it.

    I can’t tell you how long it took before I realized past grievances were coloring my perspective on current opportunities. 

    Self awareness is such a simple, powerful piece of the puzzle that most of us ignore or neglect. My hand is up on this one, btw.

    I’ve learned a few crucial lessons the hard way – namely approaching work with acceptance and focus on movement and action when over contemplation has you running in place.

    I’ll add “observe your work through a positive lens” to that equation.


    • Todd Henry

      “I’ve learned a few crucial lessons the hard way – namely approaching work with acceptance and focus on movement and action when over contemplation has you running in place.”
      I’ve been through that same process, Brett. It took me a while into my life to realize that my engagement is my own responsibility, and that anger, cynicism, etc., only corrode my creative drive. Thanks for sharing!

  2. fjr

    These are wise words, particularly those about realizing one has abdicated responsibility and the one about the folly of asking a workplace to meet all ones needs/desires perfectly. I think both these attitudes and postures – of not accepting that one has some agency in the matter and of expecting an unreasonable amount of service from the job- are at once devices for feeling superior to “the other” and ways of distracting oneself and others from a lack of personal courage.

  3. Kathleen

    You’ve done it again…set a banquet table in the food-for-thought category, then provided constructive strategies for positive change. I like that all of this can be applied to our personal lives as well. Thanks for this post.

  4. Ralph Dopping

    Brilliant post. It might me being melancholy or it might be that I am listening to Neil Young’s Harvest as I write but this resonates with me deeply right now. I was considering leaving a job that I actually like for what seems like the wrong reason. Difference is that I am not totally dissatisfied but moreover saw a grass is greener scenario. 

    The resignation letter is one of the hardest things to write and fortunately I have only really written two in my career that have been very, very difficult. I just think before it gets delivered you better be damn sure it’s the right thing to do. Seeing past the issues and putting to bed frustrations is a challenge but as you mentioned necessary to making the most of the days you have to give.

    Thanks man. That was great.

  5. Stephen Satterfield

    Love this idea! I am going to do this exercise on my next day off. Also do your alternative exercise as well afterwords. I can see how this type of exercise can be very helpful in any life situation we are having trouble in. We can write two letters on of all our negatives and frustrations and one of gratitude. Perhaps this would save marriages, friendships, or even ones life! Great idea! Thanks!

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