Don’t wait until you bottom out to make a big change

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Don’t wait until you bottom out. The worst thing about big change is not that it's so hard to adjust. The worst thing is that we usually have to bottom out before we make a big change; we wait until there is no other choice before we give in.

I bottomed out in the car, during my commute between San Diego and Los Angeles. When I took a position near San Diego, I was so excited to have a paycheck that a two-hour commute back to LA seemed fine. And for about three weeks, the commute was interesting. Then I got bored. I tried listening to books on tape, which only served to ruin the experience of reading. I tried talking on the phone, which caused me to miss exits constantly and nearly double my driving time.

But the job was so good that I persisted with the commute. I started leaving my apartment in LA at 4am. No traffic meant an abridged commute, but also an abridged social life because I had to be in bed at 8pm. After a few weeks, I fell asleep at the wheel and woke up to the blaring horn of a large trucker saving my life before I crashed.

So I went back to my two hours each way. But on rainy days it was 3 hours each way. And finally, on a day of torrential downpour, just a few miles away from Disneyland, I lost it. I pulled to the side of the road and threw pieces of the inside of my car into a ditch. Then I went to Denny's and ate three pieces of pie. Then I called each of my friends to tell them I was quitting.

“Finally!” was what they all said. That's the thing about big change. By the time we are ready to do it, the need for change has been apparent to everyone else for months. Maybe years. It's easy for everyone else to see someone else's need for change — they don't have to make it.

Later, reading the want ads at my kitchen table, I was excited to find another job, and I lamented all the hours I wasted in the car. In my apartment it was clear that the job was not worth the commute. But that's how it always is: I always wish I had made the change sooner.

So here’s what to do with that information: Cut yourself some slack if you’re in a bad situation and not getting out. But get out. Sure, research shows that people have a proclivity to stay in a bad situation, but you can be an overachiever. Get out before you have your own version of tears in front of the Magic Kingdom. Force yourself to change before things get ugly.

It's impossible to see your own life as clearly as others do, but it's a good goal to aim for. As soon as you hear other people say, “Why don't you do [insert change here]?” give the question serious thought. Put that thought on your to do list, so it's right there in front of you.

Still not moving? Close your eyes and imagine what life would be like if you made the big change: Maybe it's giving up some responsibility at work, or quitting, or switching careers. These are the sorts of changes we put off and put off, but once we do them we feel huge relief. These days I try to focus on that relief; I still wait too long to instigate change, but I'm hoping my days of being on the bottom are behind me.

14 replies
  1. Marry
    Marry says:

    oh my! i can’t believe you got to leave your apartment at 4a.m. to get to job.. i know how much does it cost to live in los angeles but i think you could find another place to live. i mean you could rent apartment in los angeles ca more close to your work. good luck and take care.

  2. Samuel Tan
    Samuel Tan says:

    Thanks very much for your very helpful article. I am currently in the same kind of situation as you described. Its definitely bad to “bottom out”. Like the same goes: I you boil a frog very gradually, it won’t attempt to jump out”.

  3. Geena
    Geena says:

    great article! I needed to read this. I have been with the same company for 15 years and I can’t take it any more! How ever the job is close to home and the schedule is good and the money is great. People looking in think I am crazy for wanting out! I earned my BS and Master in this field and now I don’t know which dierction to go and I can feel the botton and I am afraid.

  4. David
    David says:

    I used to have a two hour commute (one way) myself (between Beloit, Wis. and Waukegan, Il.). I can sympathize – though I disagree about books on tape.

    For me, books on tape (or CD) was the only thing that made the drive palatable. The other thing that probably saved me from an experience like yours is I didn’t have to fight traffic – the traffic was always flowing – and for a good portion of the drive, it was minimal even at busy times.

    I’m glad now that I’m back to a 1 hour commute (one way) and am looking at houses to shorten it.

  5. Andrew Weaver
    Andrew Weaver says:

    Very, very good advice. I learned this the hard way too. I was working at Wal-Mart, young, and stupid. I was having difficulties paying bills and not making any money at all. I knew I wanted something more, that I could be much more than just a manager in retail, but searching for a new job seemed difficult and scary. One day, after stressing over one too many crazy customers I ran into a lady whom I had worked with there briefly. She had moved on to a much better career after college and was doing quite well. She saw me checking at a register (we were really busy, and I was trying to “lead by my example”) and went through my line. First thing out of her mouth was, “What in the world are you still doing here… and checking?!? You are better than this!” In two weeks I was suddenly turning in my two weeks because she had given me an opportunity to work where she was. Now, I have a career and have more than tripled what I made there. Everything has continued to improve since. Looking back, why I didn’t just take the leap before is beyond me.

  6. lcmotorist
    lcmotorist says:

    I can relate to bottoming out at a job. In my younger adult days I once quit a job with no other job firmly lined up and no idea how I was going to make it, but things worked out in the end. I just couldn’t take working there anymore.

    As for the effect of a long commute, I agree that it can take a serious toll on a person. I live in a distant suburb of Chicago and I’ve read articles about Chicagoans with ridiculously long commutes. My coworkers leave home long before dawn just to get to work by 8am.

    My commute has swelled to an hour and fifteen minutes in the morning. Fortunately, I can also take the Metra commuter rail. Although the total commute is still one hour via the train, it beats driving drowsy.

  7. Anthony
    Anthony says:

    I can relate to your two hour commute story. I have been doing the same type of commute in S. Fla for 12 years now. I can tell you almost by name every new tree planted along the turnpike as well as every new single family community. I have gone thru three cars and am currently on my fourth (a prius have to love the ~50mpg). During one of my commutes I speant some time calculating the miles I have traveled over those years, and it is astounding to know that I could have gone to the moon and back and actually be well on the way to the moon again. I still enjoy both my job and more importantly where I live (close to family and friends). While someday I may move (my job closer to where I live not the other way around)I continue to enjoy my commute. One of the good things often overlooked is my commute affords me the opportunity to leave all my work stress behind and not bring it home to my wife. A friend once said “boy you must know the meaning of life” I’m not sure about that but one thing I do know is this type of commute is not for everyone, actually let me repharse it is not for normal people.

  8. Tank
    Tank says:

    I lost interest in this article after you wrote “threw pieces of the inside of my car into a ditch. Then I went to Denny's and ate three pieces of pie.” This is such a female response to problem solving.

    Don’t like what’s happening to your life? Change it!!! Don’t whine and moan about it.

    • mariane
      mariane says:

      well, Tank

      a very male response:)

      if you had taken the time to read the whole article instead of buzzing out before the finish and then spend a lot of time writing a reply unrelated to the content and basically making a fool of yourself you would have found she did just that, isn’t it… which was the whole point about the story…

  9. Alan Wilensky
    Alan Wilensky says:

    Is it possible that the post was written in 2003 and is getting comments in 2009?

    BTW, dear, you broke the mold with the last post on agriculture and clannism.

    I am so your advocate – if you need…anything.

  10. Jonha
    Jonha says:

    Hi Penelope,

    I might just need this advice as much as I need all your other advices. “Most men think women should be business-like, but should not try to join the club”. I am currently working virtually with almost all guys company and it helps to be guided.


  11. SC
    SC says:

    I really liked this article because I too have had very bad experiences with long commutes. It truly is amazing the drastic difference even 30 minutes of extra driving can affect someone’s ability to live life well. My first “far from home” job was to Kmart and it was a 40-45 minutes drive and was about 40 miles away. That, I later found out, was actually about the furthest I could drive on a regular basis without going insane.

    I’ve been reading these commute articles a lot today and here’s something I haven’t seen mentioned:
    It’s not really so much about the TIME you spend driving, but rather the COMPLEXITY of the drive.

    For example, when I lived in Chicago, just outside of downtown, it took 45 minutes to get from my apartment to work (only 5 miles away!). I had to rely on bus routes (not close to a train) and typically I had to wait for a bus for 10 minutes, ride on it for 20 and then walk the last 15 minutes (~15 blocks) to my job in the heart of downtown. Even though the route was complex, the steps I had to take were very simple: #1) Wait, #2) Sit on Bus, #3) Walk.

    After leaving Chicago I moved to Michigan and things are much more rural there. One job I took (because I desperately needed it) was only 50 miles away…but due to the poorly designed roads and city layout the shortest route took over 70 minutes to get to work. Then, 6 months later, I was living in another part of the state and for a few months commuted 45 miles to work…and it only took an hour. That drive was MUCH more tolerable. Why? Because I literally had to simply get on two roads to get to the expressway and then 3 short roads once I left the express to get to work.

    The simpler the route, the less chance of accidents/unexpected things happening and the less stress you have to deal with.

    A few months after starting that job I moved into an apartment just 15 minutes from work and was almost a complete straight shot. It…was…amazing.

    Currently I’m doing a telecommuting job that allows me to just go to the office one day a week. Only bad thing is that job is 90 miles away! It takes at least 1 hr. 45 minutes to get to work. Yikes! That one day of travel basically was as long as 5 days of travel at my previous job!!!

    Nowadays I’m looking for work and once again I’m facing the prospect of driving about 70 minutes one way to get to work…across 60 miles and via 3 expressways. While I would like the job, deep down I know that drive would be unsustainable for 5 days a week. But at the same time, it’s not a job I think is worth completely relocating for…not yet anyways, considering I might even like it after 2-3 months (generally it takes that long to learn if you like a company) and the housing setup I have right now is very nice, except for me wanting another job.

    Long comment short, I think people need to really focus on the complexity of the drive and not just the time/distance. If your drive is a straight shot but takes an hour, that might not be so bad. If your drive is 45 minutes but you have to navigate across several highways, expressways, etc. to “time it just right”…I dunno. That might actually be MORE stressful than a longer commute.

  12. CBS
    CBS says:

    Dear Penelope…

    I’m pretty sure your blog just saved my life.

    Thank you. Please, do not stop sharing your experience with us.


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