What we learned from 9/11 about quitting work after life-altering events

A majority of people in the US are considering quitting their jobs right now according to the New York Times. This is obvious to me because in the months after the towers fell, my world was my recovery support groups — and in my groups, the conversations were all about who is going back to work.

My groups were mostly people in banking, insurance, and tech because that’s who worked at the World Trade Center. But within the groups, there was a wide range of people. I remember a man saying the Red Cross paid his rent for six months and he’d never felt so financially secure. And I remember reading quotes in a newspaper about stock prices from a man I saw crying about blood stains the day before.

The groups were sorted by type of experience. My cohort got hit by falling body parts, stuck in places with no air, blinded for a period of time. We felt safe in our shared experience.

But then we started talking and some people wanted to get right back to work. Some people thought they would never go back to work again. I had tried to go back to work, but hearing our CEO talk about closing deals and keeping customers happy sounded absurd. I couldn’t make myself care. I quit by the end of September.

I raised my hand and told the group about one of the VPs in my company. Our building was next to the Twin Towers. When we heard the buildings were on fire everyone went outside to see. Except for that VP. He kept working. He kept working the day his mom died, so why would he not keep working while people were jumping out of buildings?

Another person decided to leave the group after just two days and go back to work. He talked about how he has to keep the company making money so they can support all the kids of the parents who died in the towers. He felt personally responsible for making sure those kids could have a nice house and go to camp and college just like his own kids. It wasn’t just a coworker who died, it was his friend. And he couldn’t stand not working knowing that his friend’s kids needed him to work.

Many people said something similar.

Some people talked about how they worked at a small firm, and if they didn’t go back then their coworkers wouldn’t be able to make a living. Interdependency in the workplace meant interdependency during crisis felt natural. Even though the work wouldn’t allow them to take time off to grieve, they didn’t feel like they needed our group as their support system. Work was their support system.

I tried to understand the people who wanted to go back to work. I wasn’t the only person — just as people started visiting the groups and taking notes to study trauma, people started taking notes about what makes work fulfilling to study job embeddedness, which is what makes someone go back to work after a major life trauma and how they evaluate if a job is worth going back to.

Today’s post-pandemic job resignation feels like a large-scale version of my 9/11 experience. So I want to tell you that trusting your instinct is a really good idea during a turnover event — that’s what researchers call times in your life that are so shocking to your system that you can’t help but stop and evaluate what you’re doing with your job.

Times like this — not just a terrorist attack or a worldwide pandemic but also other big moments in life like childbirth, divorce, death — you have a feeling about what’s right for you, just like people in my 9/11 support group did. It was very clear to each of us who felt passionate about going back to work and who felt going back to work was insane given the world’s events. I remember the psychologists in the room saying there is no right answer — there is only the right answer for you.

I repeated that advice back to myself when I had a baby. I got two job offers and I turned them both down. The idea of leaving my baby at home to go into an office every day didn’t make sense to me. Even though I could see that most women did that, there was no way it was right for me.

In both cases, it felt awkward being the person who chose to not work because I see myself as a person who likes to work. But I quit a job where I was interchangeable to do the job of taking care of my child, where I was most important. I chose to live at the very edge of poverty while I figured out another way to support my family.

I was scared but I knew it was time to quit. I saw what it’s like to care so much about people in your work that you won’t let them down in a turnover event. I wanted a life full of that type of work more than I wanted financial stability.

9/11 taught me that if I’m deeply committed to people I work with the money will come. This is probably why even twenty years after nearly getting killed at work on 9/11, I still write a blog about careers.

18 replies
  1. Sean Crawford
    Sean Crawford says:

    As for trivial, right now I am having trouble getting back to what was once my favourite hobby: Reading fiction. Such a serious change to my quality of life, and I don’t know why.

    After 9/11, I well recall how awards shows on TV seemed trivial, and I think they stopped showing them for a while. Folks liked comfort reruns.

    At work I am blessed because I find meaning by supporting two mentally challenged men to live in their own home, a house with an outside ramp instead of stairs. One fellow is 83. It is the right work for me.

    • Sheila
      Sheila says:

      Sean, your work sounds AMAZING. Those two men are so lucky to have you. I bet you feel the same way about them. I am glad you brought up the topic of reading fiction. In June of this year I decided to step down from an 8-year teaching career (one in a succession of many.) Now I work as an instructional assistant, which I love. No lessons to prepare, no work to grade, and no parents to email. I just show up each day and try to help students learn. Meanwhile, however, I publish a weekly essay, mostly about the books I read, but like you, I recently cannot engage meaningfully with anything I am reading. Every read feels dissatisfying. I’m not sure why. One of my skills is curating what had been up to this point an engaging lifelong reading list. I’ve lost my reading mojo.

  2. Sheila
    Sheila says:

    I love your writing, Penelope; I always have. In this essay, as always, you manage to dig into a topic with a completely unique shovel. Thank you. I love seeing your name in my inbox.

  3. Christine McLaren
    Christine McLaren says:

    What a wonderful post. All your posts are. I too had a life-changing event that completely changed me and my life trajectory. Not only did I quit a job, I quit a career and decided to actually HAVE kids, and then even after changing careers I still quit my job when my twins turned 5 to spend more time being a mom. People in my life couldn’t believe it! I also went from a solid ENFJ to “Big I” INFJ, turned activisty and ethical everything. I always wondered where I’d be if that hadn’t happened, and where had this new person been? Always there, but like part of genetic code “activated”? Anyway, your blog really resonated. Peace to you.

  4. Matthew
    Matthew says:

    What is the meaning behind the picture? Was that taken twenty years ago or more recently?

    Is it meant to symbolize people who stay on the job vs. those who take another path?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That’s a good question. I have in my mind that when I write about how I work and when I work then I should have pictures of me working. This is a picture of me working in the past few months. Nino, my ex-husband took it.

      We find ourselves sitting in the living room together with not much to do pretty often, which is so surprising to me. I mean, we have been divorced for twelve years, so I didn’t expect to grow old with him, and our kids are pretty high maintenance, so we haven’t had a lot of downtime as parents, so it’s a new thing for us to just sit together. We haven’t done it since we were dating in the mid-90s.

      He’s a good photographer. He went to film school. I said, “Why don’t you take pictures of me here. I always need pictures of myself working.”

      He said, “You don’t look like you’re working.”

      I said, “Only you would be able to see the difference.”

      It’s so intimate to know someone for so long. Divorce doesn’t take that away.


  5. Joe
    Joe says:

    I recently left a job at Disney. After having escaped the furloughs and layoffs, I got a promotion. And the 100hr work week became 120. And I never saw my kids. And I gained 100lbs. And I saw clouds on sunny days. So I left. I got another job. Same work. A lot less cult-ish. I’ve had a break and am ready to re-engage. Work is a support system for life. Not the other way ’round.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Work is a support system for life. Yes. It’s hard to remember that going to work every day. People are so often surprised in coaching sessions when I ask them is what their life is like and why they are working. But it’s impossible to manage a job hunt if you don’t know what the point of having that job is — how would you know what job to go after?


  6. Jane Carnell
    Jane Carnell says:

    Good Morning, Penelope– I hope you are well. Thank you for the moving, revelatory piece on 9-11. I can’t ever get enough of your writing. Let’s face it, work is another kind of servitude — each week five days for them, two for us if we’re lucky. So the math. How should we not sicken and die after experiencing what the alternatives arre– working in your own space, surrounded by pets, plants, and family. I have been working at home since 1974 and back then I was the object of scorn or pity. Now it turns out I was the wave of the future. Ta-daaa. But I also need to say, lockdown or no, working at home or no, the Pandemic has taken the joy out of work because we see we no longer own our own lives. That’s a biggie to swallow let alone adjust to.

  7. Cheryl
    Cheryl says:

    Maybe this is a sidebar, but I don’t feel comfortable sharing this with anyone else.

    On 9/11, I was home, had just gotten up and turned on the TV to check weather and traffic.
    Immediately I could tell something was wrong because the newscaster had a frantic look in his eyes.
    Then I saw the planes crashing into the twin towers.

    My sister lived in the middle of the country, and she called mother and me to see if we were okay (we both lived in Maryland).
    We said “I love you” to each other.
    My mother said later that my sister was also calling to say goodbye in case we died.

    I stayed home that day along with everyone else who worked in our federal agency located outside of Baltimore.

    When we went back to the workplace, there was some gallows humor: people said that the terrorists wouldn’t fly the planes into our building unless they were lost or running out of gas.

  8. Erin
    Erin says:

    I’ve been chasing that sweet sweet connectedness. I am not sure I have found it, but I’ve found where not to look for it, which is something I guess.

    God, Penelope, I have been such a hermit this year. I thought choosing to stay home with my kids was isolating and alienating before? If only pre-2020 me knew then what I know now. More than anything, I’ve learned it’s ok to stop caring about all these things I thought I was supposed to care about. I just don’t anymore. I don’t have the energy to get wrapped up in all these rat races or emotionally unavailable people.

    I used to feel sad that I lost my life, lost my family, but I’m starting to realize that’s not the full picture. I have a really good life. And my kids are an amazing family.

    Being forced into this pandemic, being forced through the trauma of divorce and poverty, it has taught me to be grateful, and it has showed me that even if so many circumstances come and go, the universe has my back. And good stuff surfaces in the end.

  9. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    Thanks, again. Your ideas have such a big impact on me – and as you’ve said, the conversations in your comments are always the most interesting. I feel like the worker bees really know the things you said – and the bosses just refuse to know. I hope they come to recognize though because working right now is not the same as it ever was.

  10. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    This 9/11 post has a very different tone and perspective than all your other 9/11 posts that I can recall. I do like it very much though. So this is my question – was it 9/11 that initiated your interest, research, and writing on careers?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I think 9/11 made me take my writing more seriously. Before 9/11 I was making so much money that the money from writing didn’t matter to me. After 9/11 I didn’t want to leave my apartment so the only way I could immediately make money was to keep writing. In that context, the money I made from writing was a lot of money and I paid a lot more attention to what I was writing and how to do more writing.


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