Near the start of the pandemic, I decided not to come back to MIT full-time during fall 2020, since I knew I wouldn’t get that much out of Zoom University. Instead, I chose to work. Unfortunately, nobody was hiring at the time.
After throwing my resume at company after company, I finally received an interview from a small start-up. The interview went fine until, at the end, one of the founders asked me how much compensation I was expecting.
“Um . . .” I wavered. I hadn’t prepared for this question. Panicking, I said the first number that came to mind.
“Okay,” she said. A day later, I received an offer from the company. It was a little less than the number I had proposed. They lowballed me, I thought. Well, first I lowballed myself. The suggestion I had given was too low for my qualifications, but I was scared I wouldn’t be able to get a job at all. So despite my reservations—I thought it was bad form for them to ask me how much I wanted to get paid, then offer me less than that—I accepted the offer.
There were a few giant red flags on the first day. I won’t go into all of them as to not give away any identifying information about this company, but here was a deal-breaker: I went to the orientation meeting, only to sit in an empty Zoom room for thirty minutes; during this time, I sent several emails, bumping the founders (“Hey! I’m in the Zoom.” “Hey! Let me know if a better time works.”) to no avail. Eventually, I left, and one of the founders emailed an apology several hours later.
I realized that this company was not going to provide me the growth and learning that I wanted, and that if the founders couldn’t respect my time, then it wasn’t worth staying. If I had been younger, I might’ve stuck it out for the pay: in high school, I did plenty of miserable jobs. But now I wanted to value my own time and skillset more. It’s okay if I can’t find another internship, I told myself. It’s still not worth staying here.
So the next day, I emailed the founders saying I was sorry but this wasn’t the right fit. One of the founders removed me from the Slack, GitHub, etc. without even responding to my email. That confirmed to me that this wasn’t going to be a great place to work.
When I tell people this story, they often react with surprise that I left so early. But why not cut my losses early? I trusted my judgment, and I have never regretted leaving; later on, I saw that one of the founders departed from the company under tense circumstances.
I try to apply this philosophy to most things I do. Fold early, or step away from a situation as soon as it’s not serving me anymore. Sunk cost fallacy is a fallacy, after all. The first week of school, I go to many classes and drop them quickly. If I buy junk food and I’m not enjoying it, I toss it in the trash because then there’s no benefit to continue eating it. A few months ago, my friends and I went to a yacht party, but the vibes were clearly off, so we left the boat before it disembarked and we would’ve been trapped.
Obviously, all these decisions can only be made if I have the privilege of stepping aside, and to be honest, that might be the difference between me now and me as a high school student. I didn’t enjoy all the minimum-wage jobs I worked, but it wasn’t like I had many employment options at age fifteen. If I buy a boba now and don’t like it, it only costs a fraction of what I make in an hour; back then, if I bought a boba and didn’t like it, well, that was an entire hour’s worth of work, and was I really going to throw that away? I’m grateful that my circumstances have shifted, that I’m able to walk away from many things now.
This also isn’t to say that committing isn’t important. I’ve been at my living group for six semesters. I dated the same person for three years. There is a difference between leaving something that is a net negative and leaving something because the grass might be greener elsewhere. If I’m happy, then there’s no need to search elsewhere. The key is to notice my unhappiness as early as possible and take steps to mitigate it, even if those steps are drastic, such as quitting an internship on the second day.