Quitter to Winner

Thursday, July 1, 2010

INTERVIEW: Ken Molnar's big leaps in life

Ken Molnar pulled off what many would deem impossible (or crazy): leave a well-paying job at Yale University and move to Northampton, MA without friends, job or housing prospects. He explains the why and how of his daring journey.

You moved to western Mass a few years ago without a job (or much of a solid plan). What prompted you to leave your job and move to a strange place?

Well, I have this theory that I really have to change things up in a big way every four or five years, which has so far been very true for me. I think I want to do a lot of things in life. I have a lot of interests, and any more than five years in a single place starts to make me feel like there are other things out there that I am not exploring. By year four in the same place, I have definitely begun to stagnate.

At the time of my last big leap, I was living in New Haven, didn't have a great car, not a lot of money, lived right on the edge of a sketchy neighborhood -- although here I was working at Yale University. But the particular office I worked in at Yale was really quite terrible. I loved my immediate boss but other than that it was a very cold and condescending atmosphere -- and I had suffered at that job for four years. See? There's that four number again.

Prior to that I had been in New York City for five years, and left -- literally -- on Sept 11. At that time, I was sick of the city, sick of brown buildings, and lack of trees, and lots of noise, and garbage, and an all-around unaesthetic atmosphere. The excitement of the place had definitely worn off by then. And I remember I kept thinking, "I just want green. I want trees. I want more open spaces." I still wanted civilization, mind you, but a more open version.

When I got to New Haven that kind of worked for me for a while. It was more open. It was greener. And there was lots of open country very near by. But New Haven is urban in it's own way, and can be kind of sketchy. I still had this picture in my mind of living in this place with hills and mountains. I remember writing a sticky-note to this effect and putting it on my fridge in New Haven. I remember looking online at farmhouses in Massachusetts and Vermont. It was like a longing.

Typical me, I spent Year four in New Haven in agonized turmoil. I didn't know where to go. Impulsively, in January of my fourth year in New Haven, I started taking improv classes down in NYC. I felt like I needed something to shake me up. And I spent the year in therapy. That's where I really figured it out.

In the end, it really came down to the idea of following your own energy. Even though I had only been to Northampton on two separate afternoons -- maybe a year apart, and only for a few hours -- I remember being struck immediately by the difference in energy in the people up there. Everyone seemed happy, creative, and productive. There was a palpable energy. But, typical me, I dismissed that type of place as a pipe dream. But in therapy Northampton came up again, and the more I talked about it, the more I realized I had such a strong energy about the place -- which stood out in total relief against all my other low-energy whiny complaint. I realized with some shock that I was probably going to move there. It was just a matter of when.

I struggled through the summer, listless, and then had a "beach epiphany" right at the end of the season. I was sitting on a log at the start of the dunes, watching the sun come up, thinking about everything, and my favorite word in all the world drifted up in front of me, loud and clear: No.

"No" to all the negative bullshit I had been putting up at work and the completely dissatisfied life I had been living in New Haven. When I felt that "No" I knew it was over. I walked into Yale the next day and told them I was quitting. Even then, it still took me about three more months to get myself together to do the move up.

How did you navigate the "oh, no, what have I done. NOW what?!" feeling?

I always have the same feeling when moving on from a bad place: relief. While I do think about it, it's never so much of "now what will I do?" It's always more a feeling of cutting away dead weight, of finally being able to start moving up.

What I find, too, is that -- scary as it is -- you always get SO MUCH MORE ENERGY by quitting than you think you have. The problem is that when you stay in a bad situation too long, you become like a car with its headlights left on: you feel constantly drained. And when you feel that drained all the time, you think you can't possibly make a big move, because you start to believe that your low-energy state is somehow permanent. Worse, you start to think that low-energy state is a fundamental quality of you, not simply a result of the bad situation. The secret is learning to scan the horizon for when a scenario if no longer serving you -- energetically speaking -- and making the move to get out before you become drained.

But you can make a big change. And what you don't realize in your drained, usually depressed state is that all that energy that has been seeping out of you has actually been going into layaway. You get all of it back -- and more -- when you finally decide to start making active choices for yourself again.

Looking back, would you say that you made the right decisions to split without a backup plan?

Keep in mind that big leaps are not for everybody, but I do think it is the most direct and effective route towards big change. When there is no going back, you actually commit yourself much more fiercely to a positive outcome. If instead you go slow, you give yourself too much time to think about what can go wrong, you make much "safer" low-impact choices, and you also become much more susceptible to other people's doubts and fears -- which they are always very happy to share with you, by the way. ("What about health insurance?!")

I find that the way I work, I almost have to make a crazy impossible change in order to actually do it. I find it easier to make huge crazy changes than little safe ones. It's like the difference between jumping into a cold pool and getting it over with versus going in one toe at a time, trying to acclimate slowly at each step. No matter which way you do it, the pool is still going to be shockingly cold. Might as well get it over with.

Which brings me to my other theme: life is short. If you know a scenario is not right for you, why spend one more second remaining in it? You only get this life once, and this day once. Why spend it on something that makes you miserable? Does that bad job / bad boyfriend / crappy city / bad career choice deserve another day of your life? No. So do something about it.

But to answer your question about a plan, even if a leap looks crazy, keep in mind that the person has probably been mulling it over internally for a long, long time. Actions look spontaneous on the outside, but there is often a lot of preparation internally, even if it is only that person accumulating enough frustration to actually do something about it.

If you had to leave a job again (without another one in the wings), what would you do differently?

I don't know that I would do anything differently. Clich├ęd as it is, there is that whole "leap and the net will appear" thing. I think in many small ways, I have been taking a series of chances each time I made a change, all of my adult life. (Moving to big scary NYC straight out of my childhood bedroom in CT was another one of these leaps.) But when I finally quit my well-paying job at Yale to move to a much smaller town, where I did not know one single person, and did not have any job prospects, and did not have a place to live, and had very little money in the bank, with a bad car, and with winter coming -- well -- I was aware how crazy it all was. I also remember thinking that this move to Northampton was the first real, true leap of faith I had ever made in my life. Everything before that had been mere practice by comparison. I remember thinking "so this is what a real leap of faith is." Make no mistake: I had tons of anxiety, and moments of panic, and "what am I doing?" ... but I also kept this thought in mind: I will be alright. Even if I fail, I will be fine. Even if I lose what little money I have I’ll survive. Like my father says, as long as you have your health you're doing pretty damn well. And I kinda just kept this is mind: It's OK to fail. The worst is that I would have to start all over again.

The only thing I can think of that might have eased my anxiety a little would have been to have had more money in the bank. Although there is a really interesting Catch-22 here. I think the more money people have, the more they are afraid of losing it. So, where more money should provide more of a sense of security to take risks, I think it actually makes you less likely to take chances. But, I mean, no one wants to end up sleeping under a bridge, so you do need a little bit of money before setting off on your next journey...

Based on your experience, what would you tell someone who's ready to call it quits?

It's OK to mull things over. It's OK to be confused, or depressed, or to feel lost, like you don't know what your next move is. It's OK to feel trapped. Because what this means is that you are waking up. Sleepwalking people don't feel unhappy, only people who are waking up and not liking what they see are unhappy. But it means you are becoming conscious, becoming aware of what needs to change. I really believe this is part of the process. Because all those feelings of frustration are getting stored up somewhere and later it's all going to serve as the rocket fuel that propels you forward, once you decide what your next big decision is going to be.

But as soon as you know that the place you are is not for you, DO buckle down and start saving your money (despite what I said above). You are going to need some kind of life raft, after all. The other interesting thing about money is this: I never felt like I had enough money at Yale, even though I made more money there than I ever made in my life. But what happens is that when you're unhappy, you unconsciously spend your hard-earned money on lots of little things to make you feel better: pizza, movies, ice cream, clothes, dinners, bars, trips. I would actually argue that you spend less money when you are happy, not more ...

But I've found that the moment you gain a new focus and decide you are going to make a big change, saving money becomes a necessity, and it actually becomes a lot easier to save money because now you have to. I was shocked at how quickly I was able to save money at Yale once I decided I was leaving. I felt so much richer in the process of quitting my job than all of the four years that I dragged through that place, buying little things here and there to make myself feel better.

Do you feel an itch to make another change? If so, what do you want to do next?

I am at year four-and-a-half in my cycle so -- yeah -- I do feel another change is coming. As usual, I am confused, and lethargic, and complainey, and cynical. And I'm eating lots of ice cream to make myself feel better. I am in the process once again. And I don't know where I am going. I am in the mulling phase. This can last quite a while I have found.

But I do know I have to do something radical and different again. Well-meaning people keep suggesting incremental changes to me (finishing a degree, or getting a similar-but-different job elsewhere) but that is not what I want to do -- at all. Mostly out of survival, I have managed to do pretty well for myself in office environments. (This alone is an achievement -- without ever having gotten a degree I have worked for many major financial corporations in NYC: Citigroup, etc. I've been successful for four years at Yale, four years at Smith College. Not bad for someone whose resume once only had: factory, retail store, Stop & Shop.)

But I feel the need to do something entirely different this time. Office work is a dead-end for me. There's nothing new I want to learn here, no more energy in it. I'm going through the motions, but that's it. I totally get it that up until now I have always made decisions out of sheer survival. "I need a job, and I can do this," has always been good enough for me, because it's had to be. But it's no good anymore. The part of myself that I have totally neglected -- in terms of making a living -- is the creative part. I've gone from lifting with my arms, to lifting with my intellect, but now it's time to start lifting myself up -- if possible -- with my creativity. Wish me luck because I still don't know how the heck I'm going to do this yet. But the not knowing is part of the process, so I guess I'm OK with that. I've been here before, in this exact same place, so I know I can do it all again.


  1. Fantastic interview -- resonates so well with me -- especially that great feeling of leaving an undesirable job and having all that dead weight lift away. Thanks for this website! I'll definitely be back to read more.
    All the best,
    K.D. Halpin

  2. Thank you, K.D.! Let me know if you'd like to participate in an interview. You can reach me at msjost@gmail.com. Also, be sure to follow the blog on Facebook - Quitter to Winner Blog. And please pass it along to your friends!

    Thanks again.

  3. Wow...this interview really struck a chord in me. I am a single mom of three and am contemplating leaving a job that I thought I REALLY wanted...but now have, and find it empty and unfulfilling. I want to move "home" to my childhood hometown where I have family that can be a support system to me and my children. I want to go back to a simple life. The desire has only been fanned by a tragic wreck, in which several family members were involved ...all survived but they have a long hard road to recovery and I have been there as much as possible...but it has given me the "reason" to finally plan my departure from my job, take the plunge and begin planning my move. It is scary, but exciting all at the same time. Life simply is too short to spend in a miserable place. Thank you for this blog...it is very inspirational to me