Why I Quit My High-Flying Job, Said No to a Six-Figure USD Promotion, and Went to Work for a Social Enterprise

I have a history of making questionable decisions.

When I was 22 years old, Andy and I built 8-bit computers using small electronic chips. (The computers were designed by other people; we just followed the plans). This was for our final year engineering project. Andy posted details about our mini-computers online, and someone from an unknown startup called Google commented on the website – asking if we wanted to join his team.

At that point in time, I had never heard of Google. I thought Yahoo! would rule the Internet, but that Altavista was actually better. Furthermore, my one-track mind was set on working for the national oil company PETRONAS – because I had a contract with them. Google could have probably bought me out instantly if I impressed them, but I was too silly to realize that.

That one-track mind led me to skip interviews from two other companies. What was the point? I was going to join PETRONAS anyway.

So I never responded to that guy from Google.

 

If You Get an Offer from Google, You Should Probably Take It

Two years later, I was frightened about where my career in PETRONAS was heading. So I thought about my old friend from Google (who was probably filthy rich now) and wrote back to him; telling him a sob story on why I now wanted to join Google.

He never responded either.

Damn you karma.

Instead, I resigned, took a 16% pay cut and went to work for an oilfield service company.

If you’re unfamiliar with the upstream oil industry, there are a few segments in the market. At the very top are the oil companies. These are usually huge multinationals with lots of assets; like Exxon, Shell and PETRONAS. People want to join these companies because they pay well, are generally stable and offer great benefits.

Oilfield service companies are the second tier. They provide equipment and services to the oil companies. Oilfield service companies pay well too, but they’re quicker to lay people off when business is down. Some companies have a reputation for treating people like slaves. One of those “slave driver” companies asked me to go for an interview back in uni. I didn’t go either.

F**k you SLB.

 

Diagram showing upstream oil industry segmentsMajor upstream oil industry segments

 

But anyways, why I’m telling you this is the decision to leave a “secure” job with an oil company and work for a service company (for 16% less pay too) — would be viewed as weird by an oil insider. It was a contrarian move. People in service companies usually want to move to oil companies – not the other way round.

Some people who’ve read my “How I Paid Off My 58K Education Loan” story have asked me: “Why did you leave PETRONAS? So many people want to get in…”

I’m guessing that for a lot of Malaysians – PETRONAS seems like a dream company. Someone even commented, “What a shame… He broke his contract and had to resort to tricks to pay off his debt…”

But I never regretted it. In fact, by all conventional salaryman standards my move would be viewed as a success. Two promotions within the first five years and significant jumps in salary; I was a regional manager when I was 28 years old.

 

Somebody’s Dream Job — Position, Money and Travel

The official title was “Asia Pacific Product Line Manager.” I was in charge of selling high-tech equipment to clients, executing projects safely, and growing revenues and profits. My area of coverage was from Bangladesh to New Zealand. Over the years, people would often ask me, “What do you do for a living?” and I would squirm uncomfortably as I looked for the right words. Maybe I never got used to the idea that I was supposed to be a leader. Even my mom never really understood my job.

Anyway, since it’s all behind us now and I’m becoming a more shameless blogger by the day:

Mom, I was really the boss of a >10 million USD business.

I used to travel too. In fact, I wrote a lot of this from the business class section of MH 132 Auckland – Kuala Lumpur. (We always travel economy class, but as fate would have it, I got upgraded – on my last business trip).

For the past three years, I’ve done somewhere between 1 to 3 international trips every month. I’m not a huge fan of travel, but have managed to slip in bucket list items like exploring the red light district in Amsterdam; surfing the waves at Gold Coast, Australia; and watching the LA Lakers at Staples Center.

The money was good. I had a great boss and employees. And some genuinely good friends within the company. I guess a lot of people would call it their dream job.

But it wasn’t mine.

 

Why I Left

At this point in most “Why I Quit My Job” articles — the author goes on to tell you all the things they had to sacrifice for their careers. That they worked themselves into sickness, couldn’t have meaningful relationships, and got addicted to alcohol.

I hate to disappoint — but this isn’t where this story is going.

Actually, the higher I climbed the ranks — the better my life got. I had more control over my time — which apart from watching too many Thug Life videos — I generally put to good use. I used the extra money responsibly. And I learned a lot of things about business, leadership and life. I was generally happy too.

So why did I decide to leave?

I left because it wasn’t enough.

2012 Pic of Aaron at Staples CenterThe obligatory “in better times” pic

 

The Push factor — The Temperamental Oil Market

In December 2014, the oil market crashed. Oil was trading above USD 100/barrel in June 2014. By December it had fallen to half its value.

(Right now, in March 2016 — it’s hovering between USD 30-40/barrel).

Oil companies started delaying and cancelling projects. That meant the contractors that served them (like my ex-company) had less and less work.

Less work meant restructuring — reducing the number of employees to match expected earnings. But I was used to restructuring by then. The company had been restructuring a lot over the past two years — even before oil prices crashed. It was starting to wear on me; I had questions about whether the company, or even the industry as a whole was sustainable.

(p.s. Never thought I’d see this, but it looks like solar energy might become cheaper than oil and gas in our lifetime).

Somewhere in the middle of 2015 — I realized I didn’t really enjoy my work anymore. And I say this with the realization that nobody (except maybe this guy) enjoys 100% of what they do. But the idealistic me believes that people should at least like their jobs, and believe in the company they work for.

And they need to believe in their work.

 

What I Really Wanted to Do

In my previous job — my ultimate responsibility was to make money. I don’t think I was bad at it. If you ask my ex-bosses, they’ll probably tell you that I was a great manager, though not a great salesman.

But what I really wanted to do; what I think I would have been really good at — was to be in people development. The “HR” side of things.

And so, for the past few years — I was vocal about wanting to move into a Learning & Development role. I told my bosses and colleagues about it. And it went into my yearly Career Development Plan.

But perhaps what sealed the deal for me was the oil market crash. In such difficult times, “non-essential” roles like Learning & Development weren’t being created; they were being cut.

I was still safe where I was — because my business was making money. But I realized I might never get my “dream” role in the company. And even if I eventually did — it might not be secure.

 

You Will be Tempted

There was another dilemma. My boss and his bosses had been talking about giving me a promotion: same job scope — but a larger area of responsibility. One afternoon, the vice president (of my group) verbally offered me to take a higher position in the organization; in front of two other bosses.

I couldn’t hide the troubled look on my face. Sensing my hesitation, they asked: “We’re curious… what are your concerns?”

“I’m kinda thinking of leaving…” I stammered.

Maybe you think that I’m too arrogant and idealistic for my own good. That I should have been grateful for the opportunity, shut up, and taken the money. I was grateful — but I knew that No was the right decision. For me.

Because I think the whole idea of “tolerating” a day job, using money and the periodic vacation as motivation is a bullshit way to live. I believe people can find work that makes them feel alive. But it takes serious work to find the right fit for their character.

I’d rather find meaningful work and work till I die, than desperately long for retirement — while I do something that kills me.

Pic of the work triangleNot entirely true, but…

 

Quit LIke a Boss

After multiple discussions with my boss, I submitted my resignation letter in the last week of December.

(Looking back, that was bad timing. I might have been able to engineer a nice redundancy payment if I had been more patient).

My boss asked me to reconsider. They would give me another huge bump. If I agreed, it would have been a six-figure USD annual salary. Which is pretty nice for living in Malaysia.

But strangely — I didn’t think of all the Rolexes I could buy, the EuroTrips I could take and the champagne-loving party girls I could help get drunk.

Instead, I thought about how at 32 years old — I didn’t have that much time left. It was time to do what I really wanted with my life.

So I said no in the most respectful way I could.

And I quit.

 

Check your Privilege, Improve Your Situation

Read enough Business Insider Facebook posts, and you’ll start seeing a trend. There’ll be enthusiastic supporters saying: “Wow, thank you for sharing!” There’ll also be: “Of course he could do it. He had daddy’s money/political connections/White privilege/…” comments.

So before I go any further, I’d like to disclose my privilege. I grew up in a middle-class family. My parents were professionals. I had time to read, play music and concentrate on studying. Nowadays I stay alone, and have no dependents.

I acknowledge that maybe a person who has to feed a family couldn’t do what I did. Or even a person who’s getting married in six months.

At the same time, I’ll take responsibility for engineering a life where I could do exactly what I did: I lived below my means. I never took on too much debt (just my apartment). I found a way to pay off my education loan and didn’t buy an expensive car. And I always took time to think about what work makes me happy. I experimented too… That’s why this blog exists; writing makes me happy.

Only a fool would say privilege and upbringing aren’t advantages in life. But one’s situation — given enough time and effort — that’s something that can be changed.

 

My New Job — a Social Enterprise

I recently started my new job at a social enterprise called Leaderonomics.

If you haven’t heard about social enterprises before, they’re businesses which prioritize social work as much as profit. Conventional businesses prioritize profits, then worry about corporate social responsibility (CSR). On the other end of the spectrum, non-profit organizations prioritize charity work — but may not be financially sustainable. A social enterprise is somewhere in the middle.

My job is to work with college students — to help them develop leadership skills. And I get to spend 20% of my time tinkering with social media/digital marketing. I don’t do much that’s related to my engineering degree anymore. But hopefully my experience in the oil industry and my blog will help me in my new job.

I took a huge pay cut to be here; it’s even less than my salary back in 2013. But a few weeks in, I get the feeling I’m exactly where I should be.

 

* * * * * * * *

 

Maybe six months from now, I’ll be broke, unhappy, and spamming LinkedIn messages to Shell HR every day. I can’t say for sure. Before I quit, I was really scared that it was the wrong decision to make. I still am.

But from experience, I know this to be true:

If you want a meaningful life — you have to work hard at finding it. You may have to make questionable decisions that no one else understands. It may take years, only for you to realize that you need to do something else. There’s also no guarantee at the end that you’ll find what you’re looking for, that you’ll be happy, or that you’ll be rich.

Maybe you’ll find it in starting your own company or movement. Or in working for someone whose vision you share. Everyone finds meaning differently.

But if you choose the path less traveled; the path where you have to face your darkest fears. As you struggle in the darkness, you’ll remember that man wasn’t born to merely survive in this world. But to do great and wonderful things, in the pursuit of happiness.

That’s the dream I wake up to every morning now.

The dream of feeling alive.

I hope you find it too.

 

 

Andy is now a senior R&D engineer at a semiconductor multinational corporation. He continues to do really impressive stuff with electronics.

Google (a.k.a. Alphabet Inc.) is now worth about USD 500 Billion. The median yearly salary for a Google hardware engineer is about USD 127,000.

I’m still making questionable decisions with my life.

 

Pic at Unsplash

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60 comments

  • Hi Aaron

    If I were to have read this at any other time of my life, my response would either be one of being inspired or one of nonchalance, like having just read yet another article on the subway. But the time which I’ve stumbled across this article had been eerily timely that it feels orchestrated by the big man up there (whom I believe in).

    I’m also an engineer, working in an oil & gas company, and am feeling quite unfulfilled in life. This year, I’ve decided to pursue a brave start (self proclaimed) in making changes career-wise and coincidentally, I also thought myself to be more of a people person. I just signed up to a postgraduate course in HR management (today’s the first day of class) and equally coincidentally, I found that writing makes me happy (though I’m not very good at it). I bought a domain last week with plans to start a blog.

    Due to being more familiar with technical writing, which often requires a conclusion to most expositions, I’ve to admit that I’m struggling to find a reason for this comment, other than the fact that I’m blown away by the timeliness of me reading this article while being almost under the same circumstance!

    I’m extremely pleased to have found your blog and would definitely be following it !

    • Hey Lim,

      Thanks for writing in! Sometimes there’s no other reason to drop a comment other than you wanted to say Hi — which is a damn good reason by itself. I applaud you for taking the bold step into pursuing HR and am happy to hear that you’re taking up writing!

      What’s your blog name? I’d love to check it out. And please let me know if you need any help — I might be able to point you in the right direction.

  • Don’t even know how I stumbled upon this blog but it’s exactly what I needed at this moment. Thanks for being so candid in sharing your experience!

  • Hi Aaron

    This is exactly what I’m doing now : “using money and the periodic vacation as motivation” and it really is a bullshit way to live. I don’t hate my job, at least not for now, but I’m not sure if that’s the case 5 or 10 years from now. There is a feeling deep down in me that something is missing. I’m still searching for it, whether is it my career that is lacking or is it other things in life.

    All the best and continue inspiring !

    Ming from Kuching

    • Hi Ming,

      Thanks for writing in. Don’t worry, as long as you keep searching and making progress — that’s a worthy pursuit. Wishing you all the best too!

  • Steady my friend.. I enjoyed working with you. One of my best friend and workmate… Thanks for everythings and memories.. Keep it up bro..

    Wallabies brotherhood

    • Thank you brother Wallaby Abu,

      I learned so much from you during our time together. Will always look up to you as a mentor, teacher and brother. And Selamat Hari Raya to you and your family!

  • TQ for the post. This year I discovered this research paper which explains exactly why you did what you did
    https://www.imperative.com/index

    I feel so much less lonely reading the report and your post. In my line of work, very few people do it for the purpose. Most do it for the money or to put it on their CV. Most people think I’m mad when I’m in it not for the money and believed there is a bigger purpose

    Anyway, just wanted to tell you I completely understand your decisions and wouldn’t call them questionable decisions at all. although I didn’t have to make such drastic moves to be contented and find purpose in what I’m doing

    • Thanks Qi,

      Money is important, but how much does everyone really need? Above a certain level of money, I believe purpose is way more important.

      Out of curiosity, what work do you do (for the purpose, and not the money)?

      • I’m an auditor. It’s not the most fancy job. Most people go into it because you learn a lot in a short time and can move on after that to something that pays better and hopefully better work life balance
        Audit has its value, but over time not many see it anymore. For every Enron or Tesco that happened, there’s probably a million that was prevented. But people only remember the failed ones. So now my work involves working towards less fail audits and public awareness to value of audit
        This seems to contradict with my other comment on when to quit right? It’s what I’m passionate with, but whether this is the organisation that I can do the most in. That’s my dilemma at the moment

        • That’s interesting. But no worries on the apparent “contradiction.” People are always an interesting mix of contradictions. I’m sure you’ll be able to find your way. Let me know if I can help in any way!

  • Hi Mr-Stingy,

    Arrived here seeking information on LLP, wonders around and stumble upon this post.

    At 26, left my comfort job, started freelancing, taking the insecurities and doing the questionable things which people around couldn’t really understands. I believe we are here to live not survive.

    Your words are inspirational, thank you for the great blog! as well as the information on LLP!

    • “I believe we are here to live, not survive” <-- this one is inspirational! Thanks for dropping by and being so kind. What freelance business are you doing?

      • Hi! Didn’t realize you replied.
        I’m a freelance Physiotherapist & Pilates Instructor, based around MontKiara.

        I’ve visited SSM and got MyLLP account done, would like to ask, for the business name we register, for example ABC PLT, do we get to apply for another trade name for example DEFGH on the signage? or we must use ABC on the signage?

        Thanks again!

        • Hey man,

          Sorry I didn’t see your reply either! Yeah — for the signage, you’re going to have to use your company name.

  • Bold move dude. I’ve been following your blog and this is a very interesting read. I myself have never gotten into corporate career yet, so I don’t know how stressful and uninspiring the job is. Anyway, I wish you a happier life!

    • Thanks Leo,

      Appreciate you dropping by. There’s stress everywhere of course — but I think the key question for me is: is it worth it? If I’m in a lot of stress but working towards a very meaningful goal I’ll be fine. In terms of my old job, I never hated it. But it might have come to that if I didn’t follow my heart and leave in time.

  • Hi Aaron,

    Thanks for the great and inspiring story. This writing comes at the right time when I really need some positive input and “real” case event on leaving your comfort to pursuit the happiness in life.

    Like you, I’m also now in O&G family (rig owner company to be exact) but slowly I found myself not doing what I should do. The routine is not interesting anymore even though the money is great. Yes, I felt like the drive now only for money.

    I do have a few things in my mind that I think can make me more happy than living in this corporate society. Giving back to the society is one of them.

    But like everyone, the fears still kept me in this industry. The fear of not having enough reserve once I jumped ‘overboard’ and afraid that I will be drowning faster.

    I’m slowly preparing myself right now and need to keep my motivation alive. Not going to get out so soon though unless something else happens i.e layoff…

    • Hi Asrul,

      Thanks for sharing. I can totally relate.

      Hopefully you will find the path that is suitable for you. But I think continuously searching for the path is even more important. Hate to be cliche, but it’s really the journey; not the destination!

      Let me know if I can help in any way. All the best!

  • Hey Aaron, this definitely was inspiring. Moving away from KL and living independantly made me a personal L & D junkie. I really believe that it’s always about choices and that’s where everyone pauses. To follow your passion or the mass. I’m glad with whatever little I had, I made that choice to pursue what makes me happy ( Starting a yoga,travel and photography blog) though at this point I make nothing out of it. I’m yet to quit my current job which is lovely at present but just like you I feel it’s not enough. The height of reaching my maximum capability is what kept me going and with every step it just stretched further. So I’m here still scrambling but it’s seem worthy. Someday I want to set up a purpose for profit foundation to take the underpriviliged people to travel for free and along the way empower them with yoga and L & D skills. I believe I will suceed somehow but till then I’ve got to follow what Rumi said “What you seek is seeking you”. Thank you for sharing this. And do passby my site. Cheers.

    • Hello Jivanti,

      Thanks for writing in. You have a lovely site; looking forward to see it fill up with great stories and pictures over the coming years.

      Love what you say about living intentionally. All the best on your travels!

  • Hi Aaron, stumbled upon your post from a FB share.
    To a certain extent, I share some similarity on how we think and our abilities (minus the finances part). I’d like to know more about what Leaderonomics do. Possible to brief me through an e-mail reply and see how I can add value to it, if can.

  • woww this is rather a shock to see you leaving the Oil & Gas family. I knew you must be doing well in the previous company with all the travels!

    Really admire your persistence in pursuing what you felt was right for you despite I’d imagine that would not be an easy decision.

    Nice touch with a ‘mild’ slap to SLB!

    You won’t be crawling to Shell HR. We knew you’re onto great things. Keep inspiring us.

    • Hello Bro Ilham,

      Thanks!
      Yeah, it wasn’t an easy decision, but I acknowledge I had nothing much to lose. It would be much harder for a family man.

      Guess I’ve probably destroyed all hopes of a future career with SLB, but that one was for all my oilfield friends who’ve been treated harshly by them 😉

  • Dear Aaron,

    It is very true, you must find something you love to do, then you won’t have to work a day in your life. Thank you for sharing your story.

    All the best with your new job and keep on the good work in continuing inspiring others.

    Huey – from Sabah

    • Thanks Huey Snoopy,

      Appreciate you dropping by all the way from Sabah. Hope you’re in a position where you’re already doing something you love!

  • If I could start over, I would love to establish a bike shop in Vermont because they have a huge bicycle trail that goes around the entire Lake Champlin area and there are multiple secondary bike trails that branch off from the trail and part of it goes into Canada. It would give me sheer joy in helping people repair their bikes so they can enjoy riding around the trail plus staying fit. It would stimulate me in taking bicycle rides since I have not rode bicycles for a long time.

    • Hi Gunther,

      Thanks for writing in. Sounds like you really like bicycles. Perhaps start small and see what happens?

  • I’ve been up to date with most of your posts lately and I would just like to say, you’re an inspiration! Ever since I met you at the Rotaract Event in Penang, I’ve had a good feeling that you’re going to be someone great.

    Continue inspiring and keep posting more posts!

    Inspired, all the way from Taiwan.

  • Guess what? I did the same thing, resigned when I got an offer for promotion. Now working as a full time Xiangqi (chinese chess) player and owns two chess academies. Income has improved, but I am definitely happier than ever to do what I love. By the way, Sim Yih Chun is my cousin, so I guess it is in our blood. LOL!

  • Hi Aaron, thank you for your story! All the best and continue inspiring!: )

  • I am so excited to see the word ‘Learning & Development’!! Welcome to the L&D family. Though I am not a very experience one, but I do experienced a drastic change of career path to reach where I am now. L&D is still not widely recognize in Malaysia’s corporate, most are still park under HR. Your decision to start off Social Enterprise in fact is a smart move! Thanks for shaping our younger generation into the future leader. Best of luck!

    • Thanks Janice!

      Am happy to join the L&D family. Feels like coming home. Really hope I can contribute towards helping the future generation.

      p.s. I didn’t start a Social Enterprise — just joined one. Let me know if there’s anything we can do for your organization 😉

  • I am now 26. The experience from you is really helpful to me as I am wandering on my career path.
    Thank you very much for your sharing 🙂

    • Thanks Dave for dropping by,

      Let me know if there’s anything I can write about to help you further. All the best ahead!

  • Dear Mr Aaron,

    Thank you for sharing. In my personal opinion this is your best post so far. “it wasn’t enough” really pinched me.

    • Thank you Farhan,

      Hope you’ll be back for more. “It wasn’t enough” is a dangerous thing though… there’s a lot of happiness that can be found in contentment 🙂

  • I’m a manager too and I hate it. Hopefully one day i can do what you did too. Salute brother! – Thomas

  • Good leap of faith! Corporate is not for everyone. Good luck to you!
    Thomas – from Philippines

  • That’s quite a journey, Aaron. Thank you for sharing.

    Your story is an eye opener. It is also inspirational, as I’m sure many a y̶o̶u̶n̶g̶ reader would be reminded that their life is worth a lot more than dollars and titles. You are indeed idealistic in that your decision was grounded on your ideals. But, in life, if we don’t make the tough decisions, someone else will. And their ideals may be questionable.

    I have always enjoyed your writings. I just didn’t realise that they had such a busy life behind them! 🙂

    Keep them coming. I wish a rewarding journey ahead.

    • Thanks Dom,

      Still busy, but hopefully the new job gives me more inspiration to write better. Wishing you a great journey ahead too!

  • I’m about the same age as you, and your article reminded me of a question my mother asked me, “Are you living your life or just functioning?” Made me realise I haven’t pursued anything that I’m passionate about for a long, long time.

    Good luck with the new path pursuing your passion!

    • Thanks Julian,

      Hope you’ll find a way to chase that passion too. All the best ahead, and let me know if you need any help!

  • Higher post and salary are not the key of happiness. i rather have a happy life than having a stressful work life.

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