The epiphany: why people end things

Things tend to go on as they always have — until somebody has an epiphany.

A decade ago, I was the lead on hiring a new social media analyst at Forrester Research. A woman with a strong and positive social media presence interviewed with us, and got to the final stages, which included doing a presentation to our team.

Everyone, the candidate included, expected us to make her an offer to join the company. And we almost did. But as I started to think about the job and this candidate, I realized that she wasn’t right for it. I had an epiphany about the work we did, and now the candidate no longer seemed to fit. So we didn’t hire her.

This decision was sufficiently surprising to her that a decade later, when she saw my name pop up on social media, she messaged me to find out what “really” happened. She assumed someone had twisted my arm and undone her prospects.

No, I responded, it was me. It was just that my world view had shifted overnight, and the hire no longer made sense to me.

Endings come from epiphanies that shift world views

Obviously, some things end because of catastrophic events — a layoff ends a job, an affair ends a marriage, a lie ends a friendship.

But other things end, seemingly for no reason.

If you think about things like that, you’ll always find that the decision maker has had an epiphany. Their world view has shifted.

Epiphanies are rare, or ought to be. You can’t live well if your world view shifts every couple of days. But those rare epiphanies have consequences. Once your world view shifts, you may find you can no longer keep doing what you’ve been doing on autopilot.

Here are some of mine and the endings they led to.

In my sophomore year in college, I had a steady girlfriend. Then we went to a science fiction convention and were exposed to a mass of new ideas. I had an epiphany about who I was and what I was doing. Our relationship no longer fit my idea of who I was. So we broke up.

A few years later, I was in the midst of a long-term plan to be a mathematician. I was studying in a Ph.D. program. I took a summer job at a software company. My epiphany was that my chosen career was going to be sterile and unrewarding, and there was a better match for me in business. So I quit grad school and became a business person.

I left my first wife after six years together when I had the epiphany that there was no hope that she’d be the kind of person I wanted to share my life with. Obviously tensions were building up for a while, but my world view shifted when I spoke to a friend and realized things couldn’t continue in a way that would make either of us happy.

I left my job at Forrester Research after 20 years when I realized I couldn’t keep doing the same thing and continue to be happy with it. My world view shifted — my epiphany was that I wanted to concentrate on writing and helping authors, not being an analyst.

And my 21 years in my current home — and 42 years in the Boston area — are about to come to an end. I will be moving to Portland, Maine. Finding the right house was a challenge. Partway through this search, I asked my wife, “Couldn’t we create the things we want right here?” She replied “I’ve had it with this house.” That was our shared epiphany. Our world view had shifted. We were people retiring in Portland, and the big house in suburban Boston no longer fit.

Epiphanies are rare moments. Don’t miss them.

Looking what I just wrote, you could easily come to the conclusion that I am a capricious person who just ends things abruptly. That would be pretty far off. My dream of being a mathematician lasted more than a decade. My relationship with my first wife lasted six years. My job at Forrester lasted longer than 90% of the analysts there. I am not a quitter; I tend to stick with things for a long time. And of course there are lots of things that have remained constant over that time –my love of baseball and bicycling, my values, and my current marriage (31 years and counting) for example. Some things that used to work continue to work, so I don’t need to change them.

But some things do come to an end. People do decide to end them. Why does something that’s going steadily along suddenly lurch in a new direction?

Look closely at those decisions and there is always an epiphany, a shift in world view that necessitates an ending and a new beginning.

If you are feeling uneasy with what you are doing, who you are, and who you spend time with, don’t just keep plugging along. Be open to the shift in world view. If you have that epiphany, that is a rare opportunity to figure out what you actually want and how to get it.

Don’t toss away valuable things without thinking hard about it. But when the epiphany comes, think carefully about what it means. Sometimes ending things is a necessary step for a new and rewarding beginning.

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    1. Great essay, as always. But, how honestly did you explain to the very qualified candidate at the time why she was not getting hired? Perhaps not well, if she was concerned years later. Perhaps your answer then instilled an epiphany of her own.

      1. That is a fair question.

        I told the truth.

        I said “We’ve carefully considered the hiring here and we don’t think you’re the right match for the job.”

        That’s the truth. But it isn’t necessarily what people want to hear.

        1. I coach so many job seekers who hear this message in one of its forms, and I say “you dodged a bullet.” Because if the employer doesn’t think you’re the right match, you aren’t. The job seeker is now free to find the right match for her or himself. S/he may be and usually is disappointed. What a gift they have been given! At very least, the gift of contemplating why the job was not a good fit for their temperament, work style, personality…the intangibles that make work fun.

  1. Extremely helpful and relevant messages, Josh. You helped me process and understand things that have been on my mind for years.

    My first major epiphany was when I had just turned 21 years old and both of my parents went out to dinner but my mom never came back. She was killed by a drunk driver. I never saw her again. It shifted my worldview about the future, what could be expected or counted on and what couldn’t, the capriciousness of life, how an entire trajectory can shift in the blink of an eye, and about my own journey from childhood to adulthood and how I needed to shift from passively letting life unfold to taking an active role in writing my life story.

    My more recent worldview-shifting epiphany occurred in November 2016. My understanding of the concept of “America” completely flipped, I gained clarity as my eyes were opened to the stark difference between the mythology of what we say we stand for versus the true nature at the heart and soul of this nation, including the motivations of powerful leaders. On a more personal level, I experienced a massive shift in my view of friends and colleagues and citizens, their morals, ethics, motivations, fears, beliefs — and what (and who) I want to associate with, who is incompatible with my beliefs, and who I needed to leave behind (with sadness and a sense of loss as powerful as the death of a parent) as I focus on my truth and my path.

    The changing worldview of an epiphany can lead us forward in new directions to exciting discoveries and positive change, but they are often coupled with a deep and painful loss of what we end or leave behind.