SISYPHUS/Image: Titian (Wikipedia)

The extreme example of a long-term commitment to work is that of treacherous King Sisyphus, who, according to Greek mythology, was condemned by the gods to repeatedly and for eternity roll a rock uphill only to helplessly watch it roll back (a task into which he put his back, if not his heart and soul).

The opposite extreme is every HR manager’s nightmare: the short-termer who not abruptly bolts, without warning, but who also does it again and again.

Apart from the obvious reasons and causes for leaving a job, such as higher pay, nicer management, greater prestige, career advancement, better location, pleasanter physical environment,  more (less) responsibility, workplace safety, more satisfying co-worker relationships or repeat maternity, why would anyone have an erratic job history characterized by shorter-than-expected tenure, with or without mysterious gaps?

In particular, are there any personality or character traits that make job hopping likelier? Importantly, it is well worth wondering whether there are any clues to the possession of these traits that can be identified by a recruiter or psychologist prior to hiring and leaving.

Quitter Psychology

Consider these as such subtler speculative explanations of a short-stint employment history:

  • Negative time-sense pessimism: Some people habitually expect things to go bad quickly. Call them “time pessimists”, people with a negative time sense—people who believe that in time everything tends to go bad, irrespective of whether it’s a new job, a stock portfolio, a marriage or luck at slot machines (as opposed to what may be called “space pessimists”, who believe evil outweighs good, everywhere). As a result, they may be inclined to behave like hit-and-run artists, and be day-traders, serial divorcees, inveterate bachelors, short-time casino players and workplace short-termers. It is possible that for some of these people, what appears to be a short attention span is actually a manifestation of such a negative time sense.

What might cause a negative time sense? Among the possible causes is a perceived preponderance of punishment over reward in the employee’s work or personal life history. Like a child routinely beaten by a brutish father, and who therefore may leave home at a very early age, an employee with negative behavioral expectations vis-à-vis a supervisor, co-workers or clients, caused by past work experiences (or much earlier in life, by that brutish father), may be inclined to think of a job opening as a job exit, and start looking for it just after looking into it.

Such punishment-reward ratios can have a huge impact. For example,  I believe they underlie the odds that you do or do not believe in free will: If you recall being rewarded by praise from your parents or others more vividly than being punished by blame, you will have “chosen” to believe in free will; if the reverse, a belief in hard-core determinism will seem to have been irresistible. Why? You’d would have had to be nuts to reject all that praise, and equally masochistic to accept all the blame. (A similar analysis may apply to some who do or don’t believe in a god or gods.)

A second influence might be an addiction to immediate gratification—perhaps induced by childhood weaning that was too early or fostered by immediate indulgence when nursing was demanded (a hypothesis offered only half in jest). This is because a preoccupation with or expectation of immediate gratification correlates with a distrust of, distaste for or impatience with deferred gratification—which, in turn, can create a negative time sense, the feeling that the immediate now is so much better than later will probably be. (Note: The influence of too-early weaning on personality cannot be underestimated: One North American Indian tribe deliberately, traditionally and successfully withheld food from its male children to transform them into rapacious, frustrated and ferocious warriors literally thirsting for blood.)

From the premise of immediate gratification hunger, it is psychologically a very short, even if illogical step to the feeling that everything that is good and pleasant should and will happen now, not later—a special instance of the fallacy of imagining that “should” implies “will” (e.g., there should be an afterlife, therefore there will be one—the rare instance in which, to this negative time-sense predisposed mind, later or (being the) “late” (Mr. X.) is better than now.

  • Woody Allen’s “moving target”’ philosophy: Once asked his philosophy of life, Woody Allen responded, “Be a moving target.” Comic neurotic paranoia and nerdy angst aside, anxiety about being a stationary “target” can manifest itself in very unfunny ways—fear of commitment, of  (over-) exposure (e.g., as incompetent or under-qualified) or of “attack”, much like a child who keeps changing rooms in order to forestall a searching parent’s scolding or worse. Generalizing this kind of anxiety, an employee could conceivably feel like a “sitting duck” if a job is held long enough to feed such pre-existing feelings of vulnerability. If this sounds like a stretch, consider the very common scenario in which an employee quits to avoid being fired (upon) again.
  • Learning-curve surfing: When learning anything new, some people enjoy the huge gains in knowledge and skill that come with learning the rudiments of anything, which are, in general, easier to acquire and more exciting than their refinements are, while having a low tolerance or appetite for the higher marginal costs of additional gains. This attitude is much like that of an oilman who, having gotten the easily extracted near-surface oil, is reluctant to drill deeper for less oil at higher cost. This kind of employee is likely to quit when the learning curve goes flat. Possible psychological profile: someone who is more of a dilettante, generalist, Renaissance (wo)man or who believes that life is a matter of “so little time, so many choices”, tacitly agreeing with Albert Camus, the existentialist writer, who said that what matters more than the quality of experience is the quantity.  The relevant manifestation of this complex of feelings is short-term work stints.

Another possible profile match is someone who has what Pierre Duhem, historian of science, called an “English mind”—which he characterized as very broad, but not deep, and which he contrasted with a “French mind”—very deep, but narrow (with respect to what he saw as the 18th- and 19th-century English preference for inductive, visual model-building science, as opposed to the French fondness for abstract deep-logic deductive scientific and philosophical thinking, e.g., in the style of Descartes’ quasi-mathematical rationalism).

That contrast is analogous to the difference between skating far and wide on thin ice and ice fishing through a bore hole in solid ice, in one spot, or drilling many shallow oil wells vs. drilling only one very deep one. When one believes that the ice may crack (e.g., through promotion to one’s level of Peter Principle incompetence) and that there’s lots more to see elsewhere, there is a greater chance that involvement with a particular job will be both brief and shallow, like the contact of a moving skate over a pond’s icy crust (thereby reinforcing and being reinforced by any Allenesque “moving target” attitudes).

Employees with an “English mind”  may harbor a preference for maximizing rate of learning rather than total learning in any single given field (while still somehow striving to boost their overall total learned). Hence a new knowledge domain offered at a new job with an associated steeply rising learning curve is preferred, attractive and sometimes irresistible. Like “rate maximizers” in general, such a learning-rate maximizer may be more likely to leave a job prematurely (in the estimation of everyone but himself).

  • Distractibility: A seeming paradox, it can be observed that an employee who is able to focus intently on a task or project may also be one who is, in some sense, easily distracted from it. How is this possible? How can one person be able to concentrate on a task intently for hours or days, yet either have difficulty returning to it once distracted or to otherwise be susceptible to being distracted from it?

The answer: passive stimulus-competition. This means that the employee is not actively looking to be distracted and will therefore “perseverate”—stick to the task, unless and until a competing, over-riding, distracting stimulus (internal or external) appears, e.g.,  some novel stimulus. This is passive behavior to the extent that the distraction is not actively sought—instead being merely responded to.  The trait may be revealed as a tendency to read a book from cover to cover, but not to review it, or to read a chunk of it for hours in one session, but never finish it. A faithful housewife who never strays until seduced is an illustration from home life that parallels distraction by a new job opportunity.

Lesson: What distinguishes being distractible from being easily distractible may, in practice, have more to do with having or lacking any distraction than with any predisposition to seek distractions. That is to say, it may have more to do with a presentation or lack of opportunity than with motive, incentive or strength of character—for (non-)straying employees as well as for (un)faithful spouses. In mathematical terms, straying may, in some instances, have more to do with the probability of a temptation than with its utility.

In his now-classic 1960s study of  culturally and ideologically “alienated”, yet bright Harvard undergraduates, The Uncommitted, Yale sociologist and M.I.T. professor emeritus Kenneth Kenniston suggested that their intense preoccupation with their fleeting momentary absorbing interests made sustained and conventional academic commitments very difficult for them. This phenomenon can manifest itself as the lack of commitment on the part of those who have no enduring sense of duty to anything long-term, including a job.

Whether this trait is neurologically based and a manifestation of a conditional stimulus-controlled capacity to perseverate until re-stimulated by a competing distraction is a question which, although worth asking, has to be addressed through brain research.

  • Novelty hunger: “Neophilia” is a fancy but accepted label for novelty hunger—the craving for newness, in the form of experience, things, relationships and, yes, jobs. As a character and personality trait, neophilia is quintessentially American—as American as apple pie, especially and preferably a new, freshly baked one.  The American agenda of the Kennedy “New Frontier” of space exploration and the earlier conquest of the Wild West, the ceaseless redesign and marketing of cars and iPhones; and fascination with only the newest songs, fashion, movies, books and celebrities are transparent symptoms of this preoccupation with novelty.

Clearly, an employee hungering for novelty is going to be harder to retain than one that thrives on routine, since most jobs have sufficient routine to be classified as such in some key respects. That’s why my coming-of-age taste of routine factory work was much briefer than that of the guy standing next to me who thought that switching from steel to identically processed titanium parts constituted a form of novelty and variety.  Either I valued novelty more than he did or I simply failed to see it in our work.

These are but a few of the factors that may underlie an employee’s erratic job history characterized by shorter-than-expected periods of employment. In Part II, other subtle and surprising possible factors will be presented…

….for those who don’t have shorter-than-expected attention spans or conflicting commitments carved as stone.

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