Spoiler alert: the answer is maybe.
I think I ought to start with a disclaimer that my job is a little bit unusual in the sense that it's both a.) completely dead-end with no possibility of promotion and b.) a contract that maxes out at five years. I could have chosen to continue on for another year or two (and many ALTs do exactly that), but it would have necessarily ended eventually. For me, the choice wasn't "Do I quit my job?" so much as "Do I quit my job now or later?" The quitting itself was a foregone conclusion before I even moved here.
Still, a job is a job, and there are a million questions involved in making the choice to leave it behind, though I think they all fall into two primary categories: "Why should I look for something new?" and "Why should I stick with my current job?" The balance between those two should be able to tell you whether it's time for a change or not.
What am I getting out of this position?
Are the benefits going to increase if I continue or are they going to plateau?
Have they already plateaued?
What direct consequences will quitting have on my life?
What could/would I be doing if I didn't have this job?
What do I need out of a job?
Is my current job fulfilling those needs?
What are the things that have kept me from quitting until now? Are they still relevant?
Are there things I could do outside of work to make my job work for me?
What advantages does my job offer that a different job/unemployment would not?
What are my other options if I quit?
Let's talk about the easiest questions first. What's my job doing for me and where is it falling short? As an ALT, the benefits of my job are a good salary, plenty of free time at work, cheap rent, a beautiful city and students that make me laugh every day. Unfortunately, it's also repetitive and isn't something I'm passionately interested in. I love English--I don't love teaching English to non-native speakers. You might say that I've got plenty of security but I'm a bit lacking in the satisfaction department.
Of course, there are plenty of reasons why someone might choose security over satisfaction when it comes to a job. The more responsibilities you have (kids, mortgage, spouse, pets, whatever) the harder it becomes to make a big change like quitting a job, particularly if quitting will also have other direct consequences like moving. I think there are also plenty of people who resign themselves to having a somewhat lackluster job because it gives them free time and the ability to do what they want with it. Maybe when I'm older that's the kind of mindset I'll have, but I'm young enough now that falling into a trap where security trumps exploration isn't something I want.
There is something to be said for sticking with a job you don't love, though. Maybe keeping this job will lead you towards your dream job. Say you want to be a translator, for example, and your job as an ALT lets you practice real-world Japanese every day. Or perhaps the tier you're on right now isn't great but you're really excited about a promotion you'll get if you stick with it. Making your job history look good is always worth mentioning too--employees are going to be impressed if they see a certain amount of constancy on your resume.
I've heard from a lot of ALTs that they're staying because there's nothing better waiting for them once they quit. That's not a terrible reason, but it really shouldn't be the only reason. Here's the truth: earth is not a magical land where perfect job opportunities just fall into your lap. You have to work for them. Are you unqualified for the job you really want? Go out and get some qualifications. Want to work for yourself? Figure out how. Does the job you want not actually exist yet? Get started on making it happen. The last thing I wanted was for my job to become a crutch that allowed me to stagnate.
I watched a TED talk once (this one, to be specific) where the speaker said that "fine" is the worst word in the English language, because if we say "I'm doing fine" we're giving ourselves permission to accept the way things are. If you're fine, nothing has to change. I heard a variation on the same concept from the music teacher in the movie Whiplash: "There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'good job'." Are you sticking with a job you don't love because you're truly making the most of the other benefits it affords you? Or are you allowing yourself to be satisfied with mediocrity because you're too scared or too lazy to look for something better? You certainly don't have to tell me the answer, but it's something to think about.
At this point, you're probably thinking "Hell yeah, I should quit my job!" Well, hold your horses. If you're unhappy, it's time to take a serious look at where that unease is coming from, because it might be a lot closer to home than you think.
Have you heard the fable of the traveling Japanese woman? It's important to my point, so I'll write it out for those of you who aren't familiar with it.
A long, long time ago (most likely sometime in the 80s) in Nagasaki, there was a woman named Michiko. Michiko had studied English for many years, and she considered it her biggest hobby--though she also had many others. Ever since she'd begun studying the language, she'd always wanted to go to America. "In America", she thought "I'll be able to forget the English from the textbook and learn real English from real native speakers." Michiko wanted to study abroad, but it was just too expensive, so instead she set her sights on landing a job in America once she'd gotten her degree.
She got her wish. She graduated from university and got a job as an assistant Japanese teacher in an American elementary school. "Where are you going?" her family asked her, and she replied, with joy in her eyes "I'm going to Laramie, Wyoming!"
Time passed, and in the blink of an eye it was time for Michiko to fly to Wyoming. "What a big adventure you're going to have, Michiko!" her family said. They were sad to see her go, but they were so happy that she was going to live her dream of visiting America. She would come back a different person, they knew. None of them had been to Wyoming, but they all knew that Michiko's time there would be filled with new experiences that would shape her future.
When Michiko finally got to Wyoming, she did her best to experience the wonderful things Laramie had to offer. She liked to go hiking, and she tried every new restaurant she could find. Some of her friends had gotten the same job she had gotten, and she was so impressed by how much of America some of them had seen! It seemed like every weekend they were off doing something new. Some of her friends always seemed to stay in their apartments whenever they had time off, though. Michiko tried to strike a good balance between staying home and going out.
After living in Laramie for several months, Michiko went back to Nagasaki to visit her family. "How is America, Mi-chan?" they asked. Michiko, now knowing a bit more about the nature of the world than she did when she left Japan so long ago, replied:
"It's just the same as here."
Does Michiko's story sound familiar? Ok, you caught me--this isn't a real fable. This is my story, changed around to show you that Kurobe isn't any more innately exciting or exotic than Laramie. If you're relying on a big change like a new job or a new city to change your life, you might be in for a wake-up call when you make the plunge and realize that it's actually exactly the same. If there's one thing I've learned in Japan, it's that you are responsible for your own happiness.
So before you hand in your notice, let's take a look at some smaller, more manageable changes you might make instead--inside and outside of the office.
First, make a list of some of the frustrations you have at work. Things like coworker issues, problems you have with the tasks you're being assigned, maybe feelings of boredom that stop you from enjoying your workday. I know we all like to bitch about the office, but bitching isn't terribly productive. What actual, serious steps can you take to change these frustrations? Can you talk to your boss about some additional tasks you'd like to take on? Try holding out an olive branch to your coworkers if you want to be more social with them. Think about how you can turn your boredom time into productivity--for yourself or for your employer. I have a lot of free time at work, and I use it to study Japanese, write, or look into things I might do once I leave Japan.
On top of revamping your workday, try looking into what you can do outside of work. If your job is literally the only exciting thing you're doing with your life and even work isn't all that interesting, you're bound to be dissatisfied. Can you be using your free-time better? What are some things that you'd really like to do? Want to pick up an instrument? Join a gym? Go to the movies more often? Do it. Make a purposeful, serious effort to change the way your life looks outside of work and I guarantee your feelings about work will improve too.
I've heard a lot of people say that I must have such an interesting life because I live in Japan, but there's no must about it. I have friends who are having the time of their lives here, but I also have friends who never get out and do anything. Those are the people who grump about work. That, more than anything else, has shown me that you can't take yourself out of one situation and into another and expect things to be all that different--you're the constant variable there. If you want change, you have to be the thing that's changing.
Are there situations that facilitate change more readily? Sure. But you don't have to move across the world to start being proactive about shaping your life. Maybe at the end of the day you should look for another job, but I think it's important to make sure that the problem isn't stemming from your behavior or your attitude first.
All of these things put together were what led to my decision to leave Japan. I love Kurobe, and my kiddos are great ninety-five percent of the time. This job has given me a ton of good experiences and it's allowed me to save enough money that I don't have to worry about it when I think about where I want to go from here. But when I asked myself the questions of why it's worth staying and what I might gain if I leave, the answer to the second outweighed that of the first.
So, should you quit your job? My answer is this: you spend forty hours a week at work. You need to find a way to make that forty hours enjoyable. If you've tried everything you can to make that happen (and I do mean everything) and you're still not happy, or if you've got this feeling that you ought to be out there doing something else, then yes. You should. As for me, I'm ready for the next page in my book.
Whatever that may be.