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08.10.10

Our Favorite Quitter

When flight attendant Steven Slater quit his job and rode his airplane’s emergency slide to freedom, he became a hero to disgruntled workers everywhere. Jessi Klein on why Slater is the recession’s Sully. Plus, watch video of 8 crazy on-the-job movie meltdowns.

In this economy—this miserable, seemingly endless financial toilet flush we find ourselves spiraling in—depressing stories about people being laid off or fired seem to be as much of a fixture in the news as the daily crossword. So it’s no wonder that people seem to be joyfully rejoicing over a decidedly odd story that broke yesterday about a man named Steven Slater who had the gumption (actually, I think it can only properly be described as the balls) to quit his job as a flight attendant for JetBlue.

And it’s not just that Slater quit. It’s that he quit in such an epic fashion, not only unloading a an invective-filled retort over the plane's public address system but also making sure to grab a beer from the refreshment cart before sliding down the emergency exit.

The law may not be pleased with Mr. Slater, but on the internet, people are in love with him. The majority of comments range from exclamations like “Team Steven!” and “my hero” to long, empathetic missives from people who’ve suffered similar abuse at jobs both on the sky and on the ground. After I posted a link to the story on Facebook, my friend James chimed in, “He’s the new Sully.” Which I think is kind of perfect.

While Sully’s “Miracle on the Hudson” reminded us that there are still some people who are genuinely brilliant at their jobs, Slater’s story seems to have been sent to remind us that there are still some jobs so genuinely awful that it’s okay to leave them. As a culture, we are taught that winners never quit, and quitters never win. But is this always true? Do we put an unhealthy emphasis on sticking with a job even if it’s making you unhappy/filling you with dread/letting assholes drop luggage on your head? Especially in this economy, with the prevailing attitude of “you’re lucky to have a job,” the question arises: Are you lucky, punk? I’ll confess: As someone who’s got a pretty decent batting average when it comes to quitting jobs (beginning as a teenager with a mind-numbing unpaid internship at a museum that I walked out of resolving never to return), I’ve never felt luckier than when I’ve taken stock of my financial and emotional resources and realized, wait a minute—I could leave.

Quitting gets a bad rap as being “the easy way out.” But oftentimes quitting is harder than staying. Money is just one part of it. Facing the unknown and leaving for something else that may not exist yet takes not just bravery, but also the ability to honestly look inside yourself and rediscover the exact boundaries of your threshold for suffering.

While Sully’s “Miracle on the Hudson” reminded us that there are still some people who are genuinely brilliant at their jobs, Slater’s story seems to have been sent to remind us that there are still some jobs so genuinely awful that it’s okay to leave them.

Video screenshot

Which is exactly why Steven Slater is the folk hero we’ve been wanting—nay, needing. For everyone out there who is waking up with that awful-job knot in their gut every morning, the one that tightens the minute you open your eyes, Slater’s tale is a wake up call, a reminder that dignity and happiness do matter. That the desire for fulfillment can and sometimes should trump fear. In other words, that sometimes you do need to take your job and shove it. Quitting is obviously a rare privilege. Most workers can’t leave their jobs. They have kids or mortgages or family members who need support. For them, Slater’s story is the ultimate vicarious thrill, a fairytale with an awesome ending. Of the many commenters expressing support for Slater on the Web, a large number are just saying some version of this: how desperately they wish their desk had a button for an inflatable evacuation slide.

Jessi Klein is a writer and comedian who has frequently appeared on Comedy Central, CNN, VH1, and the Today show. She also likes to think she has value as a human being aside from her numerous credits in the entertainment industry.