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Jumping ship can be a great move or a stupid move. For David Caruso, McLean Stevensen, and Shelley Long it was a dumb move. They gave up great paying gigs on Cheers, MASH (M*A*S*H*), and NYPD Blue to jump ship. Their careers languored. This phenomenon is so common it's now known as the Caruso Effect

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The Right Time To Jump Ship

Inspired or suicidal depends on when you jump

Standing on the viewing platform of a cruise liner, gazing out at the seagulls, azure blue skies, and snowy white clouds, you'd have to be seriously mental to consider jumping ship.  Where you land could be shark infested waters.   You might think differently about jumping if the ship had just been hit by a torpedo and was sinking faster than your chances of getting into a lifeboat. 

In life, jumping ship refers to abandoning a job or activity rather suddenly, usually when an opportunity perceived to be much better comes along.  There's also this idea that the jumper is leaving a position of some importance or responsibility from which there is no turning back.  A cashier at McDonald's quitting without prior warning would not be seen by any as jumping ship.  The person is not indispensible, and the quitter could almost certainly get rehired in a similar position at a similar salary elsewhere with very little difficulty. 

In my grandparents' generation, jumping ship wasn't commonly done.  One graduated college, got a job at a company, and stayed there for most or all of his career.  This salaryman-type of employment is still common in East Asia, though not as common in a world of corporate downsizing and outsourcing as it once was.  Today's young job seekers have no expectations of staying with one company for the length of their careers.  It's not even an option for most.   Jumping ship is expected for one to advance.  Moves can be made laterally, via a competitor's business, to better position oneself later for a vertical move.  Career experts advocate that you should be planning your next ship jump the day you start your new job. 

But when to make the jump?  In the real world, it's rare that your ship will be sinking so rapidly that you'll receive ample forewarning when to stage your move.  You have to jump before the downsides fully show themselves.   However, if you jump too early, you'll be stranded in the water and possibly drown in the Sea of Desperation.  And if you jump too late, you go down with the sinking ship and drown in a lack of future career prospects

The bigger the opportunity cost, the harder it is to jump because the consequences of the move are so much greater.  For the McDonald's cashier or the mechanic in a large garage, the term 'jumping ship' shouldn't even be employed.   Leaving their jobs does not cause serious ripples in their lives or disrupt the businesses they depart.   A legal star leaving a comfortable mid six-figure salary at a blue chip law firm to act as legal counsel for one-fifth the salary plus stock options at a new Silicon Valley startup incurs a bigger but still minimal risk.  He will not have a difficult time returning to the blue chip legal world and the salary he left behind should the startup eventually fail.  

For this reason, examining the business and political world for jump-ship examples is unsuitable.  However high the salaries foregone from jumping, it doesn't make a difference as long as the jumper can easily get another berth on to the same or similar ship from whence he jumped.  For the purposes of this article, I wouldn't even call such actions jumping ship.  There must be real risk undertaken in the hopes of greater but highly uncertain rewards.   Big Dick Cheney 'abandoning' Haliburton to become vice president was not jumping ship.  Haliburton's doors (or doors like theirs) were open for Cheney to walk through after his term as vice president ended.  To really grasp the concept of jumping ship, we have to look at cases where the jumper truly has a lot to lose by jumping and cannot easily regain the situation he possessed before the jump. 

A fruitful place to look is in the world of television stars.  On a successful television series, lead actors can command stratospheric salaries which upwardly influence the salaries they reap on other projects produced during or shortly after the time their TV series is on the air.   Matthew Perry collected $3 million for The Whole Nine Yards and $5 million for its sequel while he was still a star on Friends.  James Van Der Beek earned $3 million for Texas Rangers during his star tenure on Dawson's Creek.  With those TV shows now out of production and both men fallen from their stardom peaks, Perry and Van Der Beek would be extremely unlikely to collect those kind of paydays today. 

But neither Perry nor Van Der Beek ever jumped ship to do the movies.  They were stars on their respective vehicles, understood the nature of their success, and rode that success out till their series finales, doing side projects when time permitted.  To find ship jumpers, you need to look among supporting cast members of successful shows.   The late McLean Stevensen is a prime example.  He played Captain Henry Blake during the first few years of M*A*S*H*, one of the most successful television shows of all time.   Stevensen had the ego and, some might argue, the talent to headline his own successful television series.  The networks definitely thought so.   While he was on M*A*S*H*, he was getting offers to star in his own show for a lot more money.   Stevensen fulfilled his three-year contract with M*A*S*H* and then went on to star in a succession of television turkeys.    One of those failures, Hello, Larry, was voted among the worst fifty shows of all time.   I watched it during its original run when I was still a prepubescent and can vouch for how awful the show and its theme song were.  Stevensen died in 1996 having never regained the career stature he enjoyed when he starred on M*A*S*H*. 

  Hello Larry lyrics

 The stupid lyrics made more sense than the TV show:   Hello, Larry from 1979

Another is Shelley Long.  She, too, appeared in one of television's most beloved series, Cheers, as Ted Danson's love interest for the show's first 5 years.  Come 1987, she wanted a movie career and jumped ship.  Cheers ran another 6 years without her.  Danson got elevated to a salary of $10m/year by the show's final season as Long's career went down the toilet. 

One of the most famous examples is David Caruso.  He scored the lead in 1993 on NYPD Blue, a gritty crime drama that quickly became a television success and elevated Caruso's status to star level and swelled his head to Elephant Man-sized proportions.  After just one season, Caruso jumped ship to pursue a movie career just like Shelley Long before him.  Like Long, that career never materialized and Caruso's acting prospects floundered until he was lucky enough to get a second chance by being cast on CSI Miami in 2002

It's easy as an observer with the advantage of hindsight to excoriate Stevensen, Long, Caruso, and others like them for jumping ship.  But was jumping ship, as seen from the time in which they did it, a stupid move?   

Most successful TV shows run from 5 to 8 years.   Before the advent of TV series on DVD, a show had to last at least 100 episodes in order to make it into the syndication markets to enjoy a lucrative afterlife.  100 episodes requires 5 seasons.  When Stevensen quit M*A*S*H* and Long Cheers, each show could be estimated as having around 3 years of life left.   There's no way Stevensen and Long could've known that their shows would be as successful as they turned out be and run a total of 11 seasons. 

I can see how Long and Stevensen could think that leaving midway through their shows' estimated run made some sense.   They were popular, agents and managers were telling them how desirable they were, producers were pitching them more lucrative offers.  If they stayed with their respective shows till the shows sank, they ran the risk of being typecast for the rest of their careers and never having a chance to go further.  As they say, you must strike when the iron is hottest.  Caruso's jump is the one that unquestionably makes no sense.  He'd barely made the most of the NYPD opportunity before thinking himself fit for greater things.  NYPD Blue wound up running eleven more seasons without him.  His actions were so outlandish that bailing out of a hit TV show to pursue other projects, then failing miserably and sabotaging one's career, has since become known as the Caruso Effect. 

McLean Stevensen
Casualties of jumping ship (from l to r):  McLean Stevensen, Shelley Long, David Caruso

In hindsight, none would have jumped.  By the time M*A*S*H* folded in 1983, Stevensen's ship had already sunk miserably in three other TV series.  It would've been better for his career and bank account if he'd been willing to earn a smaller amount over 200+ episodes on M*A*S*H* than a larger amount over 40 episodes scattered among several different series no one can now remember the names of. 

Cheers wrapped in 1993. Between Long's jump and Cheers' end, Long did just a handful of unmemorable movies and TV appearances.  In 1988 and 1991, she didn't act in TV or movies at all. 

Caruso's resume remained pretty thin as well.  Kiss Of Death from 1995 was about the only memorable thing he did plus a few failed movies and one failed TV series.   When the CSI: Miami gig came around, he had the good sense to stick with it. 

My analysis, I admit, is not completely fair.  If all of us possessed the power of precognition, we'd have already bought tomorrow's winning lottery numbers.  But you don't need to be able to see the future to make sound decisions.  You only need to intelligently sift through the past.  How many unsuccessful auditions does it take before a TV actor gets a part, any part?   How many quality roles on well scribed TV shows are out there for the grabbing?   Loretta Swit, who played Hotlips Hoolihan on M*A*S*H*, claims that Stevensen knew he'd never star on a show as good as M*A*S*H*, but that he had a need to be the top dog on whatever show he was in.   The majority of TV and film actors never achieve name recognition status, much less on a superb show.  They play forgettable background or guest spot roles on terrible programs.  To land a regular role on a TV series (and an acclaimed TV series at that) is akin to winning the lottery.  Most any actor living in reality has experienced unending rejection before work appears.   From 1980 to 1993, Caruso's most consistent acting gig was 8 episodes in Hill Street Blues and six on a now forgotten show called H.E.L.P.  Long did TV guest appearances here and there, one on an episode of M*A*S*H*.  It was the usual blink-and-you-miss-it career until Cheers came along.    M*A*S*H*, Cheers, and NYPD Blue are not the kind of day jobs you jump ship from and take for granted better things will come along.

The lesson to take out of this -- at least the lesson I'd take out of it:  you don't jump ship when the ship you're on is a possibly once-in-a-lifetime all-expense paid cruise on the Queen Elizabeth 2.  You jump when your vessel is a dinghy riddled with holes that is more likely to harm than help you.

Most of the time, deciding to jump or not to jump is a rather easy decision.  We make it difficult by paying attention to the wrong things.  Long, Stevensen, and Caruso weren't focusing on building up a body of quality work.  They were obsessed with the fame, fortune and ego. 

Let's compare two friends of mine.  The first has been obsessed for two-and-a-half years with a woman 18 years his junior.  For most of their time together, the affair was casual.  She was juggling my friend with another man.  When my friend finally stepped up to the plate to commit four months ago, she dumped the second man  Now that they're exclusive and she's moved in with him, he expresses all his dissatisfactions with what she's not.  He wants to jump the (relation)ship for perceived better opportunities around the corner.   He completely forgets that for the two years they were casually together, he was free to investigate other options.  He went on lots of unsatisfactory dates, got taken on lots of financial rides, and regularly commented he wished he had a steady girlfriend. 

The second friend recently faced a situation where he could jump the ship of his current job.  It would be a very pleasant jump, relocating him to a gorgeous tropical beach area of India, for 10% more in salary than he's earning now and in a lower cost country, and exposing him to challenges in his work that he's not yet experienced.  He's been living in Thailand for four years and says he wouldn't mind a change.  Now here's the snag. He may be eligible for a promotion and concurrent raise if he stays in Thailand.   Should he move to India, the promotion isn't an option.  The more senior job title doesn't exist there.  Staying in Thailand doesn't guarantee him the eventual promotion.  The promotion could never occur.    Staying without receiving the promotion could actually hurt his future job prospects, as it may appear to others that he stagnated in one place in the same position for a number of years.   

I thought Caruso, Stevensen, and Long were deranged for jumping ship.  They were in golden situations hard enough to get into the first time.  Leaving that behind to chase after something better they were unlikely to obtain was a foolhardy move.  I can't help but see my first friend in their footsteps.  Could he line up a better girlfriend?  In the past two years he hasn't.  Why would he now be attracting more compatible women or making the significant effort required, and if he somehow did, what makes him think he'd appreciate the new girl any more than the one he has now?  In theory, there's always something better out there.  Most of us have the sense to comprehend that the marginal gain we'll receive isn't worth the large effort required to obtain it, so we don't bother.  For others, no level of happiness or success is ever enough. 

The second friend decided not to jump ship.  He loved where he was living in Thailand and the life he established for himself there.  If the promotion didn't come along, at least his day-to-day existence in the place he is now is the life he always wanted, and what better reward than being able to appreciate it while you have it? 

It's up to us and those closest to us to push ourselves to our highest potential, and sometimes jumping ship is necessary to reach our goals.  But many times, jumping ship is just an illusion that what's better lies somewhere else, forever out of reach.

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