Working at a large or mid-sized PR firm.
Yeah, that sounds nice. It sounded so nice that it became my go-to answer for my professors, strangers at cocktail parties and potential employers when they asked the “Where do you see yourself in five years?” question. I had just spent four years basically living in the communications department at my school, stockpiling my resume with internships, fellowships and awards, and there was no doubt in my mind that this was my goal and what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
Until it wasn’t.
During my first year sitting in a cubicle from 9-5 at my dream job, I found out a few valuable things about myself. One of them is that it’s almost impossible for me to sit in a cubicle from 9-5. I learned that I’m a person who works best early in the morning and late at night. I like to talk through big ideas with a team, and I have no problem completing menial tasks, but not for the sake of keeping busy and completing menial tasks. I’m a person who wants to do work that matters, and work that I care about on a personal level. After about six months I was noticing that I really enjoyed my coworkers and my boss, but I wasn’t enjoying my work, which for me meant I wasn’t enjoying my life. I was living for the weekend and would get sick to my stomach thinking about going into work and the fact that this might be the rest of my life. I decided I needed a change.
For the first time in my life, I took a different approach to goal setting. Instead of writing down all of the companies I wanted on my resumé or the clients I wanted to work with in my career, I wrote down what I wanted my average day to look like and what type of activities and accomplishments made me truly happy. Once I had more than a few items on my list, I did what any millennial would do: I googled and emailed. I would email at least 10 people a day asking about their work, their life and what they did on a daily basis. I wasn’t applying for jobs, I was just gathering information because I wanted my next move to be the right one.
I did this for about a month until I received an email back. The assistant of one of the people I emailed messaged me see when I could interview for a position with their company. It’s important to note that I wasn’t looking for a job with this company, and I hadn’t asked for an interview. I simply showed genuine interest, which my now-boss has said is why I’m working for him.
Through these experiences, I came to realize the true meaning of the phrase “company culture,” and how much it impacts your everyday life. Company culture isn’t about happy hour or potluck dinners on special occasions. It’s about what your company values day to day and how they work together. I now spend my weeks working hard during the hours when I’m most productive, which yields better results for my boss, my company and ultimately myself. I work on a schedule that works for everyone involved, and I have the opportunity to travel to conferences in New York and team meetings in Washington, D.C. And most importantly, I have time to take on freelance work that I’m passionate about.
I had to come to terms with the fact that it’s OK when the lifelong dream turns out to be the day-to-day nightmare. What’s not OK is not doing anything about it. A wise friend once told me a career is not like a school period or a class. You can’t just suck it up and deal with it for a semester until it’s over. As an adult, your life changes when you say it changes. You will continue to hate your job until you decide to change it, and you owe it to yourself to work toward something you enjoy.
Following your dreams is a pretty romantic idea, but there are definitely incredibly difficult aspects of that decision, including social pressure. When I would update some of my friends about my career move, they would often say “What do your parents, professors and mentors think?” or “I always thought you wanted to be a big deal or really successful.” (Yes, that actually happened multiple times.) The rare “It’s great that your working from home” or “good for you” often came with a side of condescension, and one too many patronizing comments can sometimes be enough to make you feel like you should just go with the grain. You have to decide if the dream is worth it.
I realized when I changed my career the way I felt every day mattered more to me than the polished answer I gave at cocktail parties. Success was not longer strangers gushing over my LinkedIn profile or going to really expensive galas, it became waking up every day excited to do what I was doing.
That’s not to say that I haven’t woken up in a cold sweat worried about my future and the possibility I have made a life-damaging, irreversible decision. It hasn’t been all rainbows and champagne, but when dreams change, you owe it to yourself to change with them. You have to let go of what people will think of you and recognize that the only thing worth your time is something you spend your free time thinking about. When you do what you love, you do your best work, and the world deserves your best work.
So if your dream has dulled or you’re feeling stuck, go talk to people about how they really spend their time, as in how they spend every minute of the day. Map out your ideal work day. Do your research. Email the people you google, and have coffee with them, even if it’s via Skype. Work for your new dream and never give up on finding your true passion.