“Working as an executive at a large 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 dreaded, “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.
Since I was certain I would be working at a PR firm for the rest of my life, I decided that before I dove in to my first full-time corporate gig, I wanted to try something I would never get to do again. I took a job as a traveling sorority consultant. At first, I viewed it as a fun break between school and my dream job, but never something I would want to pursue professionally. I met great women, had engaging, thought-provoking conversations and expanded my world view through visiting women all across the United States and Canada. While it was an enjoyable adventure, at the end of the year I was ready for my big girl dream job.
Until I wasn’t.
During my first year sitting in a cubicle from 9 to 5 at my ‘dream job’, I learned a few valuable things about myself. One of them is that it’s almost impossible for me to sit in a cubicle from 9 to 5. I learned that I work best early in the morning and late at night. I like to talk through big ideas with a team. I want to do work that matters, and work that I care about on a personal level. After about six months I noticed 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 back work. This could not be the rest of my life. My values and my day-to-day tasks were not aligned, and 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, I wrote down what I cared about most. I focused on 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 each 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 was pleasantly surprised to find that many women I contacted were eager to share their stories and help me find my path. It was refreshing to hear the ‘I was there’ and ‘I felt that way too’ stories. While I was receiving all of this valuable insight and feedback, I was getting a different kind of email at the same time from the women I visited the previous year.
I was getting emails saying, ‘Can you tell me more about that woman you met who started her own company while she was still in college?’ or ‘You did a values and goals assessment with my chapter, and now I want to use it with my team at work. Can you send it to me?’ I truly loved receiving these emails, and I would spend all of my free time trying to answer questions, find resources for them and send them inspiring stories, which ended up helping them tremendously and leaving me with a feeling of purpose and joy.
Now you’re probably wondering why I didn’t make the obvious connection right away. It took a while for me to realize that my year as a consultant wasn’t a year off or a year waiting for my real career to start. It was the year I found something I really loved doing, which was learning about women’s successes and helping other women thrive. It wasn’t what I studied in school or what paid the biggest salary, but consulting collegiate women provided me with enough money to survive doing something I loved with people I admired every single day.
I decided to take a huge leap, quit my corporate gig and take a few freelance PR clients while I got to work immediately on this idea that other women wanted the same resources I did, and I was going to find a way to provide them.
Making a living doing something you love is a romantic idea, but there are incredibly difficult aspects of that decision, including social pressure. Friends would often say, “What do your parents, professors and mentors think?” or “I always thought you wanted to be a big deal in PR or really successful.” (Yes, that actually happened multiple times.) The rare “It’s great that you are working on something you love” or “good for you” often came with a side of judgement, and one too many condescending 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, and while my bank account didn’t exactly excite me, a future doing something I love did.
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.
I realized when I changed my career that the way I felt every day mattered more to me than the opinions of acquaintances at cocktail parties. Success is no longer strangers gushing over my LinkedIn profile or going to really expensive galas. It is waking up every day excited to do what I am doing.
*Photo Credit: Emily Long