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When Dream Jobs Don’t Come True

Career Advice |

A mere five hours ago, I returned home from the Sundance Film Festival. Sadly, not fresh-faced from a first class seat on a flight, but after an 11-hour drive with a 103 temperature from getting four hours of sleep a night and eating Subway sandwiches and five cups of coffee per day. Not very glamorous!

Growing up in a small southern town, I loved two things: fashion and movies. I wasn’t interested in making either of them, but I did have specific things within them that I loved. I liked styling my friends in a mix and match of mall clothing and vintage finds, and I loved watching movies and picking out songs that I thought would better emphasize my favorite scenes. This was something I later learned was an actual job – music supervision. So like many of the dreamers of my generation, I packed up my 17-year-old bags and moved to New York City to attend NYU for a double major in music and film. I had no idea what I was in for.

College was really hard on me. The fast reality that both film and music were incredibly hard industries to get into was weighing me down. So were the mounting student loans – a resounding $148,000 by the time I graduated, pre-interest. I know, you’re probably thinking, “What kind of idiot expects to go to NYU and then just waltz into a money-making Hollywood career?” Well, this idiot, I guess. I grew up, like many others my age, being told that if I worked hard and really wanted something, I would get it. My dad often joked that you don’t follow your dreams; you chase them down and beat them into submission. And I completely believed in that!

But by the time I graduated, I was in a near state of panic. Was this it? I’d drag my bags back to Georgia with my tail between my legs and plaster a “Well, I tried, folks” look on my face? I hadn’t a clue.

Luckily for me, fate intervened. In college, I worked as a nanny to a special needs kid in my neighborhood. The mom was an editor at CosmoGIRL! and helped me get an internship that I’d hoped would turn into a job. It didn’t, but I soon landed a gig as a researcher for Jane magazine. While it wasn’t my dream job (and I felt guilty for months for possibly taking the place of someone whose dream it actually was), I found that having the chance to research and sometimes even write about movies and entertainment was nearly as good as actually being a part of the industry.

That was, until Jane folded. I remember clearly my exit conversation with the lady from HR, who told me pretty straightforwardly to find a different career path. “It’s a dying field, honey,” she told me. “You’re young and you can still start over. Sometimes dreams don’t work out, but you’ll find something else. Dreams change and so do people.” Something else, I thought. This was my something else!

The next six months were a tough wake-up call. I took a job as a PA (production assistant) on a small, indie film. Honestly, I think I was just hoping the flick would get into Sundance and I could finally go. It seemed like a dream. I also figured I might meet some people, or at least see if there was another position in film that I might be interested in. There wasn’t. The reality was that what I wanted to do was nearly impossible to get into, especially without knowing anyone. I could toil as a PA for a few years and take my chances, but I just… didn’t want to. I know this sounds nuts, because I was all of about 23, but I was exhausted. I took a job at Urban Outfitters around the time that many of my friends were getting their first job promotions. To say that I felt lost is probably an understatement.

The following years were really tough. I eventually went back to magazines and websites. I had a brush with my dream writing job at Entertainment Weekly until they laid off half of the staff. I didn’t get out of bed for a week. I eventually gave up and moved back home, but after my dad passed away shortly after, I was too depressed to stay there and ended up back in the city. At 28 years of age, I have worked at over 11 magazines and websites and I have never left a job. Not once. I’ve never been salaried, had health insurance or a savings account.

When I left EW (or, I should say, when it left me), I had lunch with a remaining staff member whom I really admired. He suggested two things: that I should really consider running with the whole styling thing (something I’ve continued to toil with) and that if I really wanted to go to Sundance so bad, I should just go. It’s not as if they have a gate up in Park City and only allow in B-list celebrities and up. We also agreed that sometimes dreams don’t change and neither do you – but you have to figure something out anyway. Feeling bad for myself had gotten me nowhere, and I’m sure I’d grown to the point of annoying the crap out of most of my friends.

That year, I applied for a press pass to Sundance. No outlet was “sending me,” but I figured I could get a few editor friends to let me write freelance pieces and hoped that would be enough. I’d have to pay for my own flight and hotel (and I won’t scare you with what number that adds up to) but I’d be able to see as many films as I wanted – for free! – months before they came out. After a few weeks, I found out I got in and I’ve been going every year since.

Sundance, in all its 10-degree weather glory, is my favorite week of the year. I see around 30 films over the course of five to eight days, brush shoulders with some of my favorite filmmakers and actors, and generally just live in a state of total elation. Sure, my movie sugar-high usually leaves me a little despondent in the weeks that follow because I often feel the sting of “I’m right here but I’m still not one of them,” but I also feel proud that this is a tangible thing I am able to take charge of. I couldn’t make the other stuff work, but I can do enough to make this work every year. It’s not my life the way I pictured it, but whose is, really? Very few of us. And if we were taught that that was okay, normal even, maybe it wouldn’t feel like such a sucker punch when it happens.

Have you had a dream not work out? How did you deal? Tell us in the comments.

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career path career 2 advice dream job

13 Comments

Anonymous

As a recent college graduate, reading this article does freak me out a little. And as someone working towards building a career in NYC publishing, it freaks me out even more! Your determination is totally admirable, and it's really interesting reading about how one job leads to another. With all of the connections you've amassed, I hope you keep working towards your dreams and maybe your next CosmoGIRL moment will happen soon!

3y

Amazing stuff, Loren. Thanks for sharing. Crazy cool.

3y

First, I have to thank you for braving Salt Lake City's rotten air to come to Sundance this year. It's an experience, isn't it? It's an indescribable privilege to have the festival in my hometown.
Thanks also for being candid in this piece. It's so easy to dump on ourselves if we don't get what we were after, but sometimes great things happen in spite of our best intentions, don't they?

3y

Great piece! Thanks!

3y

I can relate to this story so much. I graduated with a magazine journalism degree from Mizzou in 2010 and have bounced from editorial internship to editorial internship, unable to find an entry-level salaried position. Currently I live at home in TX with my parents, making some money doing freelance magazine work. It's a struggle for sure and is definitely not how I pictured my post-grad career would start, but I've still got to believe that continuous hard work will eventually pay off.

3y

Uh wow. Thank you for having the courage to write the article I felt would scare the crap out of people. Ditto all the way. I guess I would be the WC version of you...USC grad in Music Industry (you know, that industry that basically no longer exits), living at home, and paying my way to conferences and crashing with friends in different cities to look for work. I have a friend from GA now living in LA who's working three different internships.
It is ROUGH but I look at it this way, when you leave college and get your butt kicked, you find of what you are truly made of.

3y

Lo, thank you. For being honest and sharing your experience. I think a lot of times we get hung-up on the perfect outcome just like how we strived for perfect As in school. After letting go of that notion and realizing dreams can take many shapes and forms and perhaps don't turn out as we intended, do we really begin to accept that—yes, this is a life too and it's not so much as getting it right the first time but at least, we are getting there even if "there" could be a totally different thing altogether. THANKS for such an inspiring post!

3y

I am biased, but I do love this article! You are exactly right when you say if more people were honest about this, it wouldn't feel like such a sucker punch when it happens.

3y

You are not alone. I have several good friends who went to Tisch and have worked MANY thankless, low-paying jobs in the film industry in hope of jump starting their careers (two-page resume? Not so much). You all have more tenacity than most.

3y

"I couldn’t make the other stuff work, but I can do enough to make this work every year. It’s not my life the way I pictured it, but whose is, really?" Lo, I love your perspective on this because it highlights the importance of proactivity and finding a side window when the front door isn't open - the most incredible career trajectories come from these (toiling) paths, so keep your head up!

3y

I think we have all been here to some degree. Some more than others when you've grown up with that "dream" career. I've realized you MUST trust your path. All the side jobs, the confusion, the frustration...it WILL lead you to where you are "supposed" to be. As long as you continue to fight and follow your passions.

3y
Carly Heitlinger

I had an interview for my DREAM (and I mean, seriously DREAM) job. I was so excited for it, and then about five minutes in realized that it was absolutely not my dream job.

It's great that you can enjoy the aspect that you still love about it once a year!

3y

Lo, your honesty is incredible, thank you for sharing this. I, too, agree that we all make it seem far to easy to find our dream careers when in reality your story is much in line with how it actually happens. I trust that you will get where you want to be and are already doing that by going to Sundance because you aren't going to give up.

3y
Lo Lankford

Lo Lankford is a Georgia native, NYU film grad and current L.A. dweller. When she isn't rescuing dogs from high kill shelters, thrifting items for her online shop or editing her crafting website, CraftFoxes, she's doing actual freelance work! An early graduate of "the big 3" (Hearst - CosmoGIRL! & Cosmopolitan, Time Inc. - Entertainment Weekly, Conde Nast - Jane) she has also written, produced and edited for AOL's Lemondrop.com, NBC's iVillage, Paste Magazine, MTV and several others. However randomly, she helped launch Fab.com, co-ghostwrote a bestselling memoir and spent time as a community operations admin at Etsy. "Time off" means traveling all over the world for sporting events and film festivals - her most favorite things.