People always talk about how to land your dream job—but what happens after you do? Hopefully you’ll end up like Danielle Feinberg, who landed her dream job at Pixar after graduating from Harvard in 1996. Almost two decades later, she’s still going strong—now the famous animation studio’s bosslady director of photography. But what happens when that’s not the case? What happens when you hit one milestone, only to wonder if maybe you were meant for an entirely different path?
During my senior year of college, I was interviewing for a post-graduate internship at a major publishing house, and the assistant sitting across from me shared a piece of advice I’ll never forget. She said, “Choose the work over the company, because the novelty wears off quick.” As the years ticked by, I found myself repeating this advice to soon-to-be graduates, and making new versions of it as I sat with friends who’d lost their rose-colored glasses. They’d say things like, “I want to leave, but my parents are just so proud that I work at X company.”
It’s a secret struggle no one talks about—how to keep the spark alive when you’re suffering in a job you fought tooth and nail to do every day. Four years of college, maybe mastering something too, countless resume tweaks made and interview tips read—only to break the glass ceiling and feel a sense of panic. Did I make a mistake? Is this really what I want to be doing with my life? But what else would I even do?!
Of course, you can always just throw in the towel. You can walk into your boss’s office right now and say “I quit.” I hear it’s a great time to be freelance, in fact. But what if you want to stick it out? After all, this was your dream once. These tips may seem counterintuitive, but you owe it to yourself to give them a try—and no matter what you decide, I promise you’ll be glad you did:
Celebrate the success of your peers. If you ask me, one of the biggest sources of toxic energy is the notion that the men and women you’re working with are your “competition.” If you have any ounce of this in you, go ahead and ditch the idea that you have to sucker punch your way up the ladder, considering the success of someone else to be your epic fail, as if they’re stealing your dream. If you’re jealous of someone you work with, I actually see it as a sign that you still see potential to learn and grow at your company—it’s just clouded by a little green envy. The next time your coworker lands a big project, congratulate her genuinely (“Congrats, Rachel! Well-deserved!”) not passive aggressively (“Congrats, Rachel! That is soooo great.”) or condescendingly (“Congrats, Rachel! That is just so great for you.”). After a few days (give the girl some time to celebrate), ask her how she did it. Odds are, she’ll share what got her the sweet assignment, giving you the information you need to go and make it happen for yourself. And not only that, but you might even form a bond with this person. Crazy, I know! When you’re feeling lost at work, step one: Choose nice. Choose supportive. It will always work in your favor.
Start a side-hustle. While working in New York, I knew a woman with a very high-profile job who also trained and competed in several triathlons throughout the year. She told me once that people always asked her how she balanced such an intense job with such a demanding workout regimen. Her answer was that they actually fueled one another. Her morning swims would clear her head and help her focus before a long day at work, and the energy she stored up sitting at a desk all day powered each new training plan. When your mind is entirely focused on the day-to-day grind, it can make even the smallest bouts of bad luck at work feel like the biggest catastrophe. Give your mind a break—and sometimes, that means doing “dream job” work just for you. As part of my morning routine, I’ve been doing a “brain drain” of long-form writing—originally from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. By the time I finish, I feel noticeably energized about my real work ahead, and I find myself working faster—the words already warmed up and swimming laps around my mind as I edit the day’s stories. (Baking sugary desserts is also a very rewarding side-hustle—or at least my stomach thinks so.)
Look to your role models. On the eve of my move from New York to San Francisco, my boyfriend and I went to dinner with the couple who introduced us—two of our very best friends—at my favorite restaurant in the city. I’d just left my job in magazines—where I’d been doing my dream job for years but simply wanted to try out the West Coast. While we were waiting for our first round of drinks at the bar, in walked Michael Hainey, the longtime deputy editor of GQ (he is now the editor-at-large). I can’t say why, exactly, but he’s the one editor whose career I’ve always admired—but I’ve never had the guts to tell him so. I read GQ religiously despite my two X chromosomes, and I loved his book, After Visiting Friends, so much that I forced my brother to ask him a question during his Reddit AMA. (I was Reddit inept at the time.) We asked: “As I read, I wondered how your mother took the news when you decided to write the book. Was she supportive?” He responded: “As she said, after I gave it to her, ‘It’s the best gift you could have given me.’ I asked her ‘Why?’ and she said, ‘Because it’s the truth.’ which sent a monsoon of tears atop my keyboard. After dinner, as Mr. Hainey and I were both standing on the street corner waiting for respective cab rides home, I wondered if I should just suck it up and introduce myself—it was my last night in NYC, after all—and tell him how much I enjoyed his book and his work. I am sorry to say that I chickened out—even a one-way plane ticket wasn’t enough to trump the introvert in me. But message, received. Like a new ex-boyfriend passing me a note in class, the publishing universe was telling me: “Yea, you still like me, don’t you.” When all else fails, look to your role models. They’ll always keep your dream alive.
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