Launched myself into uncertainty, now what?
August 18, 2012 10:00 AM   Subscribe

I quit my "Dream Job" after 5 months, currently face-to-face with the unknown. Advice?

I'm 24. 5 months ago I landed my Dream Job at a Dream Firm - a job that developed relevant and valuable skills, challenged me, and where everything I learned will conveniently put me on the fast track to the career I envisioned having in 5-10 years. I couldn't believe my luck.

Three weeks into the job, I asked myself "What level of hell am I in?". For being so reputable in its field, I was shocked to discover that management in this small firm is deeply, deeply dysfunctional and the overall workplace environment is highly toxic. Extremely high turnover rate (3 people were quitting the week I started). Superiors are volatile - will yell and humiliate you for the smallest things just because they're in a bad mood one day, be extremely sweet and gracious once in a blue moon. I desperately wanted to stay at least a year because I wanted to learn everything and didn't want to waste such opportunity, especially considering the brutal job market. I felt so guilty for feeling miserable because I thought that one some level these feelings were caused by a sense of entitlement and just being "too sensitive." A few months in, things didn't change for the better. I was disgusted with how unprofessionalism is tolerated and sometimes fostered. The combination of everything at this place literally made working 9 hours a day suffocating. I was single-handedly working on a project that is supposed to be handled by a Project Manager (I was hired as entry-level), but I accepted and took it on as a challenge and growth opportunity. I was giving it my 100% but whenever I would have meetings with my boss for guidance, she would be vague, and evasive, and say "I don't know" when I asked her questions. That dynamic caused me a lot of stress and frustration. When I submitted drafts for her to review, she would discuss my drafts with a colleague (who has never worked on the project) and have the colleague micromanage me which I consider disrespectful because first of all, why can't she just communicate her issues with my draft directly to me?

Needless to say I made a decision to leave after 5 months, because I am not willing to commit myself to such place whose ethics and procedures I don't agree with. And I know my bosses will never change. I believe I'm humble and I work hard and I do my best to not take anything for granted. And I know no workplace is perfect, or even highly ideal. It was really tough for me to arrive at that course of action, and I painstakingly made sure that I made my decision from a place of strength, not fear or impulsiveness. At this point, I just really want to work where I feel respected and can feel at ease.

I quit with no job lined up, but two weeks later got recruited by a former colleague to do part-time software consulting work. I'm not technologically savvy at all, but I was trained, now getting my feet wet in the field, and genuinely feel blessed to have this opportunity to diversify my skill set. I've been applying and interviewing for part-time jobs to supplement my income, but overall I'm at peace. I turn 25 in 3 months, and it's interesting because 6 months ago I used to think I was the ambitious type who had my life figured out down to the last detail. "This by 27, this by 35, etc." But life happens. Now I'm reflecting on and re-evaluating my long-term career goals based on what I have learned about myself during the last 5 months.

I would appreciate any comments about my situation. Please feel free to give life advice and share your experiences to someone who is approaching 25 soon and on some sense, "starting over" and facing the unknown. Do you think my quitting was ill-advised, or for the best? Whenever I pass by the building where I used to work, I feel 99% relieved that I never have to deal with those kinds of people ever again, but there's that 1% where I feel I practically committed career suicide.

Many thanks.
posted by twentyfoursummers to Work & Money (10 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Your question is kinda vague and there isn't really enough information about you / what you want to answer very helpfully. Relevant info would be: what is your education, do you have a degree that translates well into other jobs, what do you want to do now that the Dream Job hasn't worked out (and this isn't something you have to decide within 2 months, but don't waste 10 years on it either).

I was kind of in a similar situation at your age - I had always assumed I'd become a teacher. I did the prerequisite English lit degree (which is really pretty useless for anything else), moved back home and started teaching... and then decided it wasn't for me, quit and moved to England. I used to be terrified of the idea of not having financial security... but then figured out that this wasn't worth perpetual misery.

Howeverrr, from that point onwards I have wavered and dabbled and not really achieved much of anything. I am now 35 and all I've done is dead end jobs. I'm not necessarily miserable (I have little ambition), but that might not be what you have in mind for yourself. You need to figure out where you want to go from here. I'll add though that even at my most despondent or when unemployed and broke, I never regretted quitting teaching, ever (again, this is a pretty subjective thing, I'd say. But maybe it will calm your worries).

Sorry my reply is not more helpful... kinda going with what you have given us!
posted by ClarissaWAM at 10:16 AM on August 18, 2012

Best answer: You're talking like you'll never come across a good opportunity again.

That's ridiculous. Sooner or later, if you work hard and keep yourself open to possibilities, you'll come across all sorts of opportunities. What makes things tricky is that you can't control when it will happen.

Also, not every opportunity comes along suddenly the way this one did. In fact, most don't. It's usually not like "ZOMG Dream Firm is giving me Dream Job out of the blue" where it just falls into your lap in an instant. It's more like "I got a job I wasn't crazy about that paid the bills, but my supervisor there was really awesome, and she paid for me to take a training course in X, and then based on that I got involved with a project doing Y, and that led to a full-time gig doing Z, and I really love Z so now I'm thrilled," where the opportunity unfolds gradually over the course of months or years.

You didn't commit career suicide. You said "Sorry, not this one." And now you wait until the next one comes along. You'll be fine. Just maybe focus more on the long game and less on having some sort of magical Willy Wonka Moment where everything falls into place all at once.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:19 AM on August 18, 2012 [12 favorites]

Best answer: If you found the work environment toxic, it was never your dream job. It was your nightmare job, which is the job that looks perfect but in reality is a trap.

You are just 25. There are no fatal career mistakes yet, unless you wanted an Olympic gold medal in gymnastics. You have all the same qualifications you did 5 months ago, and that was sufficient to land the job you just quit. Why do you think you won't be able to land a similar job? Your aim should be better now and you're more savvy too having learning a few painful lessons. You're a better candidate than you were 5 months ago, not worse.

Some of the best advice I ever heard about jobs is to pick your manager. They impact you more than anything else - A good manager in a mediocre company will teach you more and give you more opportunity, than a mediocre manager at a good company. Keep that in mind next time you write up your criteria for a dream job. When you do get a full-time job offer, ask to talk to another person who works for whoever your boss is going to be. Get a reference on them before you say yes.

I might have advised you to stick it out for a year so your resume is less likely to invite questions about that job. You will get asked about it in future interviews - have a simple, clear story about it. You don't need to get into details as the details don't matter, but are tempting to share - in reality the more you talk about your abilities and passions, and the less you talk about a bad work experience, the better.
posted by Berkun at 10:27 AM on August 18, 2012 [5 favorites]

At the risk of sounding Captain Obvious: your Dream Job is only your Dream Job because you think working there will make you happy. As you knew when you applied, Dream Jobs involve challenging you, and helping you developing relevant and valuable skills.

What you know now is that Dream Jobs also involve competent and likeable managers, fair and clear expectations and ethics and procedures you agree with. You have, from what you say, also learned how miserable a bad match at work can make you. I think these are really important lessons to learn and it is great you have done so early in your career.

But there is some information missing from your post. You give your frustrations, and say you know your bossess will never change.
My questions are:
What did you do to communicate your frustrations directly to your boss(es)?
What else did you do to address the problems with your work environment?
Why do you say you know your bossess will never change if you only worked there for five months?

I think you probably did the right thing by quitting, but I think it may have been premature to quit (if that's what you did) without trying to manage up and influence the place somewhat first. That said, nebulawindphone is exactly right - it is likely you will come across a good opportunity again and you can start working toward that (armed with new found wisdom) right away.
posted by EatMyHat at 10:28 AM on August 18, 2012

You had a job that was theoretically good, and it turned out to suck. You then got a new job in a new field. Ok. This happens.

So what's your question?

What are your goals for ages 27 and 35? What do you want to do with your life? Do you not know, and want to know if that's ok?
posted by J. Wilson at 10:29 AM on August 18, 2012

As others have stated, they're called dreams because you awaken from them. Perspective tends to shatter illusions.

This an interesting post to stumble across, because I'm coming at it from the opposite angle.

I graduated with my degree and decided I wanted to use it before I made further decisions, because unlike many of my friends, I had no certainty about what I wanted to do with my life. After much searching, I got my job.

And it's a good job. I like it. My coworkers are great, my bosses are so good that I worry I'll never have such good management again. Everybody respects each other, not just within groups but around the company in general. I've learned tons, and I've even been promoted rapidly (twice in as many years, instead of what seems to be the ordinary once per two years schedule).

I work a ton of hours (averaged 50 billable hours last year, routinely post more than 60 during heavy fieldwork weeks) but I'm compensated for all the overage. Pay is good; I seem to be more "successful" than most people around my age I know. The work is ethically and morally defendable. So what's the problem?

Well, I'm pretty certain I don't want to do it for the rest of my life. I don't love it, and I'd leave if the improbable better opportunity presented itself suddenly. I see what my managers are doing, and I don't see myself liking that more than what I'm doing now.

It's not ambition, but I learned a few years ago that life is short. The problem with learning that lesson is you start feeling like you can't afford to waste time. I know I'm going to have to start over, and it's not likely that the experience here will carry over to another job since I don't think I'll get a better job within the industry: I'd be leaving it entirely. But all of my previous ideas (academia, government, to name a couple) turned out to be pretty bad ideas after talking to people with experience. So now I don't have any good ideas of other directions, and I'm not even sure where to start looking. I'll keep doing what I'm doing while I build up savings and explore my alternatives, but I fear I'll become trapped and comfortable, and increasingly unable to make the dramatic change my life probably needs.

I'm 24, turn 25 in two months. I don't think your quitting was ill-advised because clearly staying where you were had emotional and mental costs, and you managed to find another opportunity without too much difficulty. But I think you and I have the same problem: plans didn't quite work out, and we feel like we need plans...but we're not really clear on how to get there.

If, like me, you feel like your work has to be meaningful (in whatever way you define), it may be that you have to shelve long-term plans for a period of searching while you get to the career you want.

Good luck.
posted by Strudel at 10:42 AM on August 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, not every opportunity comes along suddenly the way this one did. In fact, most don't. It's usually not like "ZOMG Dream Firm is giving me Dream Job out of the blue" where it just falls into your lap in an instant. It's more like "I got a job I wasn't crazy about that paid the bills, but my supervisor there was really awesome, and she paid for me to take a training course in X, and then based on that I got involved with a project doing Y, and that led to a full-time gig doing Z, and I really love Z so now I'm thrilled," where the opportunity unfolds gradually over the course of months or years.

Yes- I'm your age and this is where I am right now. In school I studied advertising, decided I hated it, but it had given me some writing skills and project management skills, so I applied around and got a job in an industry that I find fairly dull, but where I get to do a lot of writing and learn about database management. I have recently used THIS experience to get an unpaid volunteer gig in Awesome Industry that I hope to leverage into a job someplace down the line. So my current job isn't my dream job at all, but it's still valuable because I am getting experience that will be useful to me later on.
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:43 AM on August 18, 2012

Best answer: From a vantage point of 28, I echo Strudel. When I was 24-25, I was petrified that I was failing or falling behind. I also made impetuous career decisions, and was something of an immature whiner. After facing some Reality, I got myself to a comfortable place, and I'm going to wait it out until more attractive options appear. For a few years, I got scared I was losing my "ambition" - but really, I was gaining maturity and learning patience.

-You will "start over" many times in your life. What's the alternative? A one-way corporate escalator? Complacent monotony? Who wants either of those? At many organizations, people rise because they stick around. In my experience, there isn't a strong correlation between "sticking around" and "being good." To some degree, career advancement is a game of attrition. Make sure you're on the ladder you want to be on; the rung doesn't matter.

-The most important learning experiences will be the points just before and into "starting over." The odds jobs to make ends meet. The self-knowledge you cultivate by serious introspection. Warning: You generally do not recognize learning experiences when they are happening. They usually feel like sh!t or cataclysm.

-Career is important, but if it is all that sustains you, then you will likely struggle. My sinuous career path hasn't left me profoundly fufilled at this point, but I can pay my bills and respect my co-workers. That means something. What means more: in the process, I met my amazing spouse and dog. They make my life satisfying and meaningful in a way no job can. I have money to travel and see my family. I wouldn't trade any of this for 60+ hours/week to make partner or VP or double my salary. YMMV...gnothi seauton.

Life is can be really frustrating to an ambitious, hard-working 20-something with lofty career aspirations. Chill out. Keep working hard, keep your eyes open, learn all you can, and be deliberate in your moves. You are in a really challenging period...but it gets better! I love 28, I would never go back to my early 20s. All the thirty-somethings I know and respect say life gets better still!
posted by keasby at 1:35 PM on August 18, 2012 [8 favorites]

You've learned an amazing lesson at 25 that most people don't learn until much older - work environment matters.

In future job interviews, be sure to ask about the culture of the job. How do people manage conflict? What is the typical length on the job? Are people encouraged to promote from within? How much overtime does the average employee work? Asking one or two of these questions will give you a better sense of the environment.

The work/life balance is more important than climbing the almighty ladder. Your career will take turns (some soft, some hard), and it won't be as you expected. That's ok; that's what your 20's and even 30's are for. It's a time for you to get to know what you need - not just for your resume', but for your life.
posted by frizz at 5:34 PM on August 18, 2012

I learned a couple of years ago that while I have plenty of "ambition", it's actually more of personal ambition than career ambition - the ambition to lead a happy, fulfilled life. I left a dream job - challenging work, great coworkers, good support, great pay/benefits - because I hated the location and it made me sick all the time. I still sometimes regret doing so because of the job-related comparison to where I am now.

However, I love my outside-of-work life so much more than I did at dream job. I am healthy, my husband and I are happy, I love the area I live and the house we have. I'll put up with the work content and environment because it's a steady job with some particular benefits and good pay to be happy.

As another job interview question, I've gotten a LOT of mileage out of asking "What's the one thing you dislike most about your job?" Every time I've asked that, it's turned out to be very indicative and most people are honest since they don't prep for that question.

One place, the guy said he felt he had become a manager and found it hard to make time for the paperwork/etc related to it - and turns out, he tried primarily to be a technical lead sort, which meant the management side slipped and it was hard to be a new grad and have him as a manager. Another time, they answered too many meetings, and yep, the job had way too much bureaucracy built into the process (that luckily I was fairly insulated from).

It's not a bad thing to be catapulted off your predicted track; it tends to make life way more interesting.
posted by bookdragoness at 9:17 AM on August 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

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