The dream job has become a nightmare
November 29, 2012 6:48 AM   Subscribe

I have a fantastical dream career. I am something kids say they want to be when they grow up. It's amazing, and I love it. I'm one of the top twenty or so people in my area of my field in the world. On a daily basis, I pinch myself, I cannot believe my luck. Here's the thing: I hate my actual job so much that I think I'm going to spontaneously combust. Would I be stupid to leave? Is there any way I can figure out how to stay and be happy?

This is a classic case of getting sucked up into management and everything going to shit. The amazing balance of creative/quantitative that used to make me thrilled to get out of bed in the morning is gone, in favor of navigating a weird and Kafkaesque bureaucracy in order to get even the tiniest things accomplished. I could go on for paragraphs about my misery and the Peter Principle reasons for it, but the short version is: I've been slowly getting more and more unhappy over the last few months as it's become clear that my employer is not interested in meaningfully supporting my department, and I am resolved that something has to change.

Unfortunately, because I'm so (relatively) accomplished in my profession, jobs like mine aren't exactly lying around on the ground—in fact, any jobs in my industry aren't exactly lying around on the ground. I have no idea what to do: I'm terrified of leaving without a safety net, and I'm scared that if I leave now, I'll realize in a year or ten that it was a terrible decision. Still, I feel an almost physical compulsion to quit my job almost every time I get off a conference call about shrinking budgets or get out of an email chain where someone blatantly lies about their asset requirements or whatever.

I love what my job is supposed to be. But I can't handle what appears to be my gradual conversion into a cog in this ineffective system. I have savings to cover a few months of (frugal) soul-searching, but I don't want to search my soul. I want to be doing my job as it was six months ago, before I saw inside the sausage factory.

I know my question is vague, but I'm hoping you smart MeFites can figure out what the real core question is, because I keep going in circles within my misery and ambivalence and love and hate, and can't seem to get my thoughts straight. (Yes, I'm in therapy.) Is this the time to take the deep breath and re-center and stay where I am and try to make it better? Is it time to take the deep breath and leap into the unknown? I don't want to give up a great, great thing, but I don't know how to handle it now that this great thing isn't actually great anymore.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (21 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
If you want your job to go back to the way it was six months ago, maybe you can demote yourself to your pre-management position? Is your boss someone that you can talk to and explain that you'll be most effective and productive if you can return to X level of responsibility or X style of duties? Most superiors want you to be hsppy in your work so that you'll be a better employee. You might be able to leverage that to get at least some of what you want.
posted by windykites at 7:01 AM on November 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

: "I'm one of the top twenty or so people in my area of my field in the world."

If this is actually true, then you should probably have enough money by now to start your own company. Which is exactly what you should do.
posted by Grither at 7:01 AM on November 29, 2012 [9 favorites]

Can you parlay this great gig into going solo as a consultant (not necessarily to that organization). That is, if you really are at the apex, and these jobs are hard to come by, can you turn that scarcity to your advantage? For instance, if you were the curator of American Art at the Met, could you take that and become curatorial adviser to smaller museums and corporate art collections?
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:02 AM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is returning to being an individual contributor an option? It sounds like that is where you were happiest... However, if you do that, someone else will need to fight for your department, and it sounds like you need a good person fighting that fight.

Is your employer really not supportive of your department? To the point of perhaps shutting it down? If that's the case, then maybe you should be looking at alternatives in case that happens.
posted by elmay at 7:02 AM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, if you are one of the best in your field, I can imagine that you may have a bright future ahead of you as an independent consultant.
posted by inturnaround at 7:04 AM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

You could approach it like this if you are in management: You are a Bodhisattva of your field.

Having enjoyed the front lines of your incredibly rewarding line of work, whatever that is, you are now in a position to preserve and extend the same opportunity to others by growing the market and developing new talent. You can be a mentor, a statesman, so to speak, to extend and improve what has given you so much joy and success, apparently. Bonus points for being and innovator and a forward thinker that can help your field anticipate new challenges and trends and respond with awesomeness.

Would that appeal to you?
posted by cross_impact at 7:08 AM on November 29, 2012

Talk to your employer about being demoted. I know there is a big stigma about this, but honestly, if your job 6 months ago was your dream job, than it shouldn't matter if other people give you weird looks about your decision. Tell your boss that you feel you were much better suited to your last position, and that you feel things would be better if you reclaimed that position and someone else was hired to do what you are doing now. My assumption is that since your new job revolves so much around bureaucracy and paperwork, it could be done by someone else who is less accomplished. Just like the manager of an aircraft factory doesn't have to be the best engineer, they just have to be able to coax the best out of his or her engineers.
posted by markblasco at 7:17 AM on November 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

Sure your job isn't laying around on the ground, but if you're a hot commoditiy, someone will want to hire you to do the job you want to do.

Don't just quit. That's madness.

With a nod to the recently departed Zig Ziglar, perhaps you can focus on the things about your job that you enjoy. Really concentrate on it. Focus on those and downplay the crap you hate.

You're the kahuna, you're in charge. If this doesn't help, start looking for a new gig.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:17 AM on November 29, 2012

I work in the Space Program, so I get where you are coming from. The pat answer is that you should love What You Are Doing, and not just What You Do. But that's never been useful advice when someone gave it to me, so I won't give it to you.

Instead, if you have done your soul searching and financial analysis and have decided that

1. you aren't just going through a normal adjustment to new work, and
2. your finances are in order such that getting canned would not be horrible,

then I say you should do your job the way you want to do it. You are the manager, and if you think the best thing would be to delegate the parts you hate and do the parts you love, then try it. You might fall on your face, or you might start a renaissance. You might have some cases of getting called to account to your higher ups as to why you aren't doing things the Way They Are Done, so be prepared for that. Or you might be told how brilliant what you are doing is, and that everyone should set things up that way.

To paraphrase:

"The rational person changes to fit the world. The irrational person changes the world to fit them. All progress thus depends on the irrational person."

Don't ask for a demotion. There's plenty of time for that if your bosses really don't like the way you do things.
posted by BeeDo at 7:27 AM on November 29, 2012 [15 favorites]

Is there some way you could hire and/or train an assistant, perhaps someone without your creative qualifications, to do specifically the kind of bureaucracy navigation that kills your soul? It would be more work for you at first, but you could in the end accomplish a lot: lightening your own burdens, of course, but giving someone a job that's meaningful for her, helping your company leverage your own experience and talent much more productively, and possibly helping the company groom someone (your hypothetical hire) who could become a kind of leader it needs.
posted by amtho at 7:36 AM on November 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

So many of the jobs kids think they want to do turn out to be something other what they, or even most adults, think they are. It's not at all unusual to be disenchanted, particularly if you had to go through a lot of education to get in -- if you are lucky enough to be in a highly paid position, look at financial strategies for living far more frugally and becoming financially self sufficient, and decide if staying where you are for a few years would be worth it. If changing fields is something you'd want to do, put some thought into what you'd do if your industry disappeared overnight before you quit.

I'm guessing that most of the employment in your field is in weird and Kafkaesque bureaucracies, but if I'm wrong on that follow the oft-given advice to search for a job while you are employed; you might find an employer who is delighted to find someone with your experience who is available to hire. If it really would be a problem to demote yourself where you are now, maybe it would be more workable to demote while changing jobs to someplace where you can work with the great people at organization Y on thing X.

Other posters have suggested some things that might be much more workable for certain fields than others. Look at them with a wide lens, maybe an intern or grad student instead of an assistant. Maybe there isn't much private industry that's exactly in your field, but since you are in something that's a big dream for kids you might be able to find or create something that sells a product or service to people who had that same big dream.

Academia, government, and private sector -- you don't have to stay in whichever one you are currently in.
posted by yohko at 8:14 AM on November 29, 2012

Are there headhunters in your field? If there are 20 jobs on the level of yours or higher, there must be a little turnover, no? It might be good for the right one to be quietly aware that you'd be open to the right opportunity.
posted by salvia at 8:29 AM on November 29, 2012

I'm going to assume you work in entertainment, movies, music or most likely video games.

I am a former "dream jobber" in one of these fields as well.

What most people don't know is that these jobs pay shit compared to their non-entertainment counterparts. A top programer could be making 200-300k a year a top entertainment industry programer could be making 1/4 of that. So it's likely the OP does not have a ton of savings.

I'd have a frank discussion about how "you don't feel cut out for management and would like to stay focused on production"

If that fails, you need to decide what's going to make you happy. Is the coolness of what you do going to compensate for the pain?? sounds like no.

My experience was that I was embarrassed and regretful leaving my "dream job" right up until I got a normal job and realized how care-free, easy and disposable it was. My life has been better ever since.
posted by French Fry at 10:20 AM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

replace entertainment with academic and the above holds true.
posted by French Fry at 10:24 AM on November 29, 2012

So I'm assuming you're basically Mohawk Guy, or some equivalent person in a very specialized field in which lateral moves and directly related jobs are probably sparse and/or nonexistent. A friend who was training in shuttle flight control got laid off a while back, and I sensed that she was just sort of adrift without a shuttle to command. Only, flying giant remote controlled robots wasn't actually her skill. She's an engineer. And she's a *creative* engineer, which I see as a double-threat. You sound very similar.

So you feel boxed in. Only, if the box is what is bothering you, why not commit yourself to breaking your industry out of the box. Why settle for being in the Top 20 in your industry? Be the Leader in your industry. Innovate your way out of that box, and become the visionary who saves all of you from shrinking budgets and fear of asset requirements.

Start a think tank. Or a nonprofit. Or a consulting business. Apply for grants. Write articles or a blog about your crazy out-there ideas. Hell, tell your ideas through a silly cat picture Tumblr. Send your resume to the President or your Governor or the UN or a major university and tell them that you're going to save your industry from itself, but you can only do that with their help. Barring that, send a letter to all the smartest people you know in your industry and ask them to tell you what they would change about your industry. Then ask them if they really want to have a hand in making that happen and figure out a way for all of you to make magic together.

Also, and this bears noting: welcome to our world. Many of the rest of us spend our spare time following our dreams and passions. You may need to accept that you've become a cog by day, but that leaves you free to be a superhero at night. It isn't really so bad as it seems. It is wonderful to go to work every day and fall in love with what you do all over again. But sometimes that's just not practical, and we just have to work with what's practical.
posted by jph at 10:27 AM on November 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

omg, are you me? I'm having this same issue right now, and it's making me totally frickin' miserable like I've never been before.

Good advice so far. I would just reiterate that everything is a status game, and especially at work. You sound powerful, aware, articulate and charismatic. Marshal your forces and do something that will compel your company to see you as a high-status person, someone they would be unlucky to lose. You can't bluff or overplay this if course - I'd say you need a way to launch another opportunity, or to embark on something high-profile that you can do concurrently with your job. Getting recognition for a consulting or freelancing gig, getting a book published, making a media appearance, garnering a reputation as an expert in your field apart from the inbred world of your company, would cause them to see you in a new light. You need leverage.

It seems to me that no matter how great you are at your job (and I'm using the universal you here), management will continue to feed out the fewest crumbs in your direction that they possibly can. It happens not because they're against you - they're just idiots. Most management folks are so distracted, benighted, overwhelmed and incompetent that they won't notice anything that doesn't jolt them out of their trance, like a sudden noise.

So make a sudden noise, but do it tactfully. Having another job opportunity would give you the right kind of leverage.

Keep doing what you do and exploring outside options. Document your accomplishments, and remind them of them when necessary. Soon you may be able to write your own ticket.
posted by cartoonella at 10:37 AM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

If this is actually true, then you should probably have enough money by now to start your own company. Which is exactly what you should do.

I'm guessing the OP is more in the whale trainer at Sea World/ Park Ranger/ Rocket Science kind of field where starting a business is not an option.
posted by fshgrl at 11:17 AM on November 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

I just left a job (for another one) where I was the expert on site, certainly in the top 1000 in the world, and maybe in the top 100 because of combining two areas of expertise. I saw that the next promotion coming would push me more towards the management side of things, and was unhappy. And you know what -- It's kinda great not being the expert anymore at my new job. I stuck with only one of my areas of expertise, but I have all these things I can learn, and all these new things to do. It's great.

One of the things that helped me at my old job was taking work frustrations one week, and turn those frustrations into resumes out to other places. Getting interest from other companies made it easier to know that there was other things out there, so I could keep doing the daily grind because when I really couldn't take it anymore, I could leave.

One of those frustration resumes is what turned into my current new job.
posted by garlic at 2:02 PM on November 29, 2012

So, being an astronaut sucks, and you can't just make a lateral move to another space station 'cos there isn't one.

What would need to change to make you hate your job less? Could you go back to Earth at the next opportunity and switch to moon landings or shuttle flights instead? That way, at least management wouldn't be squeezed into a small space with you 24/7.

Or, what if you stopped being an astronaut and instead trained to do that thing where you go up outside the Earth's atmosphere in a hot air balloon and jump out? Surely the skills are transferable?

I agree that if management are a bunch of useless wazzocks, you're unlikely to be able to change anything in the company you're in now so you need to find a way of bundling your transferable skills and moving to a different company even if it means a change to your job role. But remember you can't get blood out of a stone. You have to look for some kind of opportunities elsewhere. Network, publish, blog, do anything to reach out to the external world.
posted by tel3path at 2:44 PM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Regardless of what you decide to do (and I hope you find a good solution!) quitting your job with "savings to cover a few months of (frugal) soul-searching" isn't a smart/practical move. It may be that you could find something else quickly, but maybe instead of focusing on the slow, painful death of your career dreams (which can be remedied in due time) you could shift your attention to building on your finances, giving you more stability and independence if you do decide this particular employer isn't for you.

I have found that when one area of my life is really getting me down / stressing me out, it's been beneficial to consciously shift some of my attention to something less stressful and more personally-manageable. It helps with my overall sense of purpose and accomplishment, and then I'm better suited to take on the bigger, more stressful problem with a clearer mind.
posted by ariela at 4:48 PM on November 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Life's much too short to be miserable. Do whatever it takes to make yourself happy.
posted by Dansaman at 8:54 PM on November 29, 2012

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