When Your Dream Job Becomes A Nightmare

Credit: Omar Ram

What happens when you’ve achieved everything you knew for sure you always wanted only to discover you didn’t want it at all?

Sam Baker, former editor of Red magazine, found out the hard way when she walked away from the ‘perfect job’ to a life of uncertainty.

Abandoning the daily grind is a fantasy many people entertain, but never get around to turning into a reality. While working for yourself might sound a bit of a lark, it can be harder than you think.

‘I freaked out’, Baker wrote in The Telegraph. ‘I had nowhere to go, nothing to do, I was not important anymore. In short, I was the lifer banging on the prison gates to be let back in.

I know of what she speaks.

Five years ago I traded my career as a management consultant for a life as a writer. It felt self-indulgent and reckless. After all, not everyone has the luxury to walk away from a job they hate, and career fulfilment is surely on the First World Problems list.

I went from a world of meetings and suits where people listened to my opinion to being a nobody writing a book in a cafe.

But while a life without certainty and structure is challenging, staying in a job that crushes your soul, no matter how glamorous and socially acceptable, is no way to live.

If you’re dreaming of ditching your sensible job to follow your passions, here are some tips to help turn that dream into a reality.

1. Do you really need to give up everything? 

Giving up a job, even one that’s not working of you, is no small matter. You need to work out what you should take from your present job to use to reboot your life (and no, that doesn’t mean raiding the stationery cupboard).

Life coach and author of The Great Life Redesign Caroline Cameron says that her clients often try to reject everything in their current job or life rather than embracing it and working out which bits they can keep and use.

‘It’s really important to recognise that you don’t have to change everything,’ she says. ‘It’s often too big a leap to walk away from what you do well, and it’s not helpful for people to end up thinking they’ve wasted that last ten years of their life.’

2. Planning is good but dont let it paralyse you 

In his book What Should I Do With My Life? Po Bronson interviewed a bunch of people who were doing highly paid jobs they hated in order to save enough money so they could eventually pursue their dream.

The only trouble is that their plans never eventuated. Bronson found that people never reached the point where they considered themselves to be wealthy enough to chuck it all in. And their dream was only ever just that: a dream.

There is never a perfect time to jump. But maybe you should just do it anyway, even if it’s a big step backwards in income and status.

3. Look for meaning rather than an extended holiday 

A lot of people tell me they could never work at home because they’d spend all day watching TV or reading. Part of the problem is that they’re looking for a holiday rather than a purpose.

Author of I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was, Barbara Sher says that finding a sense of meaning is essential to happiness. Working may not be the express route to happiness, but not working seems to be the fast track to unhappiness.

Fun and freedom are not enough to sustain us so rather than fantasising about not working, it’s more productive to spend our time finding something to do that is meaningful.

4. There is not one answer that will make you happy for all time. WARNING: Contains gratuitous reference to Buddhist teaching. 

Usually I hate casual mentions of Buddhist teaching in career advice. But one I found particularly useful is the idea of impermanence — the idea that all sensations, the good, bad and euphoric, have the same characteristics: they arise, stay for a time and then pass away.

Transposing that concept into a search for meaning and fulfilment means that we don’t need to find‘The Answer’ because it will only be ‘The Answer’ for a time anyway. It will change, you will change and the world will change.

Take the pressure off and stop looking for something that is big enough and important enough to sustain you forever. The people who genuinely believe that life is full of opportunities are much happier about their jobs than those who don’t. We don’t have to look for a job or a career for life.

Rather than standing still, getting frustrated and disenchanted waiting for the very best option to come along, maybe it’s better to focus on finding something that brings us happiness now.

5. Dont put all your happiness eggs into the career basket 

Jobs are great, but they’re not everything.

A job will never fulfil our relationship needs, it’s unlikely to link us to our communities and if it is a source of friendship we need to be clear about the distinction between friendship and networking associates.

Meaning and fulfilment can come from many areas of our life. Work out what a job does add to your life and then cultivate other areas of you life to meet your other needs.

A career or life crisis can be agonising. But it also forces us to pause, take a breath and ask ourselves what’s important and what we want out of life. It’s like a safety valve to stop us from getting to old age and wondering what the hell we did that for.

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