In graduate school, every woman dreams of her first job on the outside. A workplace full of smart, funny, good-looking, well-dressed coworkers patting each other on the back, pitching in to get projects done. High paying and fast paced. Happy hour every day at the corner pub. An office with a view of a park, and a boss who stops by once in a while to thank you for putting in twelve-hour days. Kind of like a mix between Thirtysomething and Friends.So nothing could have prepared me for the sheer agony of my first year out of grad school. Not only did it turn me into a fountain of sadness, but it forced me to analyze the relationship between career and happiness. It took some time (and therapy), but I finally realized I could have both.
I was working in the advertising industry, meaning status-oriented and extremely cutthroat. The pressure to get the “right” job at the “right” agency was high. If for one second I were to accept a job at a second-tier agency or—gasp—client side, I would have been exiled from my colleagues’ social circles and gossiped about in instant-message sessions. So of course I took a job at a large advertising agency for near-poverty-level pay and worked like a slave for a year. And when I say “slave,” I do mean someone whois treated as if she is indebted to her “owner.” I worked every holiday, my birthday, most every weekend, and nights until nine or ten o’clock, with no overtime. At first, I sucked it up and thought to myself, “Don’t be a baby. This is just the proving time. I’m paying my dues and then I’ll get a raise and have to work a few less holidays.” It was sort of fun when everyone was around late at night working, eating takeout, and bitching and moaning together, like a support group. We’d always bring in beers and cocktails on the weekend while we were working, and play music loud to keep each other pumped up. So it wasn’t happy hour at the corner pub, and because of the continuous takeout diet, my coworkers weren’t exactly good-looking, but it was all right.
However, looks and waistlines weren’t the only things that were suffering. Working tirelessly on producing hundreds of thirty-second commercial scripts that would just end up in the trash can was wearing away at my creativity and inspiration, and rapidly eroding my normally cheery personality. Constantly defending good work with the hopes that maybe, just maybe, it would move into production was getting old. On top of ulcers and premature gray hair, I had creative constipation—working every day on projects and assignments and never producing anything.
I became a victim. Every time they hit me with another assignment that meant another late night and another missed weekend, I told myself it was because the powers that be thought I was talented: “They must really like my work, or they wouldn’t always keep me around like this.” But the sacrifices became more numerous, and the good times didn’t follow. I wasn’t once thanked for any of the holidays I sacrificed or the hours I gave or the intense amount of work I produced. I started dreading new assignments, hiding in my office so my bosses wouldn’t find me.
At home, I bit off my boyfriend’s head every time he disagreed with me—I’d had enough of that at the office. To make matters worse, my boyfriend and I not only lived together but worked at the same office. Advertising lends itself to these sort of convenience relationships sometimes (although ours wasn’t, of course). You find yourself working so many hours at the office that it seems like in order to date, you just have to find the best-looking man in your office, because he’ll understand why you have to work another weekend, and chances are, you’ll get to see him anyway because he’ll be working, too. It’s a sad way to date, but it happens.
It all came to a head one beautiful fall day when my boyfriend and I were having a small spat about something insignificant—probably my poor driving skills. I started crying as a result of our argument and couldn’t stop. Of course, he had no idea what was wrong with me and, in spite of his efforts, couldn’t stop me from sobbing. I hadn’t told him that for several weeks prior to this day, I had been leaving the office to cry. I had to take fifteen-minute walks around the block to relieve my tension and stress with a good cry. Now, normally, crying would be a good thing. A girl needs a good cathartic cry now and then. But every day? Sometimes twice? That’s not healthy. So on this particular day, when I took to our room and cried for a solid two hours, I realized something was terribly wrong with me and I needed help.
I sought the wisdom of a good therapist located one hundred yards from the office—because I didn’t have time to go any farther—and together we looked at my behavior for the last year. I had stopped being social with my work friends and nonwork friends. I sometimes didn’t even shower before I went into work. Sex had decreased a little between my boyfriend and me. I continued to try as hard as could at work, but saw only minor results. The crying and the apathetic attitude. It was easy for my therapist to see what was wrong, but because I had seen this behavior as normal for so long, it took me several months. Together we realized that because getting the right job at the right agency had been drilled into my head in graduate school, I was scared to admit that I didn’t like the right job or the right agency. When I realized that it wasn’t really I that was working there anymore, I wanted out! And fast.
For six months, my therapist helped me to work up the nerve, courage, and confidence to look for a new job and tell my current employer to shove it (politely and professionally, of course). No job was worth my tears and stress. I wanted to save all of that for experiencing life. Work is a small eight or nine hours of the day. I made the decision to work to live, not live to work. It’s a hard one to make, I’ll tell you that much. But there are many, many employers out there that design their entire work environment around this exact idea, and surprise, their employees are usually the most loyal and productive. I was lucky enough to find one of those employers, and will continue to use this as a guide in future employment. Whoever said that work is all blood, sweat, and tears was full of crap (and probably stress-induced ulcers). Work is doing what you love for a bulk of the day, or doing something that maybe you don’t love, but financially supports the hobbies and activities that you love. I think the test for me was: in twenty years, did I want to look back on my life and think, “Wow, I was stressed out,” or “Wow, I really enjoyed that?”
I’m still with the same wonderful man, who helped me through this whirlwind of work and madness. It was a bonus that I had his support along with a good therapist. I worked for a year at an amazing design house that allowed me to be me and valued all the work I produced for it. The people there treated me like a human and a writer, instead of an indentured servant or a pair of hired hands. Every day was a good day at the office, and my only sad day was the day I turned in my two-week notice. My boyfriend (who is now my fiancé) got the job of a lifetime in another state, and we’ve moved. Now while I’m looking for jobs, I’ve set high standards, because I know I deserve them. And so do you.