When your dream job is a nightmare
Some six years ago I thought I’d found my dream job. It had everything I wanted: working on a variety of international issues (migration, security, human rights), frequent travel, and flexible hours.
The benefits were nice too: I got two salary increases within the first year and I could work from anywhere in the world. The company culture was so casual I could simply take days off as needed. But this turned out to be bad. Because there were no fixed work hours and no defined time off, taking leave always felt like slacking.
The company I worked for was unconventional but I thought that was a good thing. It felt modern. I was proud to be part of a promising start-up so it made sense to me to work as hard as possible. And even though “doing everything” is not the ideal job requirement, I loved the opportunities it provided me.
Frankly, I was so happy with this job I pinched myself a few times. I had no experience with consulting at the time. I’d just moved to a new place, was a first-time mom, and the job hunt had been hard. I wasn’t confident I had a lot to offer and felt like I lacked serious work experience. So I was eager to impress.
Work travel was not fun
But the trouble began right away. I was in charge of a big project in four Asian countries and had to travel to meet all the stakeholders in person to negotiate and sign contracts. I was separated from my one-year old son for the first time, which was unexpectedly difficult. To minimize the time being away from home I devised a grueling travel schedule for myself.
I felt terrible when I boarded the plane and the trip itself was an endless series of meetings and flights without any downtime. I remember very little of it—just stressful scenes like the time I sat on the back of a motorcycle racing through smoggy Jakarta. The driver was so bad he even got a ticket for it, and he didn’t speak English or understand the directions I gave him. It’s a miracle we found the place at all and also—what was I thinking?!
I traveled to several other destinations with only a week or two weeks notice—not easy to combine with family life. A lot of people thought I was crazy for “leaving my kid behind.” The only supportive person was my husband, but that made me feel even more guilty. I thought nobody really understood what I was doing.
The travel was exhausting, stressful, and it never included sight-seeing. I tasted some excellent food, sure, but mostly I just saw filthy cities, meeting rooms, hotels, banks, airports, and traffic jams. I learned a lot, but it was all business meetings, more business meetings, and no fun.
60-hour work weeks
The daily chats I had with my boss typically turned into strategy sessions. I thought it was cool to hear about everything that was going on in the organization, and I was flattered to be asked for my opinion. But I also felt exhausted being put on the spot and having to think about the next thing all the time.
I was expected to coordinate multiple projects simultaneously while also focusing heavily on finding new projects and taking part in recruitment, website management, and business promotion through traditional and social media.
There was just too much work to do and never enough time. I sat behind my computer 10 hours per day, often writing massive research reports until late in the night. I felt guilty when I wasn’t working and I could never relax.
In hindsight I think I got pretty close to a burnout. There were signs I was reaching the end of my rope. For example, I felt like laying down on the carpet in the middle of the day and close my eyes. I always worked during weekends. I didn’t take breaks for lunch, social calls, or anything that wasn’t an urgent family matter. I lost my appetite, got really skinny, and couldn’t get a good night sleep.
For a long time I thought it was a cruel joke. I did the kind of work I loved and studied for and (at least on paper) I had a lot of independence. Our company grew fast and I admired the leadership. So why was I having such a rough time? Why couldn’t I be more balanced and confident? Nothing made sense anymore. I’d always assumed my ambition was limitless and that I was immune to stress. Now I felt like I was losing control over my life.
So I quit.
My boss said something to me I thought was unfair and I turned the anger I felt into the courage I needed to resign. It took me several months to recover. I kept having doubts if I’d made the right decision—I even considered applying for my own job, which is crazy! I was just so disappointed with myself. I worried I’d damaged my career. And I was scared I lost my love for working.
But ultimately I think it was a valuable experience. The work itself was fascinating and helped me to develop professionally. I’m pretty sure I learned more during that job than during all my other jobs combined.
I also learned that I care more about being with my family than about traveling. I learned the importance of setting boundaries. I began to understand my professional worth. And I found out that money doesn’t motivate me very much.
Above all, it made me fearless. I realized there’s always the next thing and that bad experiences are valuable experiences. Once I’d picked myself up again I had so much energy and confidence I nailed the Foreign Service exams that same year.