In 2012, after months of struggle, I got my first full-time job out of university, working as a news editor at a local magazine. It was my dream job. Even when times were tough there (and trust me, they got really tough), I was able to remind myself: “You are working the job you’ve wanted since you were little.”
This is a story about the job that came next, where I couldn’t fall back on “this is my dream.” This job made me miserable, when on paper it shouldn’t have. This is about how I kept myself sane and pushed my way to a new job without gaps in employment.
So: if my first job was so great, why leave? While the work itself was great, the company was dysfunctional (my boss had a temper), I was only making $30,000 CAD ($22,263 USD) per year, and I worked regular overtime. At first, I tried to find another journalism job — I told myself that even if the whole industry was this tough, hopefully, I could be paid a little more to take it. But those jobs were tough to come by. One of my colleagues suggested copywriting, but I wasn’t sure — reporting was my passion. But being too inexperienced to catch the attention of better outlets and too poorly paid to sustain much more time at the magazine, I applied for a few out of desperation.
I got a request for an interview right away from a small agency just outside of Toronto. According to the post, I’d be writing ad copy for clients, mostly in video formats. When I met with the founder, I seemed to impress him, but he didn’t impress me. It’s not that he felt “sketchy,” but the environment felt off. He was super enthusiastic, but seemed very stuck on the company’s identity and “culture,” and he was enamored with the idea of becoming an influencer and thought-leader. Basically, I got a phony-baloney vibe. I was ready to reject any potential offer, until it came in at $42,000 CAD ($31,168 USD) — 40% more than what I’d been making. I felt like a millionaire.
My first day was confusing. The founder revealed that he wanted me to focus less on scripts and more on blogging — which wasn’t the job description. The blog would serve to communicate the company’s (his) values, to be an industry “disruptor.” I hated blogging and had been looking forward to learning copywriting, but it turns out (he didn’t mention this during the interviews) that the company had a part-time writer who worked remotely and didn’t want to give up writing the scripts. In seven months, I contributed to exactly one script.
By the third day, I woke up with a dark cloud over me. I realized that I’d made a huge mistake.
The work was uninteresting and unchallenging. The blogging felt haphazard and improvised. I was the only woman in the office and by far the youngest, and the guys, who were all at different places in their lives, really didn’t care for me. The founder also had very different values from me and was always looking to debate me on issues like feminism. Working hard and being nice didn’t seem to matter.
I knew I had to quit. But how could I pull that off? Two years at a low salary (at least, in Toronto) and semi-significant student debt didn’t give much of a safety net, especially not a big enough one to quit my job with no way of knowing when I’d get a new one. I wasn’t an accountant or an engineer. I had an English degree and two years of experience at a local magazine. Jobs in my field didn’t grow on trees, and I’d just pulled myself out of the industry.
I knew two things: One, I had to find something else, fast. Two, I had to do it while I was still working there.
I pulled it off in seven months. Here’s how:
I side-hustled for my sanity.
I’d taught dance on-and-off since high school, and although I had intended to take some time off, I realized at that point that I needed passion in my life. I found a gig one night a week at a studio a few blocks away from the agency. Three hours per week at $36 per hour was more in the realm of “gas money” than “building up a safety net,” but it was less about the money. My students and my director reminded me that just because my new coworkers didn’t like me didn’t mean no one liked me. The studio also gave me occasional opportunities for subbing, so I did end up making more money than I thought I would, and I stayed there for a few years after I left the agency.
I freelanced like crazy.
It was important to keep my byline alive, and at least I was no longer tied to my previous employer’s non-compete clause. I started with pieces for my former magazine (branching into areas I hadn’t covered before, like arts, culture, and entertainment), and tapped my student journalism friends for freelance opportunities. At any given time, I was usually working on at least two freelance pieces. Besides the extra money and keeping up my identity as a “real” journalist, this also worked my mental muscles. One thing I did that I wouldn’t recommend, however, is my decision to brazenly do much of that work at my day job whenever the founder was out. Today, I’d probably be more conservative — but I may have subconsciously been trying to get fired.
I upped my networking skills.
Three months into my job, I met with a publisher about a news editor job for a publication covering the marketing industry (which my new boss was an avid reader of). I thought I’d be ideal with my history and first-hand work in an agency, but when I didn’t get it, I asked her for feedback. The job turned out to be more senior than I was ready for, so it was hard to feel too defeated. I stayed in touch with her and pitched her a few freelance pieces. I also tapped some old contacts from job interviews in my 2012 job search just to check in. Those talks didn’t yield immediate opportunities, but they gave me a chance to sit down for a coffee with professionals I admired and learn what they did when they were looking for work, what they looked for in freelancers, and what skills were in demand. It felt nice to speak to those people outside of an interview situation, and they were very generous with their time and feedback. Networking and professional meetings had never been easy for me, so this resulted in more personal growth than ever.
I tried to make my own challenges in my day job.
I hated the work I was doing, but that didn’t mean I had any choice. I learned that my boss liked a “hustler,” which meant constantly pitching ideas and challenging him. Even though this wasn’t my idea of fun – I preferred being challenged with an assignment and executing it to the best of my ability – my job would at least feel a little more exciting if I played this game. To be honest, I never really believed in my pitches or ideas. But pretending to be excited about my job almost felt the same as actually being excited. I set a goal of pitching three new series ideas and one special project per week. My ideas actually did result in my boss starting a podcast shortly after I left, so it was a reminder that even if my work meant nothing to me, it meant something to someone.
I established a pattern of working from home.
I’ve never liked working from home and had rarely been allowed to, anyway. But my job allowed it on occasion, and some of the guys had regular home days, so I realized that it would be smart to establish semi-regular days in order to accommodate for interviews (my job was in the suburbs, so it would take way longer than a “dentist appointment” to go in for interviews and come back with anything less than a frozen face). I worked from home about twice a month and usually timed it on days when I would actually reasonably benefit from it (like days when I was having back issues, or when I needed to let our superintendent in) so that I wouldn’t use up all my excuses. As an added benefit, this actually did help me learn to focus more when working from home, so, I don’t totally dread it now.
I refreshed my skills.
I started learning to code on Codeacademy, since coding was increasingly in-demand for journalists. I took a statistics and economics course on Coursera, and also started brushing up on my French, Spanish, and German on DuoLingo. Anything to pad my resume helped, and it also gave me something to have fun with on lunch hours. All of those skills have come in handy at my new job, so I was onto something.
I learned to embrace my support network.
I’d attended counseling on-and-off as an adult, and I’d hoped that my benefits would cover the occasional appointment. When I was hired, I was explained that instead of a standard drug-and-dental, I could get a yearly bonus either in the form of a taxed bonus or a “health spending account.” However, a few months in, the founder made an announcement: no bonuses that year. I was devastated, and because his announcement seemed to imply a rough future, my anxiety went into overdrive. I started using my teaching money to fund the occasional session, but I also spent more time with my family. They were the only ones I could be open with about how much I hated my job, and they offered unconditional reassurance (my Dad had dealt with sudden job loss when I was in high school).
Eventually, I secured a different job.
I secured a new job by mid-April, seven months in. In fact, four years ago from the day I wrote this, the publisher I’d met with months before emailed me asking me to come back in and interview for a few less senior positions. She remarked when we met how different my resume and mindset were, which I owed to my networking and skill-building. When I got the job, even though it was challenging, I felt like I could relax for the first time in months. I didn’t have to spend every minute of every day trying to find a backup.
My old boss was upset when I quit, especially when I told him I didn’t feel the job was right for me. I understood – it was his company, and he took me disliking my experience as me disliking him. But only a few weeks later, I learned that the company had let someone else go, as not enough work was coming in. The guy had only been hired a few weeks before me, meaning I would have been axed as well (or even instead of him).
Today, I am the web editor for that industry magazine he regularly reads. There’s occasional communication, but I don’t think he’s gotten over the idea that I “used” the job as a stepping stone to somewhere else. That’s his prerogative. All I know is this: You can’t let yourself feel guilty for going after what you want and need out of life. You can’t allow yourself to look at your misery and think “I deserve this.” The second you start doing that, you’ve already lost.
Bree Rody-Mantha is a full-time business journalist and part-time dance teacher based in Toronto. She covered Toronto City Hall during the Rob Ford era before transitioning to business journalism. Her areas of specialty include the influencer market, advertising, media buying, and technology. Follow her on Twitter.
Image via Unsplash