Help! When Your First Job Out of College is Not Your Dream Job
This is a four part series, which will explore:
Part III — Can Graduate School Lead to Career Change?
Part IV — A Career Change Success Story
People change careers for a variety of reasons — unhappiness with a job role, dissatisfaction with a boss, lack of growth opportunities, or external demands, such as family, expenses and health. For the past six years, I’ve changed jobs as I’ve discovered what I excel at and what I like to do. It took me six years to make a successful career transition, and I’m still learning about the path in which I am headed. In a three part series, I will share my story on the steps I took, why I took them, and most importantly, the many errors I made and lessons I learned along the way.
Part I — When Your First Job Out of College is Not Your Dream Job
Graduation was approaching, and although I was ambitious, I did not have a set career plan or job in place.
Let’s backtrack a bit. Why didn’t I have a job yet? At the time, it felt like everyone wanted to know. During my junior year, my plan had been to learn Mandarin and to work in China after I graduated. However, after 5 months of studying in Hong Kong and traveling throughout China during an exchange program, I decided this wasn’t the right path for me.
I graduated with a degree in public relations and a minor in marketing from Missouri State University, and my friend Krista and I decided to spend one month traveling throughout Europe. I soon realized drinking wine and eating baguettes in Europe did not impart much career enlightenment, so I returned home and began temping as a project assistant at a local utilities company in St. Louis. This was my first exposure to IT project management (which will become relevant in Part III of the story).
The more time I spent temping and living at home, the more I realized my next steps required a move — a drastic life change. To prepare, I worked an additional four months to save for the move. I began applying for jobs in New York City, and shortly thereafter I landed a position as an event coordinator.
From Dream Job to Reality Check
I landed a job in NYC, and I was thrilled! But, unlike the assumptions of many of my friends and family, event management was not glorified party planning. The work I covered included conferences, fundraisers, recruiting and networking events, career fairs, televised live productions and more. These events required significant planning, organization, marketing, crisis management, creativity and execution. It was intense and provided me with incredible learning that I would not have gained otherwise. Nevertheless, I felt disenchanted with what my day-to-day life had become.
My manager executed events with passion. When someone came to her with a fresh idea, her face would light up and a stream of questions and ideas would immediately start flowing — invite design, table decorations, themes, fonts, caterers — she truly was an event designer, a true artist. Unfortunately, event planning did not ignite the same passion in me, and it wasn’t long that I realized this wasn’t the right career choice.
Lesson #1: Your dream job may not be your dream, and that’s okay. Nothing is permanent!
It seems like an obvious lesson now after years of work experience. Yet, at the time, I was convinced I needed to make the perfect decision — actually, I was pretty sure that every career decision needed to be perfect.
I soon realized this behavior was actually harmful as it prevented me from making decisions and important changes in my life. There is no such thing as the perfect decision and sometimes you need to take risks even if you are scared of the unknown or failure.
Nevertheless, every experience leads to some important lessons. This brings me to…
Lesson #2: Through self reflection, you will know when you need to make a change. Here’s how I did it.
I first identified what didn’t excite me about event management. I thought about the tasks, the industry, and the company, and I realized it’s often easier to find out what you don’t like than what you do (which is why we all make such great complainers). Here is what I knew I disliked:
The tasks: I did not wake up excited about the tasks I faced during the day, even though I was enthusiastic about the events themselves. Arguing with vendors when items showed up missing was excruciating. Running from floor to floor to ensure simultaneous events were starting promptly and their respective hosts were happy was depleting. I was more excited by meeting and hearing the speaker than by the actual work required for him/her to present.
Events are only a portion of most company’s overall strategy: Events are a tool to raise money or awareness, produce revenue, entertain, help attendees network, present ideas or thank customers. While events are an incredibly effective means for executing the aforementioned goals and more, they’re rarely the larger focus of a company (unless you’re at an events firm). I like having a role with tasks that impact the larger direction, goals and products of an organization.
The Industry: I love research and learning about a new industry, but I never wanted to spend time tracking the latest trends in the event industry even though industry research should be a requirement of any job. Instead I learned towards research in business development, entrepreneurship and technology.
I mapped out the environment in which I thrived:
Repetitive vs. The Unknown: Event planning is cyclical, especially when planning internally for a company (think annual fundraiser). I thrive off work environments that constantly create new challenges and prefer when the industry is rapidly evolving (i.e. technology). For example, now I start every day reading to keep up on the latest trends in Internet of Things, wearables, big data and more so I can discuss with customers. I love starting my day this way!
Managing Details: There are many moving parts when planning an event that require an intense eye for detail. This is not easy to admit, but I don’t like multi-tasking in chaotic environments. Many job descriptions request this, but I don’t think it’s when I’m at my best. I can remember at any given time I could be simultaneously signing the receipt of a delivery, confirming the edits of programs, coordinating the arrival of a speaker, requesting an area to be cleaned, hand signaling to volunteers and on and on. I’m more successful, precise and pleasant when I can focus on one or two tasks at a time, not eight.
Crisis Management and Stress: Event management taught me to how to calmly put out “fires” throughout an event. While I could manage this for a period of time, eventually I would face burnout from the intensity of the stress, long hours and crisis handling. For me, it wasn’t sustainable, and my job burnout led to personal life burnout. I became a lifeless, exhausted, anxiety-driven mess. When I noticed my work inhibiting my personal life, I knew I needed to make a change.
After a year and half I left the position to pursue an opportunity in Chile, but I’ll save that story for Part II’s risk taking discussion.
Second Time’s The Charm?
After leaving my first job, I later returned to event planning for another company. Though it wasn’t how I saw my career path forming, it did allow me to strengthen different skills.
This role helped me gain additional experience in marketing, donor relations, partnership development and social media management. Plus, it offered great training and networking opportunities. While it was a lateral career move, it was a role that allowed me to expand my experiences while allowing me to save money so that I could make steps towards my long-term goals (hello, MBA).
By the second time around, I realized the key was not to find the perfect job, but to choose a job that led me closer to my goals. I also focused on what I could learn from this new position and on what skills I could improve. Plus, it was an environment I could ask questions and test new ideas.
And That’s A Wrap…Of My Career in Event Management
Event planning turned out to be the right place for me to start my career even though I felt many regrets at the time and felt frustrated with my progress. I still plan events every year as I take on new roles — co-founder of BOULD, board member, volunteer and organization leader — and I’m eternally grateful I have that background. Being patient, with these jobs and myself, was key to gaining experiences I’m proud of today. I realized these were just the first steps in hopefully a 40+ year, fulfilling career, and it was unrealistic of me to expect these positions to meet all of my wants and expectations.
More importantly, my first job was an opportunity to learn from others with more experience, and to determine my likes and dislikes. I used these opportunities to map the ideal work environment, leading myself towards the next step of a multi-step journey. There is much to learn from every experience, especially the difficult ones, and identifying those takeaways can get you much further than simply complaining.