When I left university, I thought all I wanted was a stable career in marketing.
Unfortunately, the recession caused many of the graduate schemes I’d pinned my hopes on to dry up. I persevered with job applications, and after hunting for almost a year, a Marketing Assistant opportunity came up via a temping agency. I leapt at the chance to get my career off the ground at last.
I was happy, but there was always something missing.
Time and again, I believed that the next promotion or pay rise would make me feel complete. These milestones provided some short-term gratification, but never the sense of accomplishment that I craved. This is known as the “hedonic treadmill” — the idea that one will typically return to one’s baseline level of contentment, only a short time after achieving something previously perceived as a major triumph.
Many years into my career, when I least expected it, my world was turned upside down.
A chance meeting with a stranger visiting from overseas became a close friendship, followed by a travel buddy arrangement, followed by an engagement. Within a year, I was planning an international move from the UK to the USA. A complete change of scenery and pace helped me reimagine my working life — and how going freelance could work for me. I found myself living in a low-cost area with completely different opportunities, a world away from the bustling city I had left behind. As I settled into my new surroundings, I was finally free to focus on passions I had long neglected. Over time, I slowly built towards becoming a freelancer and recalibrated my ideas of what I truly wanted from my life — an undertaking that felt out of reach when I felt pinched by the high costs of a major city, and the exhaustion of life in the rat race.
Before I went freelance, I was frequently taunted by the path not taken.
There were stones unturned for me — things that I talked about doing “one day.” For me, like many others in my field, it was hard to see how that day could ever arrive. The momentum of my full-time marketing career was not conducive to me taking a break to focus on personal goals, such as traveling, writing, and learning new skills. I couldn’t just quit my job and take some time to myself because I was locked into an eye-wateringly expensive apartment lease. I told myself that I wasn’t giving up on the passions that I hadn’t yet followed, but rather just benching them for a couple more years.
As a full-time employee, I felt trapped by my decisions.
I soon began to see that until I could reduce lifestyle costs, I wouldn’t be able to afford to make a career change. But how could I reduce lifestyle costs whilst still working in an expensive city? My environment encouraged me to keep moving forwards and upwards. I began to think that it would be a shame to leave behind a career that I was good at, even though it wasn’t making me happy. In this thinking, I fell victim to the “sunk cost fallacy.” This is the idea that burrowing deeper in the wrong direction is preferable to admitting an error and making a U-Turn. For many of us, our discomfort with the fact that previously invested resources cannot be recovered causes us to continue to throw good money, time, or energy after bad.
My advice to anyone who is unhappy with their work/life balance is to consider changing the backdrop.
That could mean something as simple as moving to the countryside from the city, or from the center of town to the suburbs. In a post-COVID world, flexible work is set to become the new normal. Many major companies have already announced that they will allow their staff to work from home indefinitely, and for those who were previously office-based, it’s a great time to negotiate a partially homebased new workflow.
To change our outlooks, we need to give ourselves the space to do so.
I shudder whenever I wonder if I would have stayed stuck in the same career rut forever if life events had not caused me to move continents. It wasn’t that I hated my job or my city. I didn’t even hate my commute to work. And yet, the combination of all of those things drained me of my dreams, and my energy to make them a reality. Once I changed the components of my environment, I felt enlivened and ready to go after my passions.