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Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Portia Mount.

You’ve dreamed about it for years: the title, the big paycheck, the job all your friends would KILL to have.

But have you ever scratched beneath the surface of your dream to think about what’s really motivating you to pursue it? Is it the paycheck and expense account? Bragging rights working for a name brand company?

For three years, I slogged away at a Big PR agency in New York working long hours for demanding clients with the sole focus of landing a coveted position in one of my firm’s international offices. I never thought about what my vision for my life was or what a true definition of success might be. I just craved achievement.

One day I finally got The Call. The CEO of the Asia region told me there was an opening in Shanghai.  Would I be interested? I had heard horror stories about the China operations–sixteen hour days, abusive clients, and aggressive revenue targets–but I was dazzled by the gleaming high rises, the lure of a promotion and a cost of living allowance that would make me positively rich by New York standards.

The Honeymoon was over almost as soon as it began.

I’d barely been in China a week when one of our top clients, a telecom firm, told me that the agency wasn’t meeting his expectations and he was going to fire us at the end of the month if things didn’t turn around.

Things will get better. They have to, I told myself.

Revenue pressures for our tiny office of twenty were intense. Ten hour days stretched to twelve and fourteen hours. Calls came from our London parent company to raise our revenue targets and improve our margins.

I found myself stretched between clients in the US and China. I wasn’t getting nearly enough sleep and anxiety constantly gnawed away at my insides.

You can’t leave now. You’ve worked so hard to get here, I kept telling myself. Just work harder.

More than once I packed my bags to go home.

The stress of managing an overworked staff, long hours and demanding clients started to wear on me. I developed a chronic stomach ache and a nervous tick of pulling my hair out on one side of my head. I woke up every morning feeling exhausted. More than a year into my China expat assignment, I felt trapped by the contract I had signed and the feelings of failure I would have if I returned home early. My dream job was anything but.

Things finally came to a head when China was hit by the SARS epidemic. Overnight 40% of our business vanished into thin air as frightened clients cancelled their contracts. I took a pay cut and unpaid vacation to help offset the losses. Two expat colleagues were laid off. My boss abruptly left the company without explanation.

The writing was on the wall.

How did I get here? It wasn’t supposed to be this way. I never imagined that the career I had dreamed about for so long would be so wrong for me.

I knew I had to make a decision. The next day I woke up and handed in my resignation.

I didn’t know what I would do or where I would go but I knew I’d had enough. I took almost a year off before heading back to the United States. I realized that as much as I loved my field of marketing communications, the PR agency environment was not for me. I wanted to do work that made my heart sing and that matched who I really was inside.

In retrospect, the warning signs were all around me. But I was so focused on achieving what I thought was career success that I ignored them. Do any of these sound familiar to you?

Warning #1: Fixation with prestige and status. A lot of successful people fall into this trap. I did and it came naturally as someone who grew up in a family where achievement and status were not only rewarded but expected. In retrospect, the most appealing aspect of the China job was the promotion and being able to say I was an expatriate. What I learned was that prestige and status are fine as long as they come with a deep understanding of what is meaningful to you.

Warning #2: Not defining career success. I used to have a very narrow definition of career success. Before taking the China job, success to me meant a title, a raise and public recognition. Post-China, I define success differently. I think about what will ignite my passion. I think about what gives me a sense of happiness and contentment and what challenges me to live out the vision I’ve set for my life.

Warning #3: Getting caught up in “magical” thinking. Many of us have a “reality distortion field.” I know I did. So many times, I would have the realization the Shanghai job was all wrong for me, but it was too hard to accept. Wishing for something to be true doesn’t make it so. I learned to embrace reality because sometimes we have to face the pain of the situation head on to get ourselves out of it.

Warning #4: Experiencing stressed-induced illness. If a job is starting to make you sick, it’s a pretty good sign things are on the wrong track. When I started pulling my hair out and feeling a knot in my stomach every day, I knew it was time to make a change. Our bodies are incredibly wise and often give us valuable information before our rational mind makes the connection. My physical symptoms were like a flare gun going off and eventually the signals were just too strong ignore.

I learned the hard way while pursuing my “dream job” of becoming a PR executive in Asia that it was far too easy to land the wrong job for all the wrong reasons. It was only in retrospect I realized I’d been so focused on achieving what I thought was career success that I ignored the warning signs.

I have no regrets. I emerged from those two years so much wiser and energized to create a career that expressed my deepest values and beliefs.

That soul-searching led me to the job I am in today, one that I love and is more suited to my values and life plan. I sometimes wonder: if I’d had more insight earlier in my career would things be different?

Maybe. What I know for sure is you can always course correct if you have the courage and belief in yourself. You can always make the change if you take responsibility for your own happiness.

Portia Mount is a marketer, writer and coach. You can find her at www.bossmomonline.com where she writes about lifestyle and career issues for working mothers.

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21 Responses to 4 Warning Signs Your Dream Job May Be a Nightmare

  1. Portia,
    Thanks for this great advice, told in a very riveting way. I too had visions of a big, prestigious job (working at the New York Times as a journalist), but in hindsight I realized that would have been a terrible fit for me. I hope people at younger and younger ages grab hold of the fact that following your passions is critical. People chase too many goals that ultimately leave them feeling hollow.

  2. Patrick, thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. And I too would like to see younger people (gee, I feel so old saying that!) really focus on their passions rather than empty goals or the expectations of others. I am optimistic!

    • On
    • June 12, 2012 at 7:08 pm
    • Chris Lappin
    • Said...

    Hi Portia thanks so much for this. You’ve just caused me to think back through my work back-catalogue (some of it wasn’t very pretty!!).
    I recognise all those warning signs and have experienced them all on more that one occasion.
    And isn’t the body an amazing thing that it can tell us when something is really bad for us?! Even though we have a brain, common sense and can talk to ourselves it’s our body that really tells us how it is (sorry I didn’t mean that to sound profound!).
    I believe that our generation are more prepared to look outside the norm when it comes to work because we’ve sometimes had to and, thinking back to my parent’s generation, (my Dad was involved in WW2) the world was a much smaller place then for so many reasons.
    I know the younger generation get a bad press but I feel that they will be even less risk-averse, open to trying new things and not so focussed on the material stuff because of the scale of opportunities that are available – when I finished Uni there was no such thing as having a Gap Year & travelling the world – now it’s the norm!! Broader horizons usually (tho’ not always) create a broader outlook.
    After a rather strange day and some wondering of ‘what the hell am I doing?’ it was lovely to read this.

    • Chris, I don’t even know where to start. Such great thoughts! I think a whole post could be written on the mind-body connection alone. I agree that millenials get a bad rap but I think they (along with those of us who are Gen Xers, etc.) will adapt and innovate in ways we can’t imagine right now. As bad as things are out there, I think this is a time of creative destruction and that’s why communities like this one on Jen’s site are so great. There are lots of kindred spirits out there!

        • On
        • June 14, 2012 at 4:53 am
        • Chris Lappin
        • Said...

        Your comment gave me goose-bumps (I hope that’s not just a British expression & you know what I mean!?).
        The world is certainly an interesting place at the moment & I’m going through my very own version of interesting for so many reasons.
        My eldest son is almost 16, about to finish High School & go to college. I’m not nervous for him, I’m excited about what he can achieve. What concerns me more for the millenials is the dumbing down of everything & the focus on celebrity, being famous for being famous as though that’s something to aspire to. Anyway rant over. WAnd yes Jen’s site certainly provides that ‘we’re all in this together’ feeling. I’m now a convert to your site & through that have found ‘Life is Hard, Laugh Anyway’ which certainly speaks my language!

  3. Jen:

    You may want to address Portia’s blog URL. It’s not working.

    Portia:

    I find your article relevant as all 4 mistakes applied to me. Btw, you may find this TEDx video relevant (this applies to Jen too): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iKHTawgyKWQ

    Cheers,

    Stanley

    • Thanks for the heads-up on the links. Not sure what happened, but luckily they were ok in the email version that went out and I’ve now fixed them here as well. Appreciate it!

    • Hi, Stanley – thanks for the heads up on the links and thanks very much for the TEDx video! I am a TED junkie so I know I’ll like it already. I am looking forward to watching it.

  4. Portia — having just seen the season finale of Mad Men, I couldn’t help but think that all the characters on the show could benefit immensely from this post. They are awash in these warnings signs; unlike you, they never seem to recognize it. And the fact that many of us can closely relate to their endless fixation with prestige and conventional success helps explain why the show has been so popular. There’s no danger of me ever looking like Don Draper, but honest, insightful posts like this one can help prevent me from acting like him!

    • Stephen, I saw the season finale of Mad Men as well. I could write so many posts (hmmm, maybe I will) about Don Draper’s dark psyche (as well as the other characters)so many lessons to learn there!

    • On
    • June 14, 2012 at 10:48 pm
    • Kris
    • Said...

    Thank you for a great post. I’m struggling right now with where to take my career – my “dream job” was eliminated during a re-organization last year, and now I’m not happy both with my work and my organization’s culture.

    I have to remember that prestige and title are far less important than doing work that makes me feel happy and complete.

    • Kris I’m a firm believer that we all have more than one dream job out there once we figure out what’s really important to us. I’m so sorry you’ve had to experience a job loss. One of the things I like about the community here is there is a lot of support and good ideas for helping to envision a career you love and that’s worth getting up for. Best of luck to you in finding your next career!

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    • On
    • June 16, 2012 at 12:28 am
    • Rashmi Madhumita Rout
    • Said...

    Thanks Portia for such a nice post ,learnt a lot abt my own situation when i lost my 1st and only job after graduating frm college .It made me realized whatever i felt in the 3 and half months into my job was the lack of passion and direction i had . I jumped into a job out of some random decision and suggestion frm my brother and sister .Despite having a degree in Software engineering i am far frm good at writing codes for s/w firms becoz i lack the interest . I am more drawn to the field of Arts, culture ,food,travel. then engineering i wish i had more courage to tell my parents dat i dint want to do engineering .Also i am interested to do freelance writing . Now i am without a job and trying to get back on my feet but dnt know in which field i can make a career .

    • Rashmi, thanks so much for sharing your story. I think a lot of people can relate to where you are. So many of us end up in jobs for reasons other than what fuels our passion. It’s difficult sometimes to confront well-meaning parents (or relatives) who want what’s best for us but sometimes don’t truly understand where our hearts are. I hope in the coming weeks and months you are able to get the support and insight you need to find a job that makes makes your heart sing. I think you’ve found a great resource here in Everyday Bright and the EB community. I wish you clarity and much future success.

  6. Portia: When you fall down you must always get back up, dust yourself off and keep tugging on down that road to happiness. You are strong because you did not give up on finding what makes you happy.
    It is not always easy to find what makes us happy. For a big part of my life, I thought I was going to be in the MLB on day, at least it was what was drilled into my head. I practiced, played, practiced and played some more, but my heart was never there and I knew it was time for me to stop wasting time.
    It was hard for me to tell my dad because at that time I did not know what my passion was, but to this day, I am glad I trusted my heart.
    In the end, I will always follow my heart because it will never lead me astray.

    Do you follow your heart?

    • On
    • July 19, 2012 at 4:35 pm
    • Michael Deaven
    • Said...

    Really great post, everyone should take this advice. Things don’t always turn out the way you hoped/planned. Gotta move on! Life’s too short to be unhappy!

    • On
    • July 22, 2012 at 8:28 pm
    • Deetsie
    • Said...

    A very helpful insight. Thanks for sharing Portia. It’s a relief to know that I’m not going through this alone.

    • On
    • August 19, 2012 at 2:50 am
    • Ani
    • Said...

    Sounds soooo familiar.
    I have been in similar situation too… signed 3 resignations and left finally with the last one.
    No regrets – only the thought that I should have done it earlier :)

    • I hear that a lot, Ani. Congrats! What are you doing now?

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