4 Warning Signs Your Dream Job May Be a Nightmare

by | Jun 12, 2012 | Career Design | 20 comments

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

Y ou’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.