This Is What to Do When Your Dream Job Turns Into a Nightmare

About six months ago, I moved to New York for what I thought was my dream job. And when I say “I moved for the job,” that’s putting it lightly. This job was it — the next big thing in my life, and I made sure everyone knew about it.  I informed my company that I was leaving, I made the Facebook post, I packed up my car and drove 2,000 miles across the country. The job was my plan, and I was thrilled to have found a next step that made sense for my career. I’d finally landed my dream job, and I was diving in headfirst.

dream job
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Turns out, my dream job was a total bust. After a few weeks on the job, I realized that the role itself wasn’t a great fit. The workload was too heavy, the pay wasn’t great, and it didn’t really utilize the skillset I’d spent so many years building. I lasted two months before pulling the plug and walking away from it all into the wild, wonderful world of freelancing in New York.

Part of me blamed myself: hadn’t I noticed all the red flags early on, and seen the writing on the wall? And on that note, who moves to New York City only to quit their job two months later? There had to be something wrong with me — only an idiot would set themselves up for this kind of failure.

But the bigger part of me — the part of me that still had dreams, plans, ideas and goals that felt worthy of pursuit — rationalized leaving that job as a bold move, and a totally necessary step toward finding the right fit (however nebulous it might have seemed at the time). Still, it’s tough to bounce back after finding out that your dream job isn’t quite what you thought it was — and learning that your big step forward was actually a couple steps backward.

If you find yourself in a position where the image you built up in your mind doesn’t match the day-to-day you’re slogging through, take heart in this: you are not the first person in the world to misjudge a professional fit. It’s normal to spend some time pinging around before you find the thing that really makes your gears tick. And although a change of plans can feel totally scary and overwhelming in the moment, sometimes it’s exactly what you need to weed out the things that don’t work for you.

Consider your departure the first step in a series of choices that will ultimately get you closer to where you need to be. And although it feels petrifying right now, there are a few things you can do to make the process a bit less frightening. Here’s what to do when you find out your dream job isn’t all you thought it’d be.

1. Break the rut.

If you find yourself in a position where things just aren’t clicking, try to change your approach. At a loss for inspiration? Change up your surroundings, join a new networking group, or seem out a mentor at the company for advice.

Having trouble meeting deadlines? Re-think your routine, and see if you can adjust your workload until you feel more comfortable.

Feel like everything you’re making is crap? It might be crap, but it also might just be that you aren’t making it for the right reasons, or the right audience.

Whatever the situation, look for ways to change your approach, and try to back into your work from a different angle. It could be the perspective shift that ends up saving your job.

2. Switch things up.

If the dream job turns out to be more of a nightmare, be honest with yourself, and with your manager. It costs a lot of money to onboard a new hire, and odds are, they want you to be successful in your position just as much (if not more so) than you do.

If you’re able, talk to your manager about you things are going, and see if you can’t tweak your function to something that’s a better fit. Maybe they can adjust your orientation, take some things off your plate, set you up with a better on-boarding specialist, shift around your responsibilities until you’re more comfortable, or switch you over to another department.

Fight the urge to “fire yourself,” so to speak. You never know what someone’s going to say until you ask, so don’t leave before you’ve exhausted every option.

3. Quit the job.

This one’s tough: if things aren’t coming together, sometimes you just need to call it. Even if quitting feels like the last thing you want to do after stepping into your dream job, try to keep things in perspective: there’s no way you’ll get to your actual dream job if you keep going around in circles at one that’s sucking the life out of you.

Also, take heart in the fact that you get to direct the narrative here: after bowing out gracefully, feel free to keep the news to yourself for a bit. You don’t owe anyone an explanation, so don’t feel like you need to make some grandiose statement about your departure on social media, or update all your family, friends and colleagues right away. Take some time to process your decision and get comfortable with your choice, have a glass of wine if you feel like it and go from there. There will be plenty of time for all the scary stuff later on. For now, pat yourself on the back for making a tough decision and focus on moving on to next thing.

4. Get over the shame.

And on that note, this one’s easier said than done, but it’s also the first step in any bad fit recovery process. It’s normal to have a bit of professional PTSD when you leave a job — especially if you’re leaving it sooner than you expected. Try not to fight this. Instead, lean into the reality that some things just aren’t meant to be. It doesn’t have to mean anything about who you are as a person, or your abilities as a professional.

It also doesn’t mean you won’t be successful in a similar role someplace else. There are so many factors that help determine whether or not someone will be successful in a role, and if you’re hurrying through the hiring process, many of them are easy to miss. Spend some time thinking about why things didn’t work out, give yourself space to lament the end, then move on and start reshaping the narrative. This is critical for your progress, as you’re going to have to talk about this experience with hiring managers moving forward — best to do it with a clear mind, a positive outlook and a sense of closure.

5. Take meetings (and set them).

When you find yourself rebounding from a failed job, take every meeting that comes your way and work even harder to nail down the ones that seem out of reach.

Here’s the thing: people can smell thirstiness from a mile away. Before you start to get too desperate, set some networking meetings with colleagues in your industry on your calendar while you still have time and options. Buy them a cup of coffee and ask them to offer an opinion on your situation.

If the meeting goes well, ask them for a recommendation or a contact. Odds are, your next job isn’t going to come from a job board, so get back in touch with those well-connected relationships you’ve been neglecting and let them know you’re on the lookout for your next gig.

6. Make something for nothing.

What better time to do what you really want to do than when you don’t know what to do with your career? If you find yourself staring down a long, dark tunnel of aimlessness and misdirection, consider taking a step back to focus on the things that make you happy.

If you’ve got some money in the bank, put things on hold for a month or two and dive into that passion project you’ve been tossing around. Make a few greeting cards, work the wine harvest, crochet some blankets, produce a documentary, start a consulting business, plant a garden, organize an adult summer camp, or record an album of ukulele songs and give it away for free.

You do you! Odds are, there probably won’t be any money bound up in these pursuits, but it’s bound to make you pretty happy. And look at it this way: you’ve got the rest of your life to work. Might as well use the time off to indulge some other interests while you have it.

7. Consider a pivot.

If the job you were so amped on doesn’t end up working out, it’s totally possible that it was never going to work out — maybe because you just aren’t in the right field.

As good as something sounds on paper, the reality is that some of us just aren’t suited for certain things. I’d love to be a world-class chef, but my omelets fall apart nine times out of 10. Plus, I don’t have any formal culinary training. These are roadblocks to my Top Chef narrative, and things that simply can’t be overlooked, no matter how hard I squint. Even if being the Senior Vice President of Finance for a global corporation sounds riveting and important and wonderful in your mind, if showing up every day makes you break out in hives, leaves you full of anxiety and makes you feel like you’re constantly running on empty, it might be time to think about a career pivot.

Need help re-calibrating? Hire a career coach, do your homework, give your resume a facelift and tailor your cover letter for the types of jobs you’re targeting. With the right assistance and a bit of persistence, something’s bound to stick.

Finally, recognize that there’s no shame in edging one dream out of the picture to make room for another. You’re the keeper of your own success, and that starts with owning your happiness and making space for your life to look like whatever you want.

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