You know that feeling you get when something is off? You intuitively know that whatever it is you’re doing or wherever you are in a particular moment isn’t right. That was how my first job felt. On paper it was right. It was the perfect job: it aligned with my college major, required me to do research in Arabic, and allowed me to work for important people. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling deep in my gut that something was off.
This wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing with my life.
You’re supposed to be excited when you get a good job, especially your very first job. You’re supposed to want to work hard, impress your boss, and climb the corporate ladder. Sure, there are times when you might hate it and you wonder what the hell you are doing with your life. Usually those moments are balanced out by fun coworkers, a good boss, and that steady paycheck everyone loves.
Two months into my first job I wanted to quit. I was bored with the work, didn’t connect with my coworkers, and resented the fact that my boss was unwilling to let me fail. It didn’t make sense. This was the work I was supposed to do. I was supposed to enjoy this work. Except, I didn’t. In fact, I hated it.
I’m a creative problem solver. I like thinking outside the box. I need to feel challenged and intellectually stimulated by the work I do. I need to work in different environments with a variety of stimuli. Some days I can work in silence, other days I need the din of a bustling coffee shop. More importantly, I need to be wrong at solving problems from time to time. It’s the only way to learn. This job offered me none of that.
Fortunately, it didn’t last long. The firm I worked for lost the re-compete for my contract and let my whole team go. At the ripe age of 23 I found myself suddenly unemployed. In my mind I wasn’t really unemployed though. During those 5 months I received a conditional offer to become an intelligence analyst with the Department of the Navy. This was my dream job. I just had to wait to be cleared for my first day of work.
I was never going to get cleared for it. That job was dead in the water. It was 2015 and the Office of Personnel Management had been hacked. The paperwork to get my security clearance to start that job had been been submitted only a couple weeks before the news of the breach was made public. Everything was halted and my paperwork found itself stuck in bureaucratic gridlock. Eventually I would go on to resubmit my paperwork only to discover that my job offer had gone to someone else. What I didn’t understand then was just how bad the hack was and how the timing of this single event set me on an irrevocable collision course with getting my dream job.
This uncertainty was my introduction to the workforce. It was tumultuous at best but I thought my experience was standard. From the summer of 2014 — when I moved to Washington, DC — until the summer of 2015, I had an unpaid internship followed by an internship that paid me a small monthly stipend. Even though I had a roommate and often commuted by bike to save money, I spent nights and weekends working at a Starbucks for minimum wage to be able to afford rent. I would get home after midnight and spend two hours late at night applying to paid jobs. Most of my meals came from the Starbucks pastry case, salvaging whatever I could from being thrown away the night prior.
It was not just exhausting, it was perplexing. I graduated in the top of my class from a good school. I spoke Arabic. It shouldn’t have been so hard to find someone to want to hire me. That contract job I got that left me unemployed after only five months of work paid me $16 an hour to do research in Arabic, only slightly higher than what I had been making at Starbucks. I had worked so hard that first year in DC yet I felt like I had nothing to show for it.
Compared to my peers, I developed a different baseline for understanding the job market. I didn’t know that people got paid right out of college. I didn’t know my peers had all accepted their first jobs at Deloitte and McKinsey earning $60,000 right off the bat before they had even graduated. Come to think of it, I didn’t know what Deloitte or McKinsey was at the time either. I spent my first year after college studying Arabic in the Middle East on a “prestigious” scholarship (a scholarship that, by the way, still left me taking out private student loans at 11% APR) that I thought would help me get one step closer to my dream job. I didn’t know that when I came to Washington, my skill set would be valued at $16 an hour. Jobs outside of the federal government didn’t exist in my mind. I had no idea where to look and no one to ask for help.
I was the first in my immediate family to graduate from a 4-year college. Both my parents had started college and completed their Associate’s degree through the local community college. They entered the workforce in the early 90s at $20,000 annual salaries and languished at that level for much of my life. When it came time for me to apply to college, I felt like I was shooting fish in a barrel, blindfolded with a Nerf gun in my hand. I had no idea what I was doing. With no method to my madness I took both the SAT and the ACT, applying to the following schools: my dream school (Harvard); a school in New York City (Columbia); the most competitive state school in New York (SUNY Geneseo); and two D1 basketball rivals (Duke and Syracuse).
Fortunately, at least one was gracious enough to admit me.
I loved my time at Syracuse — even the snow — but I won’t say my tuition bill afforded me the best career advice. I felt like most students in the international relations program were shepherded into careers with nonprofit nongovernmental organizations, the State Department, or the United Nations. No one ever talked of private sector options. When recruiters came to Syracuse, I never saw them. Most of the time they holed up at the management school where all the finance majors had classes. I assumed they were recruiting kids to go work in the Financial District in New York after graduation, something I had no interest in doing. It never crossed my mind that some of those recruiters might have been looking for someone like me to go work in their public sector divisions in DC.
I am incredibly proud of the education I graduated with. I now realize, though, that education is more than just a GPA. Part of me wishes I had done more to learn how to find a career. When I moved to Washington, DC in the summer of 2014, I had no idea how to apply to jobs much less which jobs to apply to.
My next job was an administrative gig at a law firm that I thought would hold me over until a “real” job in my field came through. A research assistant position at a think tank I had interned with the previous summer became vacant around the same time. I was one of two individuals on the short-list of contenders. I anticipated that job offer coming through at anytime. I hate administrative work but conceded I could stick it out at the law firm for a few weeks until that offer came through.
I couldn’t shake how meaningless the work was, mostly answering the phone to take dictation from a septuagenarian in the corner office across the way. I found myself angry and agitated that I was chained to a desk from 9am until 6pm everyday. I couldn’t leave in the event someone might call (ummm voicemail?). The little voice kept coming back in my head: This wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing with my life.
Two months into that job I found out the think tank gig went to someone else. The realization dawned on me that I didn’t have an exit ramp. I was stuck. I lasted only eight more weeks before resigning, calling it quits. I left abruptly to work at a new coffee shop in DC. The coffee shop had opened their flagship store the year prior and were looking to staff a second location. I felt drawn to its entrepreneurial spirit, and I love coffee, so when the opportunity came to try working a completely different job, I took it.
The $13.50 an hour salary I made at the coffee shop is one of the happiest salaries I’ve ever made. In my first month as a barista I learned the differences between African roasted coffee (it’s sweeter and more fruit flavored) and South American coffee (it’s more nuttier and chocolatier); figured out why one might prefer a cup of coffee prepared in a French press vice traditional drip coffee; and I practiced my latte art to exhaustion. I made it a game to start learning every regular’s order before they showed up in the mornings, many of whom genuinely appreciated the gesture. I love learning and working in a coffee shop gave me the opportunity to do just that.
At this point I still operated in the mental framework that my “real” job was right around the bend. I never considered working in a coffee shop to be a “real” job. By the start of the year a job offer came for an actual salaried job at a major defense contractor in Virginia. The coffee shop gig became a part-time gig while I worked on starting my career in defense contracting.
After the initial honeymoon period of my first few paychecks I realized this wasn’t going to be my favorite job. What I did was interesting but the environment made it difficult to get any work done. I was a contractor and we were segregated from our government clients. The contract included financial incentives for good performance. My company’s financial success was predicated on positive reviews. Thus supervisors held a tight rein on anything the junior staff did to prevent errors that might lead to negative reviews. Heaven forbid I send an email directly to a government client, unsolicited without review! (I was scolded on a number of occasions for sending emails directly to government clients asking questions). The atmosphere was oppressive, stifling creativity.
By the summer of 2016 that little voice in my head had me yearning for something more: This wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing with my life. So I did the one thing every 25 year old seems to do: I spent that fall applying to graduate schools. A professor once recommended I consider getting a PhD so I figured why not apply to see what would happen. Surprisingly, I got into a program at Columbia, albeit without any funding. I didn’t have the $750 I needed to reserve my seat for the fall cohort, much less the desire to live off of high-interest student loans in New York. I made a hard pass on that opportunity.
I decided to continue pressing on at my job, where I would remain for two and a half years.
On paper, I had a super cool job. I worked for a major defense contractor (think Edward Snowden) and we supported an agency within the Department of Defense that combated chemical, biological, and nuclear threats. I worked on the nuclear security team building counter nuclear smuggling capabilities with partner countries. It sounds really bad ass, but the day-to-day job itself drained me.
In the defense industry, you solve problems by PowerPoint. Everyone is limited to communicate through the same standard issue template on a 13.33″ x 7.5″ frame. The least critical of thinkers in the department spend decades of their careers filling the white space on PowerPoint slides with as many words as they can. The more information on the slide, the better the problem is solved.
Ok enough of the sarcasm. Folks in the defense industry do great work. On a day-to-day level it just isn’t work I enjoy. I yearned to creatively solve problems rather than continuously plan on how to solve the problem. I wanted to make mistakes so that I could learn from them but the Tyranny of Quality prevented me from doing so. I was young and eager for a supervisor that would challenge me to grow. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to think.
Just shy of my two year work anniversary I started getting sick. This wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing with my life and my body knew it. I felt trapped in my job, unable to shake the feeling I was stuck. I never once had an issue with acne or breakouts growing up. I have psoriasis so I figured that was torture enough. From 2017-2018 I suffered from painful and publicly humiliating acne. I tried EVERYTHING I could get my hands on to make it go away. Nothing worked. Only now looking back I realize this wasn’t acne. This folks, is what work induced anxiety looks like.
With my physical body showing symptoms of anxiety, unsurprisingly, my job took a toll on my mental health as well. I didn’t know how to play the game, and frankly, I didn’t really want to learn. I couldn’t see what I was working towards or how to advance. I found myself wholly uninterested and dispassionate about the field of work I had entered. I was showing up to work every morning for a paycheck. I thought there was supposed to be more to life than just a paycheck, right?
The complex structure of my job only exacerbated the existential crisis brewing inside of me. For those of you outside the Beltway, defense contracting is a convoluted work environment: my day-to-day supervisor worked for a different company than me. She could provide feedback to my direct manager, informing his annual review, but that was it. My clients, who arguably had the most to report on the quality of my performance, were not allowed to provide any feedback on my personal work performance (instead they provided feedback on the entire contract). My company was only concerned with making up their profit margin. I was a number to them, not a person. They had no desire to promote me or increase my pay. My supervisor needed the work to get done; my clients needed the work to get done; and my company needed to bill my hours. I felt like I was being squeezed from three different angles and couldn’t figure out what the point was. What was I getting out of this arrangement?
The voice in my head became deafening: This wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing with my life. By June 2018 I couldn’t take it anymore. Without a plan I left my job.
What I learned during my formative years in the job market is that the concept of “work life balance” goes far beyond not responding to emails at 8pm on Sunday nights. It’s about the physical environment you work in, the intellectual stimuli you receive from your colleagues, and the willingness of your leadership to edify you. We are each programmed to play the game of life differently. Some of us understand how to navigate office politics more intuitively than others. Some of us need the structure a 9to5 job provides. And some of us need creative license to find fulfillment and contribute to the greater good on our own terms in our own way.
I fall into that latter category. I was created to contribute to something, not to be a cog in a machine. I’ve known this about myself for a while but have struggled to reconcile it with the prevailing 9to5 system we are all bred to be a part of. I’ve consistently felt like a square peg being forced into a round hole. No matter how hard I tried to fit in, I just couldn’t. Something was always off. That little voice in my head kept reminding me this wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing with my life.
Over the course of the last year I radically changed my personal paradigm. Every atom in my body told me there is more to life than a 9to5 job. Once I started listening to what my mind and body were telling me, I began to see more clearly what I was created to do. I don’t know if intermissions exist in the writing world but I’m going to declare one right here, right now. What is about to come next in this story is a redemptive arc towards finding passion and purpose in life. I could not possibly do you any justice by trying to cram that journey into this narrative. Stick with me and I’ll tell you how I figured out exactly what it is I’m supposed to be doing with my life.