I’ve written here about the laborious task of getting my first corporate job, and here I am, writing about why I gave it up. I’m 24. After eighteen months working as a Junior Copywriter, I handed in my notice and departed to spend five months working my way around Europe. It was the best choice I’ve ever made.
Don’t stick out that first job if it’s not what you want, or getting you closer to it.
My graduate job, on paper, sounded great. I’d work as a creative writer in one of the city’s most successful and quickly growing agencies. I’d be salaried, with structured hours. I’d get paid time off at Christmas, private health insurance, free nights out and free snacks in the office. There would be bean bags; it looked cool. The reality was different. Within the first few weeks, I spent three nights working overtime ‘til 10pm proofreading a piece of medical literature that I knew would be one of the most poorly organised projects I’d ever work on. I spent my nine to five seeking out work to do that would enable me to be creative; I didn’t find it. I realised quickly that the job wouldn’t be what I wanted, but it took me a long time to work out that it wasn’t just how it had to be.
Like many others, especially from within my year group, I was funnelled from school to college, to university and to a job. I envied those who took a gap year, but couldn’t justify it with English university fees set to triple the year after I applied. I wasn’t entertained by university and was desperate to just get to work. I wanted to support myself, live independently, and have a job I enjoyed. Part of that was likely an expectation that when I achieved that, that would be it. I’d feel like I’d made it, the job would be great and I’d love office life. I had a massive expectation hangover. It took being away from it for an extended period to acknowledge that office life and big agency life, wasn’t for me. It took a lot more to accept that this was ok.
I spent each day from April to the end of August last year working my way around Europe utilising contacts I made on the volunteer and host network Workaway. I stepped away from the office to help families who had taken in refugees, help clean bedrooms of holiday cottages, landscape gardens, make breakfasts for guests at eco-resorts, weed crops in hilltop fields and help build a swimming pool at a French chateau. I did all of this in exchange for my room and board. I visited nine different countries. I worked in eight. It is undoubtedly the best experience I’ve ever had, and the one that took a surprising amount of bravery to get there.
Quitting a job that paid me my first salary, offered me free healthcare and gave me two weeks off every Christmas sounded somewhat absurd from an outsider’s point of view, but that wasn’t what mattered day-by-day. What mattered was how much I was learning and developing, how much I felt I was contributing to society and how much fun I was having. It didn’t feel like much in either category. I wasn’t sure I was ready to join the career ladder, unlike some of my fellow graduates, which in turn made me feel somewhat inadequate. I wasn’t passionate about what I was doing.
During my office job, I wrote a lot about millennials; how we’re more demanding, we’re ungrateful, how we’re more explosive, more innovative and we’re less likely to settle. We have an air of entitlement. Maybe I’m trying to weasel my way out of this label and its negative connotations, but to me, my generation’s attitude comes down to one thing; happiness. Our parents’ generation sought stability and reliability; a monthly pay check so they could achieve a house, a family, a car, TV and a yearly holiday. I know few people my age who seek these societal norms, but instead, a bunch who don’t intend to ever get married, will never be able to afford a house, travel too often to have a car, and who seek happiness above all. We’re much more likely than any other generation to rebel against an attachment to material goods to exchange our pay for experiences and fight for what we believe, though different to our parents’ views.
All of my peers understood my desire to take time off and travel, to gain new experiences and escape ever-shortening client deadlines, but it took some time to convince those closer to me. For them, this was me evidencing my lack of desire to settle down, departing the career ladder with no set return, and this was me, giving up my stability. The best explanation I could offer them was that this wasn’t the job I sought, nor the one I fought for, so I either moved to another agency or company now, not knowing whether this role was where my heart was, or I used the savings I’d been (very slowly) building and the luxury of time to better understand what it was I did seek.
I’m aware it takes privilege to be in this situation, but our lives are relative to the doors we have around us. I know a lot of people who — for many reasons — wouldn’t be able to make this a reality, but I know ten times more who could but are scared to do so. I worked hard to have the money I needed to take this break. I didn’t go out with my fellow graduates, I didn’t get new clothes every month — I actually started making my own. I cycled to work, I rarely ate out, and I was lucky to live with someone who was happy to share this way of life.
In a traditional sense, travelling is an opportunity to switch off, but it ended up being the biggest opportunity for me to switch on. Travel, and time, enable you to discover what it is you really want to do, what you want to work on, where your interests lie, and what you enjoy learning. The biggest and best part of the trip for me, as well as the cultural exchange, was the opportunity to meet people in the same boat as me, and be inspired by their paths. I ended up meeting and working with over 40 other travellers, and the majority told me they were doing this to take time to work things out. For me, it worked. I found out where my interests really lie, and what I could do with my skill set, and I found this out because I removed myself from the situation I was in.
We’re under a lot of pressure to take the first job we’re given, in a job market that isn’t promising for young people, but this isn’t necessarily the best option. The people I meet in the working world who are happiest where they are, are the ones who took a break, travelled and worked a handful of different jobs before they found the career they wanted. For me, the 8 different jobs I worked over the summer, from guest care to gardening, building to translation work gave me this chance in a condensed amount of time. It was the best form of work experience. I got an understanding of all kinds of different lines of work and what working in different countries was like. I got the chance to explore small town life in the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, France, Slovenia and Germany, and I got to ask people from those countries what life is like for youths, entrepreneurs and what the working world is like. I met people from every single continent, I got to learn (some words of) five new languages, and I made new friends around the world.
Through this experience, I better found where I sit in this world and where I am best suited to working. I realised the importance of taking time out to assess your options before you jump straight in. For me, this wasn’t financially viable until I had my first job, but if this opportunity arises before hand, I recommend that. You can take time in different ways, but for me, travel was the best one. Especially whilst we are young, we don’t have to stay at the first job that comes our way, nor the second. It’s important, especially when it looks like we’ll work into our late seventies before the idea of retirement could become a reality, that we take time to find the job that works for us. We, as millennials, are valuable assets, and our jobs should make us feel that way.
I remember reading a quote as I was preparing to travel, and it solidified my reasons to go. It was from Richard Branson:
As a 22-year-old it is important to have an absolute blast. You are only 22 once! Make sure you have the time of your life, stay up for plenty of sunrises and meet all kinds of people in as many places as possible. If you get the opportunity to travel, grab it with both hands and don’t forget your toothbrush! Get out there, dance and play as well as working hard and creating things.
It’s so very true. Our first jobs may be wonderful; they may start a career trajectory that we embark on and leave content when we’re 65. But they also might not. They shouldn’t make us feel like we aren’t good enough, we’re not growing or we’re not getting anywhere. If they are, in ten years time, we won’t be creating and changing this world for the better. As hard as it is to leave, sometimes, taking some time out will take you right to where you need to be or illuminate the options you didn’t realise you had.