Sylvia Best made a career change, leaving her high-powered job in finance to retrain as a personal trainer and on-call firefighter. Here she shares her story and explains why your chosen career isn’t always the final destination.
I knew the elevator was approaching my floor because I could hear the din before the doors even opened.
Phones rang, men shouted, engaged tones blared on speakerphone and everyone jabbered into mouthpieces.
I put my bag down, turned on my three screens and placed my headset on. Through a gap between my screens, I caught my boss’s eye. He glared at me, then back at his screen. Taking a mouthful of sausage sandwich, he spat an order at me in his thick Essex accent: “Yew need to sort out that Dutch trade AA-SAP. Should have been done yesterday.”
It was 7.25am. And there were already 200 emails marked URGENT, instant messages from Hong Kong, and several post-it notes on my keyboard from colleagues asking for favours. I had barely slept. I wasn’t sure how I was going to get through the day.
A career change
There had to be more to life than this but I wasn’t sure what. I was 28 and five years into a financial career I no longer wanted. I was yearning to find a job I enjoyed. A job with depth and meaning.
My friends were doing well in their chosen careers. They were documentary producers, PR execs, handbag designers, architects and journalists. Their days seemed fresh and inspired compared to my overworked city life. How had it come to this?
From the age of 15, I knew I wanted to be a psychologist.
When my psychology tutor told me at the end of my first year of university that I hadn’t made the cut to study for the BPS (British Psychology Society) degree, I was devastated.
I decided to study politics and changed degrees. Under the guidance of some excellent tutors, I flourished and came out with a first and a place to study political theory at LSE.
I enjoyed my Masters and was passionate about the topics, but after four years of reading, I was ready to get out into the world of work. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I just wanted to do something very important, and do it well.
The financial world
In 2008 I started on the graduate scheme at The London Stock Exchange. It was the time of the financial crash. Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns and subprime mortgages occupied the headlines. I was excited. I always strive to be in the heart of the action. At a time when each day brought shock reports of the city, this felt like it.
After 18 months I left to go to UBS Investment Bank, a move I hoped would take me closer to the core of the city. It was fast-paced, buzzing with people and loud. I was in awe. I was placed in operations.
My ultimate aim, however, was to move into the more glamorous well paid front office. I don’t have the natural gift of a salesperson, nor the mathematical acumen of a trader but I am good with people and confident. I knew I could tackle a client-facing role there.
The move to the middle office (where I was now) was all part of the plan. But somewhere between the 14-hour shifts, the stretched department, pay freezes, bullying boss and demoralised colleagues, the whole thing lost its glitz. I was no longer in awe. I was desperate for something more fulfilling.
My next move
For lack of better ideas, I make a career change and took a job as a private PA. I knew in time I would outgrow the role, but I thought it would be a good stepping stone and something I could easily excel in. What’s more, it couldn’t be any worse than a mouthy Essex man barking orders at me through his breakfast, could it?
At first, I relished the calm office and being able to leave my desk at 5.30pm. But soon, I felt stifled and bored. I was micromanaged to the inch. The structure was flat – you had ownership of your work and everyone’s opinion was of equal value. Here, I was kept in my place. After nine months in the job, my boss pulled me aside and told me this wasn’t the right place for me. “You need to be firing on all cylinders,” he said. He wanted me to leave but was willing to wait until I found another job.
Finding a new path
Back to square one, I spent my days on Google, trying to find what jobs would suit me. I filled out questionnaires, went to seminars, watched TED talks and took short courses. There was too much choice and too much expectation.
I researched a career psychologist and started paying for sessions to uncover my “dream job”. Over the course of months, we went through my values, strengths, weaknesses, passions and working style. If there was an article, book or talk on careers in 2014 you can guarantee I had scoured it.
The thing is, looking for your ideal job in a book is much like looking for your ideal partner online. Ultimately, you have to get out there and try things.
My soulmate job
Eventually, boredom got the better of me, and I left my job to start a full-time PT (personal training) course. I have always enjoyed keeping fit and through all my troubles at work, the gym had been a release and a safe space.
I never thought for a minute it would be my soulmate job. Another stopgap perhaps, something I could do on the side of my proper job. I certainly enjoyed it, but someone with two degrees and a hankering for fast-paced roles, I couldn’t possibly be satisfied with making people do star jumps in the park. Or so I thought. Once qualified I start taking boot camps and PT sessions outdoors. All the while, still searching for my dream job.
Dabbling in politics
I was considering going back to uni to retrain when I decided to apply to help the Conservatives run their 2015 election campaign.
Once again I was placed in operations, but this time event management. I would set up visits so if the Prime Minister went to a hospital or school, I would brief the press, talk to the people involved and do briefing notes for David Cameron so he knew who he was going to meet.
My keen observational skills and quick thinking were noted by Cameron’s aide and I was asked to apply for a role at No 10. The job wasn’t available for another eight months, but she asked me to wait and offered help with the application. It certainly seemed worth waiting for, so for eight months I carried on with my PT work and did ad hoc event management.
Going with my gut
When it came to the interview, something didn’t feel right. As I left No 10 I knew I hadn’t got the job but I was strangely relieved.
The risk of once again being stuck somewhere I didn’t belong was too high. In any case, something else was starting to feel more natural for me.
I had been a qualified PT for almost two years now, and my passion for it had grown. The more I learned, the more there seemed to be to learn.
Not only are there clients to manage, but marketing, social media, branding, content creation, copywriting and continuous learning. There was so much more to it than telling people to do star jumps in the park. I understood the positive contribution it could make to people’s lives. I had found a job with depth and meaning.
Becoming a firefighter
Starting up a business takes time and effort, and when I saw an advert for on-call firefighters I was interested but it wasn’t the right time.
Then in March last year, I split from my boyfriend and suddenly my weekends were empty apart from a few clients in the mornings. I knew I needed to find something to keep me busy, so I called up West Sussex Fire Service. They told me my local station would call me when they had space. I expected this to take a few months, but to my surprise a few days later I got a call. I have been a firefighter for nine months now.
I enjoy the fast pace of working for an emergency service and the camaraderie on the station. It’s tough juggling both, and certainly keeps me on my toes, but I find the variety refreshing and inspiring.
When I look back over my career history, I realise it has been a unique pleasure to have experienced so many different roles and industries.
Not because I can transfer those experiences to my jobs today – I am sure I gained countless qualifications and skills I will never use again – but because I had the privilege of being there in the moment.
A career path isn’t always about the final destination. It can also be about what we do and overcome to get there. My path may have been hard, but I use those hardships to give me confidence and to keep going when things get tough.
I now have two jobs I love, but I’ve learnt to accept that people and situations can change.
Personal trainer and firefighter may not be my roles for life, but I no longer worry about tomorrow. I focus all my energy on today. Whatever I do, I will endeavour to do to the best of my ability, to enjoy and to create a positive impact. That is what’s important.