Why quitting my ‘dream job’ made me happier

Lydia Willgress is a PR consultant and freelance journalist in London. Here she writes why it's okay to change your mind on your 'dream job' and do what makes you happy.

Lydia on quitting her dream job

My first story was about beer. Aged 20, I spent an afternoon armed with a notepad and pencil, making my way between Edinburgh’s finest establishments and asking how much a pint was.

The upshot of this crucial survey was that the university’s student union was a tad on the expensive side. It would never have won Scoop of the Year – but I was hooked and had a 400-word article in the student newspaper to my name. My dream to be a journalist was born.

Getting experience

I spent the next two years doing every bit of work experience I could manage (and afford). From interviewing readers who had gruesome injuries for the now defunct lads mag, Nuts, to sorting through clothing samples for a week for heat magazine, I spent weekends travelling from Edinburgh to London on the east coast line and sleeping on sofas of varying comfort.

I got an editing position on my student newspaper and took the helm at the university’s history magazine. In my final year, Christmas came early with my first front page – an article about legal aid for the Scottish Mail on Sunday. I soon spent every week travelling to London to undertake a series of gruelling interviews where I not only faced questions on my clippings, political stance and family background, but also endless tests on spelling, comprehension and knowledge of the news.

Starting my dream job

I was delighted when I was finally offered a position as a junior reporter at one of the world’s biggest news websites, MailOnline. As part of the contract, I was provided with a comprehensive training programme and they paid for me to learn on the job at both a local paper and a news agency. It was my first time living in London, and although it wasn’t quite everything I thought it would be, my colleagues were wonderful. I was driven, and eager to progress.

Just over 18 months later, I took a job at The Daily Telegraph as a general news reporter. My role included covering news across the UK, as well as abroad, and I travelled extensively. I reported in Nice after the 2016 terror attack unfolded, witnessed Prince George and Princess Charlotte attending their first-ever Christmas church service and covered George Michael’s death. I moved onto the news desk as an assistant news editor, where I was responsible for helping to manage the team of reporters and present ideas to the editor.

But…

There was something wrong. The first thing I noticed was that I couldn’t sleep. I’d have nightmares about getting the wrong top line or missing a story that would be in another newspaper the next day. I found myself eating as much sugar as possible as I desperately tried to get energy from somewhere.

Then I started cancelling on friends and ignoring calls, unable to face socialising. Some of my hair fell out and I developed a minor stutter. I was so consumed by how difficult things had become that I struggled to sympathise with other people’s problems (something I still feel guilty about). One day I found myself imagining how great it would be if I broke my leg and didn’t have to go to work.

My ‘dream job’, it turned out, was not what I thought it would be. Highly rewarding, yes. Great dinner party fodder. I was at the centre of the news, helping to shape one of the country’s best-known newspapers during major events from Brexit to the London Bridge terror attack. I got to speak to interesting, funny and amazing people, and work with some of the country’s best journalists.

But it was also extremely hard. I would often be at my desk by 6.30am and wouldn’t get home until gone 8pm. The constant cycle of death and ever-evolving nature of the news meant I never switched off, even when I was at home, and I was always expecting a late-night call to tell me yet another travesty had occurred.

It took me almost a year to realise that I wasn’t happy; that the way I felt was not normal. At first, I put it down to hormones and then, for a long time, I thought it was just a failure on my part to do the job. I chastised myself for not being up to it. But really, it was simple; at that point in my life, the job I had worked for years to get wasn’t for me.

Using my skills for something new

It was a chance email from a former colleague asking how I was getting on that was the catalyst for change. Slowly, I realised that I didn’t have to stay in the job. I realised I knew what a story is and what makes journalists tick – and that these skills could be useful elsewhere. Six months later, I took a new position at a leading communications firm. I now advise businesses across the country on public relations, from a global health company providing testing to help tackle the coronavirus pandemic to businesses looking to raise their profiles in the national press.

I’ve learned that I do actually enjoy working under pressure – but that I need time where I can switch off in order to thrive. I’ve learned to ask for help where I need it. In my spare time, I still freelance for magazines and newspapers –  but I concentrate on writing about what I really love (in my case, running). Most importantly, I’ve learned that doing something that makes me happy is far more important than kudos at a dinner party.

The way the world is set up means that from an early age we are encouraged to decide what we want to do and who we want to be. But what people don’t always understand is that this can change. It doesn’t mean that you’ve failed, or that you’re weak. It just means that you’ve had the confidence to do what is right for you.

Read more: Uncover your passion

1 COMMENT

  1. So refreshing to read your story Lydia. I too had always wanted to be a journalist from a very young age and was fortunate to attend the NCTJ pre-entry course in Cardiff when I was 18. I worked for two news agencies but found the pace of life (and death) too much. The final straw came when I had to ‘door-step’ a mother who had just lost two children in a car accident to try and get a picture of them. It was too much and I left.

    I now work in Internal Communications and still love writing, so my years as a journalist weren’t wasted.

    It’s OK to not stay with your ‘dream job’, especially when it becomes a nightmare.

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