At Work When You Have to Quit Your Dream Job to Pursue Your Dream
After I left, everything became clearer, in the way that a breakup can clarify a toxic relationship; put things in sharp relief.
The view from the office took my breath away. It was a panoramic view of the Manhattan skyline, sun glinting off the water, buildings stretching into the horizon. I’d debated whether to dress up for my interview, and the moment I walked into that light-filled, stylish office, I was glad I did. The receptionist offered me a glass of water, and I sat staring at the view until it was time for my interview. My supervisor-to-be, Lily, shook my hand inside a glass-walled meeting room, her eyes crinkling in a smile. She told me about the job, recited specific details from my resumé, as if she’d already decided I qualified for it. She maintained eye contact and I was completely charmed.
“We’re not just looking for a person. We’re looking for the right person,” she said.
Later, when the recruiter asked me, “How’d it go?” I answered, honestly, “Really well!” I told her I was excited about the possibilities the job offered. I asked about the salary. When she told me the number, I tried to maintain my poker face while my heart butterflied. I’d been piecing together paltry part-time incomes for five years, teaching and writing in between travels and grad school. This job would pay almost double what I made at my first full-time job out of college, and nearly triple what I’d been making in grad school.
A week later, I got the job offer. Two months later, I quit the job without notice, after a night curled in the fetal position, wracked by panic attacks and nightmares.
In the years before I moved back to New York, when I tried to envision my ideal future, I pictured open days—splitting my time between writing and teaching, practicing yoga, cooking, and staying up late with my friends. A job in an office wasn’t part of my fantasy, but now it seemed like it would be better. I’d spend my days looking at the dizzying view, make avocado toast for breakfast, fill up on cucumber-flavored water on my breaks while I took on my new role: an editor for a branded newsletter.
We worked with a corporate client, an editor I’ll call Jonas. He was handsome, well-dressed, eccentric, and obsessed with the world he worked in. The work, for the most part, seemed easy. I read features about technology and distilled them into snappy snippets.
My new salary meant I quickly settled into a new, startling permanence in New York. I bought my own furniture for the first time, possessions that no longer fit into a backpack: sheer gray curtains and a pink velvet chair, a houseplant I named Franklin. One evening, I walked through the East Village, relearning its narrow streets and fire escapes and tiny tea shops. At a lingerie boutique, I tried on a set of decadent lingerie: indigo blue, all straps and lace and buckles. I’d gotten rid of my small collection of silk and lace and stockings, slightly torn, before I left for grad school, and it was a decision I’d always regretted. Now, I allowed myself this indulgence.
My parents always wanted me to have a good life. For them, that meant a graduate degree, a high income, worldly success. My family moved to the States when I was ten and didn’t speak a word of English. My dad worked as a research scientist, while my mom tried to find her footing, cleaning hotel rooms or working in restaurants. We went shopping in the discount racks of Ross Dress for Less. Eventually my parents settled into a calmer middle-class life, though they still rarely bought clothes that cost more than twenty dollars, and still fantasized about a life in which they had not more time or pleasure but more money. They were happy if my life exceeded their expectations, but less concerned about their own.
When I called my mom to tell her about my new job, she shrieked with joy, and giddily laughed over the salary. This was a life she could understand, strictly attached to a number. It felt substantial, and I felt like I’d leaped across class bounds, started something new.
Yet during my first month on the job slowly, insidiously, work started to go wrong. I didn’t want to admit it to myself. There were days of calm punctured by days of anxiety. Jonas’s edits, though occasionally straightforward, could be piercing and mean. He made comments that made me feel incompetent and small. My writing, which I’d always had faith in, wasn’t enough. Was it that I simply had to learn a new language, a new vocabulary? That I felt out of depth in a corporate world, where listening to the whims of a boss was more important than what felt important to me?
When I was thirteen years old, I wrote in my diary that I’d become a writer. When I was fourteen, I wrote a 120,000-word novel about a punk rocker with magical powers, convinced this is what I’d be doing for the rest of my life. Over the years, while I tried on many shifting personalities and costumes—glamorous New Yorker, kinky sex blogger, hippie traveler—the one thing that always felt certain was my belief in my writing. It was a faith I didn’t always put into practice: There were long periods of agonizing over how much I wasn’t writing, wasn’t doing. Still, making a living as a writer was a dream I believed in, even if it was distant at times. I was certain I would write a New York Times- bestselling novel before I was thirty, skyrocket to fame overnight.
By twenty-five, my novel was nowhere in sight. I made a bold decision and applied for an MFA. In my grad program, it wasn’t fiction writing that took me away; it was narrative nonfiction. I spent three months on my first fully reported longform feature: five thousand words about a free-solo highliner who walked between mountain peaks without safety ropes tying him to the line. I was certain it was my finest work, my golden ticket. I pitched it to ambitious big-name magazines, and when those didn’t write back, to lesser-known outlets.
My story got rejected twenty-two times. In the months that I’d spent trying and failing, again and again, in the moments when I became convinced that I wasn’t cut out for this, I considered giving up on writing as a career. Maybe I wasn’t meant to do this. Maybe all these years I’d been living a fantasy. By the time I finally sold the story (a three-thousand-word feature for a print magazine), it seemed both a miracle and almost beside the point: I’d learned what it felt like to fall into the bottom of the pit, lose faith in myself, and survived it.
My full-time stressful job wouldn’t deter me, either. The hours and hours I spent at work felt like time I was biding until I could get to my writing. I frantically wrote late nights and weekends, shaping and reshaping paragraphs and sentences until they felt just right, until they clicked and sparkled, and somehow, it started paying off. A feature I wrote was featured on Longreads, and in a weekly newsletter written by an artist I admired. Writers and editors I respected shared it, and old friends emailed me to tell me they loved it. I was giddy, on top of the world.
But in the office, things stayed the same.
One day, when the tension between me and Jonas had become unbearable, Lily promised to talk to him about my mounting frustrations in a meeting. ”I think he thinks I’m incompetent,” I told Lily, and felt myself on the verge of tears, my voice wobbling.
I sat out the meeting, tried to distract myself with the work, tried not to feel the anxiety rattling inside, as I kept checking for updates from Lily. Finally, she invited me in. “I calmed him,” she typed.
Jonas and I talked about the newsletter, and I kept my professional composure. “I understand, writing is hard,” he said, and I held back from snapping: Writing isn’t hard—it has never been hard . It was working with him that was hard. I took notes, nodded, and smiled.
For a while, Jonas became more understanding, straightforward in his edits, but eventually the peace broke. I made a small mistake on the newsletter, and when I started sensing Jonas’s increasing irritation, it led to more and more errors. One day, when I got home, I saw an email from Jonas: belittling, aggressive, cruel.
The email hit like a punch in the stomach. I tried to breathe through it. Anger wouldn’t work, but silence wouldn’t, either. I thought about what I always valued: being honest, true to myself, my values. Speaking up even when it was hard. I was a bold and ambitious journalist, but in this office, that part of me had gone silent. I couldn’t let it be silent anymore.
I composed a short email in which I told Jonas that his comments made me anxious and mistake-prone. My hands and body shook when I pressed Send.
I knew that in the world we operated in, that email would come with consequences. That night I hardly slept, burning and tumbling between anxiety and nightmares, curled up into a ball with my arms crossed tight over my chest. In the morning, I started crying, and couldn’t stop. I couldn’t fathom putting on a brave face at work. Though I usually deliberated over my smallest decisions, I knew what I had to do.
I typed a resignation letter, pressed cold water over my swollen eyelids, then got ready for my last meeting. I wore my decadent lingerie, blush, and color on my lips. On the train, I imagined how it would feel to walk out of that office, free, head tall in that lingerie—finding my new life, my open days, uninterrupted time to write for myself.
But standing in front of the office building made me weak. In a meeting room, Lily started telling me all the ways I’d gone wrong. I started to cry and couldn’t stop. I told her I was resigning, immediately. “Oh,” she said, stunned.
After I left the job, everything became clearer, in the way that a breakup can sometimes clarify a toxic relationship; put things in sharp relief. I often replayed the moments of our last meeting. The way Lily blamed me for hurting the team, being selfish. “I’m not trying to hurt you,” I had said, “I’m trying to protect myself.” And: “I tried to pretend everything was okay, until I couldn’t anymore.”
I remember asking her if she would have refrained from responding to Jonas’s criticisms, that email. “I would, because that’s my job, ” she had said.
“I thought my job was writing a newsletter, not being a punching bag,” I said.
Lily told me that she didn’t know things had gotten so bad. That we could have worked things out. For a few moments, I wanted to believe her. She spun between sympathy and understanding, and delivering threats and blame.
“Your reputation is everything in this world,” she said, a parting threat I kept thinking about. I thought about how I never trusted her, even though she insisted she was on my side. I thought about the signs of a manipulative boss, and how number one was “pulls your guilt strings.” I thought about the physical drop I felt in my stomach every time Jonas’s name came up, the way I craved small tokens of appreciation and feared his criticism.
I thought about the last three times I’d had a panic attack like the one I had the night before I resigned: the first time, when I discovered that the man I’d loved for a year was a pathological liar. The second, after I was raped by a shaman in Bolivia. The third time, after Trump’s election.
I thought about the way I had felt entirely disposable at the company. And I thought about all those hours I wasted in that office, all the writing I wasn’t doing.
I called my mom on a walk, days later, nervous to deliver the bad news. But I was surprised by the mildness of her response, and even more by my dad, who added a “jiayo!”—an encouraging cry to fight on.
I had anticipated their disappointment. Maybe I’d underestimated my parents, imagined them to fit a stereotype that didn’t suit them. Asian parents are supposed to be demanding, and when I was younger, my mom had suggested pharmacist and lawyer as better career paths for me. I too had internalized that a salary marked my position in life, that a number meant I was thriving, even when the full-time jobs I had made me wither. I’d forgotten, too, that my mom disliked her own job, had been searching for a way out (for her, a fifty-something Chinese woman with accented English, the options were limited); that having the option to quit was a privilege my parents gifted to me. They lived a life of sacrifice for my happiness—and maybe how I found my happiness wasn’t what they imagined, but it still mattered.
I applied to a few more jobs after I quit, afraid and unsure of the opportunity before me. I’d wanted to try freelancing full-time for years, but felt deterred by the horror stories of how likely I was to fail. Could I piece together an income on writing alone? Could I commit to setting my own schedule, managing myself? It was a terrifying and exhilarating prospect. Yet I could no longer imagine not giving myself that chance, even if I failed.
Lately, I wake up, fry eggs for breakfast, sketch self-portraits before the mirror, write with my laptop in bed. I send emails and transcribe interviews and type for hours. My freelance life is unpredictable, poorly paid for the hours I spend researching and analyzing and trying. The media world is worrisome: staff cuts and budget issues, payment delays and contract issues.
Some days, the anxiety is overwhelming, and I can’t sit still for more than a few minutes at a time. The rejections carry more weight, higher stakes. And some days, it still feels hopeless, like I’ve taken a gamble that might never pay off.
But at other times, I’m seized with a wild optimism. I see stories and opportunities everywhere, and when I get past my anxiety and get to the work, it doesn’t feel like work at all. It feels like joy.
Laura Yan will be teaching a 3-week online publishing bootcamp: Freelancing 101, starting July 10th!