Death of the dream job

In 2002 I was asked to write an essay for an Atlanta creative journal about finding my dream job. Actually, I was asked to write an essay about not finding my dream job. I had graduated from the hot Atlanta ad school the Portfolio Center just as the dot-com bubble burst. All my classmates who graduated in June of 2000 were flown to San Francisco and Manhattan, where they got corner offices, shiny pink iMacs and beautiful engraved business cards so thick they could cut cheese. We who graduated in December wandered the country aimlessly for months until we settled for ill-paying gigs in places like Birmingham and, for me, Sacramento.

My entire life I had wanted to be in advertising. I wanted to get paid to write clever sentences that made people laugh. In fact, my vision of my grown-up self for most of my life is pretty much identical to what we now know as the show Mad Men. I wanted to be Peggy Olson. Not the secret pregnancy part. But winning Maidenform and Popsicle accounts in smart wool suits, living in Manhattan and drinking Manhattans, on the 30th floor of a glass high rise with a gold plaque on my office door that proclaimed: COPYWRITER.

Instead I was writing bad marketing copy for a garlic-themed amusement park in a town that prided itself on how far away it was from San Francisco. With people who wore socks under their Tevas.

Eventually, I moved to LA and kept looking for my dream job. I looked for it for years. But while I did, I took another job that had nothing to do with advertising, and slowly gave up on my career as a writer.

But after two years I saved enough money for a trip to Europe. And that was where, on a quiet square in Italy, I realized that nothing was really stopping me from writing clever sentences that made people laugh. The only thing that was stopping me was that I didn’t have, well, a business card that said as much.

This moment was so sudden and so earth-shattering, I named my new freelance writing company after what I was eating at that moment, Gelatobaby. (Luckily I wasn’t in Paris or it would have been Snailbaby.) I built a website, put only the work up there that I really loved and promoted the hell out of it. People started hiring me for all kinds of writing, not just advertising.

And the funny thing about that dream job? It no longer exists. Sure, the ad industry ended up recovering. But it looks nothing like it did back then. Agencies consolidated under holding companies, cut back production budgets and incorporated smart interactive departments. Because I got left out of it means I was actually the one with the narrow, Sterling Cooper-ized vision of what advertising was supposed to be.

We talk a lot about entire industries needing to change in the face of adversity. The auto industry goes belly up and we’re like, you know, it’s their fault, they really should’ve made more hybrids. Newspapers declare bankruptcy and we whisper to each other, well, didn’t they get the memo that print is dead? But what we don’t realize is that the only thing that really needs to change is us.

We can’t go on being the same advertising copywriters, the same graphic designers, the same magazine editors we always dreamed of being. We probably won’t have a desk and parking spot or even health insurance. But that’s the beauty of it. A recession can make a corporation cut those things called jobs but it can’t stop really talented people from making a name for themselves. Especially now since we have things like Facebook to meet collaborators and WordPress to publish our rants and Flickr to show off our design work. We can be whatever we want. You can be famous without leaving your house. I dare you to be. But sometimes it’s good to go outside.

We get it drilled into our heads at an early age: “Follow your dream. Follow your dream!” But no one ever told us to be willing to make drastic and necessary changes to that dream as technology and people and the world changed around us. So follow your dream. But whatever you do, don’t you dare waste another minute looking for your dream job.

I can call myself a writer now, but it’s something no door plaque has certainly ever proclaimed for me. And it turned out that I didn’t need those fancy business cards at all, either. All I needed was a gelato spoon printed with my email, which serves as a way for people to remember me. So forget about those ancient relics of a world that no longer exists, and start working on your own dream life.

Thanks to Edie for asking me to speak today, and also to the wonderful Jen, Jessica and Caroline for such a fun morning. All LA creatives, whether “freshly freelance” or not, should check out what they’re doing at The Uncompany. It was great to see everyone!

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  • Tom

    Well written as usual… and inspirational to-boot! I’ll hire you to wax philosophical about whatever my next project is once I grow up. 😉

  • Andy Bosselman

    I appreciated this story about your career path. Thanks.

  • Jessie B. R.

    It was wonderful to meet you yesterday at Uncompany. Looking forward to reading more of your work! * Jessie B. R.

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  • communicatrix

    I love this one!

    And you’re right–sometimes not getting your dream come true is the ticket to having your REAL dreams come true. I was one of the “lucky” ones who started in advertising way, way back in ’83, when the beginning sounds of the distant death knell were audible to those who cared to listen for them.

    Then, in 1992, I was one of the really lucky ones who walked away from it.

    Thanks for staying out there, inspiring the young’uns and anyone else who might be scared to do anything but play by the rules.

    Because those rules? They’re bullsh*t.

  • Sam Harrison

    I watched you during all you described, and, though it all, you kept your dignity, creativity and sense of humor. This piece will definitely be required reading for the PC writing course I’m teaching next quarter.

  • Alissa

    Aw, thanks to everyone who commented. I hope I pointed that out especially…it is critical that you keep your sense of humor!

  • Bonnie

    Hi Alissa,

    This is my first visit to your blog, and after reading this post, I became an instant fan.

    Your story is very inspiring, and I know that a lot of people, especially those who are struggling with being laid off (or worried that they might soon be), will find HOPE when reading it. And some will find the courage to do what you did–say goodbye to their “dream job” and get on with a wonderful new life.

    Well done–thank you!

  • Alissa

    Thanks, Bonnie!

  • Stefan G. Bucher

    You’re so right, Alissa. Such an important distinction to keep in mind. I keep chasing job status symbols that are long since gone, or have lost their meaning, only because that’s what I grew up admiring. I have to consciously force myself to look at things that are fun and great and interesting NOW instead of “I want to make cool art books and record sleeves like they had in the 70s.” Kind of like comics who still secretly yearn to sit on Carson’s couch. Nostalgia is a powerful distraction from the actual possibilities before us.

    You’re certainly making it happen for yourself! Congratulations on all the good stuff you’re generating in words and in life!

  • Alissa

    Aw, thanks, Stefan & you are making it happen, too! Only by casting off the ancient relics of the old “job” could you have come up with something so utterly outstanding for last week’s design night at GOOD!

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  • David Hisaya Asari

    I was just reading your 2008 design wrap-up piece “Creatively Engaged” in GOOD, and had to read more.

    Thanks for sharing this piece–and the original essay–they’re both timeless and especially relevant today. Inspired and straight-forward.

    And, to the description in your earlier essay–“a funny writer with a good work ethic and an oh-so-cheery disposition” I’m thinking it should have started off “a smart and funny writer”…

  • Alissa

    Thanks, David, that’s so nice! Glad you found your way here!

  • Nate Voss

    omg luv it.

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  • Johnston Jame

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    Great article, thanks for sharing. I’ve also started a blog for people searching for jobs.

  • Anonymous

    This is really good article to read. This is true that finding a dream job is very difficult. Lots of people have different prospect about there dream jobs. Some people dream job is finance, customer care this kind of jobs are easy to find if you have education. But if your dream job is travelling than finding a job for you tough.

  • Phantom Commuter

    Now I know why I like Sacramento so much ! It’s like a natural filter for people who don’t get it. Freelance ? Just another word for unemployed. Wonder who pays the bills ? Trust fund maybe ?