When I was recruited to work for a large corporate bank in New York City after graduating college in 2007, I was ready.
They told me it would be long hours and a lot of pressure, but I knew that I would be able to handle whatever was thrown at me. I would work harder, finish faster and do the best job. I would be my boss’s favorite, and get the accordant raises and promotions.
I planned to focus solely on my career in finance for the next five years, then turn my attention to the family thing. I’d be a superstar. But a few years into my job–when I was crying in the office bathroom and snapping at co-workers–I wasn’t so sure anymore.
What Burnout Looks Like
I’d rather not share my salary, but let’s just say that $200 nights out, shopping binges and spontaneous trips didn’t strain my budget.
For five years, I ate breakfast, lunch and dinner at my desk. The 12-hour days weren’t so bad -- it was the ones that stretched into 14 hours that got to me. Usually, I was staring at my computer, interrupted only by “fire drills,” when something urgent would come up and we’d run around, validating numbers and getting reports. Every assignment was urgent and mainly focused on how much you could provide for whom and how fast.
I felt guilty when I wasn’t at my desk, so instead of breaking up the day with a walk or a catch-up session with a co-worker, I looked forward to something chocolatey. I gained weight. I wore the same dark outfits every day.
Despite the competitive, manic environment, my colleagues and I talked openly about our unhappiness (just not in front of our bosses). Most of my co-workers, both men and women, were similarly miserable -- and most of them have moved on by now to graduate school, new jobs in the industry, new jobs in the company and others onto sabbaticals.
Everyone hits their breaking point eventually. For me, it took about two years. Feeling like your career is stagnant, like you’re working a lot for no greater good, can pile up on you and quickly spiral out of control.
While working that kind of schedule, the only thing I wanted to do in my free time was sleep or sit on the couch and watch TV. I went through a period where I was drinking too much, and a period where I was bursting into tears around non-work friends.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was burning out.
How Burnout Motivated Me
I knew that I wanted to be “successful,” but I never quantified what that would actually entail. Maybe I still didn’t know–but I did know that this job wasn’t it.
I spent a few months half-heartedly applying to nonprofit jobs online because I wasn’t sure I really wanted to leave. I was privileged enough to have a job that people were lining up for at a time when lots of individuals had no job at all. My friends and family made it sound like it was a no-brainer, saying, ”What’s the big deal? Just quit.” I knew that I had enough saved up to sustain me for about a month and half, but not enough to walk out for good.
Then it was New Year’s, and as I thought about the year to come, I decided I needed to make a change. It was my “put up or shut up moment,” and that lit a fire under me.
I had a conversation with my boss and told him, point-blank, that I was unhappy. I don’t think it came as a surprise, but when I said that I would either need a more manageable workload or a raise to make my efforts more worthwhile, I was shocked by his unwillingness to help.
If they didn’t value me, I wasn’t going to keep killing myself at work. I started leaving at 7:15 PM, instead of near midnight, to go to boxing classes, yoga and meditation. Doing more outside of work gave me perspective on how I wanted my life to look: I wanted my next job to be something that I believed in.
I worried that I was giving up, but a conversation with a former manager cleared things up for me: “Giving up would be sitting at your desk, continuing to do a job you hate,” she told me. I realized that leaving my job didn’t make me weak -- I was making myself stronger by doing what was right for me.
I was soon offered a job as an asset manager for a charter school facilities loan portfolio (it’s a different form of finance) from a nonprofit organization that works to revive struggling neighborhoods and develop sustainable communities. When I accepted the position, my new boss even told me to make sure that I had enough time off between jobs.
So I did. I took a month off before starting my new position, but I was nervous: Had I made the right choice?
How I’m Doing Today
I’m a few months into my new job and it’s made my life richer. I’m making an effort to breathe, smile, eat healthier and have positive thoughts about my future.
I took a pay cut of about 30% to change positions, but I don’t think that I should be applauded for making the choice to accept less pay -- I don’t view it as a sacrifice.
That said, I do struggle a little with my new salary. I have bad habits (cabs!) that are hard to shake. But I’ve cut down on shopping for clothes, shoes and accessories, as well as canceled my expensive gym membership to start running outside.
I’d always pursued success without defining what success meant for me. Now I know: For me, it’s balance. In my new job, I’m busy but not stressed; I’m productive within working hours and I do something that I believe in.
My friends and family see the difference in me. Most of them tell me that I look and sound happy and free. And I am. I feel like I’ve taken control not only of my career, but my life.
Reprinted with permission from LearnVest. The author’s name has been changed to protect her privacy. Love reading other people’s financial tales? Check out more great LearnVest-exclusive personal stories. Want more?