I recently wrote a post about deciding what to do with your life. In an effort to forgive you four pages of rambles, I’ve separated my personal experience into its own post. Here’s how I went from confused waitress and almost-university-dropout, to a place of career success. I’d grab a coffee if I were you…
When I was little, I wanted to be a waitress. Unsurprisingly, I achieved that goal pretty young. For a fairly high achiever academically, my career goals weren’t exactly sky high, much to my grandparents’ dismay.
Having struck gold on the waitress front, I eventually realised I needed to stop wiping tables and do something that would challenge me – and, yknow, pay a better wage. As I loved being a hotel waitress, I thought restaurant and hotel management would be the way to go. So I applied to University to study Hospitality Management, got in, and off I went.
Two days before the course started, something clicked. It was all wrong. I wasn’t meant to do this.
I sat down on the couch at the shared Uni house I’d already moved into – yep, I was in pretty deep – I frantically emailed my would-be tutor and asked to change courses. I was drawn to media or advertising, but unsurprisingly, they were full.
I was offered a place on a marketing course, which was kind of an overflow for the people that didn’t get into other commercial-type courses, and of course the Event Management rejects.
(For those who don’t know, around 2009 Event Management was THE course to do in the UK if you were any kind of cool girl with a pair of Ugg boots and a decent crook-of-the-arm handbag. It had high entry requirements simply because it was so competitive, so overflow courses with a similar curriculum weren’t uncommon. I’m not sure if this is still the case).
Panicking and feeling physically nauseated at the thought of putting in my order for chef whites as requested by the hospitality management tutor, I accepted the place. Yes, with two days until enrollment.
Despite roaming the halls on Day 1 with no effing clue where I was going because all my orientation paperwork was for the other course, I was optimistic. And rightly so, as I actually met my now-best friend while scuttling in late to the welcome seminar.
I enjoyed the course as it unfolded, and was certain I’d done the right thing. But, I paid fairly little attention to what my career would look like at the end. I was more focused on the next night out, if I’m honest. The third year of the course involved taking a year out and working in industry. They call it Placement Year, but they most certainly did not ‘place’ us anywhere. It was a case of ‘get a job for a minimum of 10 months and write a report about it at the end. See you next September for final year (aka the worst year of your academic existence).’
The sheer pressure of getting an employer to hire you as an undergraduate (read: unqualified) placement student was pretty tough. I eventually managed to land a Marketing Assistant role at the head office of a large hotel chain in London, which I was pleased with. Location: tick. Role: semi-tick. Passing the hotel restaurant each morning on my way to the marketing department was a neat little throwback to what could have been had I not changed courses.
Finding my career strengths
While I enjoyed the role, I didn’t quite feel like I was living my ultimate truth. It was okay, but the parts I really enjoyed were being able to write the press releases, edit the menu copy, and liaise with the graphic design agency.
I didn’t think much of it at the time, but this was really the first signal that I was going to be a copywriter. Thing is, I didn’t know that role existed at that point.
With Placement Year over and final year of Uni beckoning to suck every drop of passion from my soul, we went back and picked up where we’d left off the year before – except with A LOT more work, and a research dissertation to complete at the same time.
Signal number two that a career in writing was coming for me.
I was sitting with my dissertation advisor when she said, “Look Emma. You’ve obviously got a talent for writing because this is very well written, but it’s not about that. Don’t worry so much about what it sounds like, you haven’t got a big enough word limit. Just analyse the data as clearly as you can.”
Strange, I thought to myself. Why does everyone else always struggle to meet the word limit, when I’m soaring past it in the thousands?
BECAUSE YOU LIKE WRITING AND ONE DAY SOMEONE WILL PAY YOU TO WRITE WORDS FOR THEIR BUSINESS.
Ignorance is bliss.
A fashion marketing elective, a financial management elective, a first class distinction grade for my research dissertation and half-baked fashion blog later, my Uni days were done.
Time to get a job.
Getting a job after Uni
Utterly unsure what path I wanted to go down, I decided that because I liked clothes, I must work in fashion. Hence the half-baked fashion blog. A few online internships later and more rejections and unanswered emails than I ever thought possible, I realised fashion wasn’t for me. I wasn’t as concerned with image as I’d thought I was, and really, it’s a fucking horrible industry that I’m glad spat me out in the early days.
Back to square one, and with square one came my comfort zone of hospitality. Hello again, waitressing.
Working in hospitality taught me that I like variation and autonomy. My favourite restaurant jobs were those where you’re left to run your own section without a manager breathing down your neck. Lesson one: I like being independent. Lesson two was that I was fairly confident in speaking to people, but not at all confident in upselling.
The career ducks were beginning to get in their proverbial row.
Getting your first graduate job with no experience
I’d started to establish that there were marketing jobs that were solely focused on the writing side, but I wasn’t getting any traction with job applications. Considering I dropped English in year 11, took double languages instead and didn’t study journalism at Uni, I wasn’t all that surprised.
None-the-less, I kept contributing to online blogs and websites for free, just to keep the wheels in motion. While I might not be being paid to write, at least I was building a footprint, and generating evidence to show future employers. The waitressing role provided about enough to live on and pay my London rent while I figured things out.
For context, minimum wage in London at the time was about £6.50, and my rent, bills and council rates were about £800 a month. Thank the lord for generous tippers.
Fast forward a few months, I was offered a role in the marketing department of a flashy London hotel. They loved my online writing and the role was going to involve a lot of content writing. BINGO.
But I turned it down in favour of a role at an estate agency. Ah yes, my second dream. To be Phil Spencer from Location, Location, Location.
Well, fashion and real estate have something in common. They’re both hard-arse industries that aren’t for the faint hearted. I enjoyed it, but something still wasn’t right.
What I didn’t know was that my life partner had recently entered my life, under the disguise of my housemate’s boyfriend’s best friend. The gut feeling to turn down the fancy hotel job suddenly made sense.
Cut a long story short, I realised life partner was in fact my life partner, and embarked on a long distance relationship between London and Melbourne. This put my career on hold, somewhat.
18 months of making little progress career-wise and being more consumed with my next flight, I went to Melbourne on a 1-year working visa to test out sharing a postcode with my boyfriend. The whole thing could have been a major waste of time had we not actually worked out in the real world.
Cold prospecting for work experience
I knew I couldn’t spend another year working in something that wasn’t going to benefit my career. I was 23, and decided I had to do whatever it took to get some kind of copywriting role. I’d wasted enough time.
So out went the emails. I sent a personalised email to countless copywriting/marketing agencies in Melbourne, asking for work/internships/contacts to help me get experience. After a lot of knockbacks, referrals and questions, I got meetings with two of them, both of which I went on to work for in some capacity.
I’m a huge advocate of cold emailing. 9 times out of 10 you probably won’t get a reply, but on the off chance you do, it can actually be life changing. Proactivity is underrated. Employers like it, and if nothing else, it says something about your character. You’re never wrong to put yourself forward for something.
Working on career progression
5 years on, me and my boyfriend are indeed still together, I’ve had amazing experiences as a result of establishing the things I liked and didn’t. I know more about myself than I ever have, and I use that knowledge to make the right career moves.
I know I like autonomy, I know I like variation, I am NOT a salesperson, I like a bit of pressure but not too much, and one of the hardest pills to swallow was accepting that I’m actually not much of a team player. I know I sound like an arse, but it’s true. I’m an only child of divorced parents. I’m pretty independent, so it’s no wonder I prefer to be given the freedom to complete my work in my own way. Sure, I can work well with people and I get on with my colleagues, but roles that require you to actively work in tandem with other people aren’t roles I’ll excel in. And that’s okay. You don’t have to be everything to everybody. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. As long as you harness them in the right way and use them to improve productivity for both you and your employer, you’ll be fine.
Finding your career path
Ultimately, finding the right career path for you is a lot of trial and error. I personally think it’s a unique mix of logic, passion and more than anything else – gut feeling. If something makes no logical sense but feels right, go for it. If something makes plenty of logical sense but feels wrong, chances are it is wrong. There’s a sweet spot somewhere in between, and that’s really want you want to aim for.
It’s something you have to keep working at, too. It sounds like my story is complete, but it’s not. Deciding when to move jobs and knowing whether a new opportunity is right for you is an ongoing responsibility, but by tuning into the lessons I’ve mentioned, you can make choices that you believe in.
Put the effort in, explore what’s out there, be willing to take risks and to put yourself forward for things that will probably knock you back. It’s all part of the journey, and for most people, it’s never as simple as it seems from the outside. When you’re feeling lost, it’s perfectly normal.