I'd heard it time and time again: that Toronto is an anxious city. Sometimes ad verbatim, sometimes implied by the person who wished to remain stalwart in its cold presence. This city does that to you: hardens you up, or at the very least, causes you to adopt a sort of warpaint in the workplace.
We're always expected to be "on," refreshing our inboxes, sending "Let's catch up" messages via LinkedIn, attending networking events or planning our own. We often work late into the night, even when we don't have to: hitting deadlines, chasing awards, implementing much-needed workflow and approval processes, trying to win new business, course-correcting our direct reports' (or bosses', or clients') FUBARs.
We're conditioned to act like we don't need sleep or weekends, only fleeting validation for that campaign that just hit market and a swig from the company whiskey bottle.
I had never much subscribed to the notion of Toronto's permeating anxiety, however, until I returned from a much-needed trip to the beach over this past holiday break. As the plane touched down and I checked my email for the first time in six nights, I was hit with a cascade of all the feelings I'd left behind. It could have been the sheer volume of Cuban beer and questionable ceviche that I had consumed in the previous week, but I thought I was going to puke.
My whole career mandate has been based on grit, resilience and the steadfast notion that I could hustle my way into and out of any situation I wanted. Shit, a few years ago I was writing music reviews and today I'm working with blue-chip brands to create integrated campaigns. No formal training other than an irrelevant BA. Just positioning and due diligence. I was Young Jeezy crossed with Braveheart crossed with that ad guy from TV (I refuse to make a Mad Men reference), I thought.
That all changed at the end of 2014. I left a great job working client-side at a telco (they do exist, trust me), to assume what I could have described then as my dream role at a hot software startup. Three months in, I was subject to a department reshuffle, a resourcing audit and was subsequently put out on my ass. Company growing pains, I was told; I shouldn't take it personally. And I didn't. I still speak very highly of the company and the people I worked with there.
That event, however, set off a chain of diminishing returns, the likes of which I hadn't seen since I was trying to carve out a name for myself as a journalist. Despite my career being at an all-time high, pragmatically speaking, I couldn't get a bite off of anyone.
I reworked my resume, my book, my outfit and got nothing. I sought counsel from my peers, applied the insights and got nothing. Eventually, I broadened my scope to more junior roles and have been experiencing limited success in the form of a couple short freelance contracts. Only now are things on the upswing. Still, my situation is far from sustainable.
As I sit here, waiting for the phone to ring -- and it will ring, eventually -- I'm reflecting on how cut-throat this industry is, and how easy it is to be disqualified from the running for a project or role for which you or I are likely a great fit.
"We continue to synthesize what we love to do with what we're paid to do, in the hopes that one day it won't really feel like work at all."
I'm also thinking about how good we've gotten at not letting that faze us. Off the top of my head, some of the feedback I've received over this past year's job hunt includes:
- Portfolio not robust enough
- Personality not bold enough to write copy [for a tax brand]
- Not enough integrated campaign experience
- Not enough digital experience
- Too much digital experience
- Too much content strategy experience
- Not enough content strategy experience
- Not enough print experience
- Not enough experience writing blog posts
- Too senior
- Too junior
- Too much freelance/contract work
- Not enough dotted-line managerial experience
- Not enough direct-report managerial experience
- Can't code
- Culture fit
- Culture fit
- Culture fit?
- No experience working as a financial professional
- No experience writing academic journal entries
- Should've gone to ad school
While some of these critiques are warranted (and others outright bizarre), that's a lot of criticism for anyone to carry around, and many of us deal with some version of this feedback day-to-day, year-over-year. I'm not even getting into the trial-by-fire that is client approval or chain-of-command once you actually LAND a gig.
Working in marketing or advertising can be a tough career. The hours are long, the pay is usually only decent when it's coming in, the office landscape can be lawless and you're expected to play Will Munny in Unforgiven.
But it can also be a pursuit of passion, which I believe is the reason many of us are where we are. And I think that's something that's applicable to any calling. We continue to synthesize what we love to do with what we're paid to do, in the hopes that one day it won't really feel like work at all.
Until that day comes, I propose we cut ourselves some slack. We may not be carving peoples' brains out of their heads, but we work hard jobs.
In addition to our respective skill sets, we're effectively paid to take a pounding in terms of client demands, steep competition, spec work, unpaid hours and imbalanced emotional ROI. Those losses and critiques we think we slough off are probably collecting somewhere, ready to smash us in the gut like so many pounds of raw fish cured in citrus juices, just as it did to me.
I'll save you the prescriptive banter of how to deal with workplace stresses, because a) you've probably developed your own coping mechanisms, b) that topic is readily searchable and c) I'll never write another damn listicle unless it's 150 per cent necessary, but I will try to instill a bit of parting wisdom.
Work is tough and life might suck. It might continue to suck for a while, but not forever. You're doing a great job with whatever it is you're working on -- whether it's a huge pitch or mustering the determination to send out another volley of applications.
Right now, there are many, many people going through the same shit as you, albeit different flavours of shit. If you suspect you might know someone who's in danger of cracking, reach out to them and commiserate. Chances are, they too need an opportunity to take off their warpaint.
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