It was 2001, Big Brother was about to launch itself onto our screens and I had just started my first full time job as a junior domestic travel consultant. I liked saying the whole title, it sounded more official. I had my own desk with a phone and a computer, I was looking forward to getting my own business cards and I had been on a work clothes shopping spree. It was my ‘dream job’, it was all very exciting, except that… it wasn’t.
It was 9.15am and I was sitting at my desk contemplating the radio’s catch phrase No repeat workday. It was true, they didn’t play the same song twice between 9 and 5 on the same day. Yet, I was able to tell the time without looking at the clock because, it seemed, the same song played at the same time every morning. Kylie Minogue was haunting my mornings. I was waiting until 10am, my favourite time of day. I could justifiably leave the office to check the mail, and if I walked the long way it gave me at least two minutes of freedom.
When I completed my morning mail run I began sorting brochures, another of my preferred tasks. I was trying to find the Trafalgar UK summer brochures when the door opened. I flinched and glanced at my colleagues, hoping they would step in. One was on the phone, the other was with a customer. The customer looked at me, already impatient. Her hair was a perfect bob, her nails manicured, not a crease in her clothes. She did not look like a woman who understood the phrase ‘learning curve’. I made a silent wish she wanted to book an international ticket.
“Can I help you?”
“I need a quote for a trip to London.” She kept her words to a minimum, like she didn’t want to waste them on me.
I tried not to sound audibly relieved. “Okay. I’m only a domestic consultant, if you take a seat one of the other ladies will be with you in a minute. Did you want to look at a brochure while you wait?” I offered her one of the brochures on Europe. I was pretty good at handing out brochures.
Her expression suggested she didn’t want to wait, but she settled in one of the chairs. My boss emerged smiling and bundled the woman into her office. By the time they came back out again the woman was smiling and my boss had clearly saved another sale. She looked truly happy and I wished I could feel that sense of satisfaction from our work.
“Why do you tell people you are only are domestic consultant?” My boss asked when the woman had left.
I shrugged my shoulders in response, the way only a teenager can. “Because I can’t make international bookings.”
“Yes, but don’t tell people you can only do that. A domestic consultant is an important role too.”
I nodded, the subtleties of sales and persuasive language floating far above my head. She sent me to lunch and I was grateful to escape the lesson.
Lunch passed with me sitting alone in a food court, in the same seat I sat in every day. I wandered the same shops, looked at clothes I couldn’t afford and made my way back to my desk. In the afternoon I made a booking for a resort in Queensland for an older couple. I looked longingly at the photos in the brochure with the reality of the job sinking in. My job was to send people to exotic destinations, but day in day out I was in the same office not being paid anywhere near enough to afford the holidays I was selling. The perks I had heard about seemed a very long way off.
Late in the afternoon the sheet of paper that marked my failure was passed around. Next to each of our names was the amount of commission we had earned for the company. A zero was listed next to mine. I signed my initials next to my name and wondered if I would ever be anything more than a mediocre travel consultant.
The days passed. I listened to the same songs, waited for the business cards that would mark my legitimacy and drove an hour and a half each way to and from work. I ate my lunch alone in the food court and wondered why my dream job wasn’t all it was meant to be. I wanted to be a superstar travel consultant. I wanted to manage my own agency by the time I turned 25. I wanted to travel to all the exotic places on the brochures I pulled out of boxes and put away. Instead I spent each day listening to the hum of the air conditioner hoping the door to our agency didn’t open.
Slowly, probably too slowly, I realised the things I wanted, this future in the industry I was imagining, didn’t matter if my present was making me so unhappy. My friends were at uni, they seemed happy, I thought it was worth a try. So one Saturday afternoon when my boss and I were the last ones left in the office and we had closed for the day I knocked on her door. My stomach was twisted from the nerves that had been building all day. After some awkward small talk I told her I had decided to leave, to go to university. She was disappointed. She said she thought she was a good judge of character, and the implication that she had misjudged mine hung in the air. I mumbled something about not being suited to a sales role, and she dismissed me for the afternoon.
A few months later I was enrolled at the University of Western Sydney and preparing for my first day of class. I was 20 and I felt old. It seemed everybody else in my class was straight from high school and I felt like I’d left my run too late. I found another girl in her early twenties and we bonded over our advanced years. I was nervous as I settled in for my first lecture – English, Text and Writing – and fumbled with the strange tables attached to the seats. I pulled my notebook and pens from my bag and hoped I’d be able to follow the lecture. From the moment the lecturer began I was hooked. I learned terms like ideology, semiotics, post-modernism and discourse. I swam around in the new language as happy as Scrooge McDuck in his ocean of money. Still, I was nervous, worried I wouldn’t be good enough. Sitting in the tutorial room waiting for my first essay to be handed back I all but held my breath hoping I would pass. The tutor handed back my paper – distinction. I resisted the urge to do a Judd Nelson Breakfast Club style fist pump in the air.
At uni, I followed my passions through an Undergraduate degree in English, Honours in history and finally a PhD in history. I now work as a public historian. I love my work, my days are absorbed in research and writing, I have lunch with friends in the food court and I have no idea what time the mail comes or what songs are playing on the radio. Part of the secret to finding the ‘dream job’ if there is one, is finding a job that is a combination of work you are good at and work you like doing. More importantly, it’s about knowing when something isn’t working and having the courage to admit it. I really was the world’s worst travel consultant, and I am so happy about that. If I’d been a little better at the job I may have persevered in a career that I wasn’t suited to and didn’t enjoy. Leaving the job isn’t always the answer and it isn’t always an option, but sometimes facing up to the fact that the dream job isn’t everything you thought it would be gives you the freedom to find a career you’ve never imagined.
Image: Zac Beauvais