When Ambition Comes At Too High a Price

by | March 10, 2009

I admit it. I've made career mistakes. Last year, I committed a major gaffe: I left a job after only eight months. It wasn't because I didn't like the job. I just didn't like where the job was.

In May 2003, I finished journalism school in New York City -- the place in which I had lived for much of my adult life -- and was offered an internship at the Plain Dealer, a daily newspaper in Cleveland. It was a great opportunity for a young journalist: The Plain Dealer is an important regional newspaper with a national reputation. I had worked at a smaller newspaper in Connecticut before journalism school and knew that the best career move I could make was to get experience at a paper like the Plain Dealer.

When you set your sights on a newspaper career, you pretty much have to accept that you are going to have to relocate a number of times. Being a reporter typically means moving from city to city, smaller paper to bigger paper, as you work your way up from the Smalltown Weekly to a major metropolitan daily. It's the journalism equivalent of a doctor's residency after medical school -- you are simultaneously learning the skills you need to hone your craft and paying your dues.

Thus, I jumped at the internship in Cleveland.

Because the internship was 10 weeks, I sublet my large, reasonably priced apartment (anyone who has ever lived in New York can appreciate what a treasure that is) to a couple of friends from journalism school, and moved to Cleveland with only a few suitcases. I rented a furnished bedroom in the house of a woman who was recommended by the Plain Dealer.

From the first day, I knew taking the internship was the right move. I liked being a newspaper reporter, but I loved this job. The paper was crisp and well-written, and my editors were extremely skilled. I was learning a lot -- and having a great time.

Socially, it wasn't easy. I didn't have any friends in Cleveland and, to my disappointment, most of the reporters at the Plain Dealer were older than I was. I was -- am -- single, and many of my co-workers were married; the younger ones typically were newlyweds with toddlers at home or babies on the way. Their lives were focused on their families.

So, outside of work, my life in Cleveland was rather solitary. But I found a funky coffee shop with free wireless Internet access where I could spend hours reading and writing long e-mails to my friends in New York. I went running along Lake Erie, at a park with views of Cleveland's downtown skyscrapers. In many ways, it was an idyllic summer compared with the rough-and-tumble New York life.

When my internship was drawing to a close, my editor invited me to lunch to discuss the possibility of my staying on at the newspaper. That's when the problems started.

I loved the Plain Dealer, but I had a hard time visualizing myself being happy in Cleveland for the next few years. I was lonely. By summer's end, I really missed New York and my friends. I thought that Cleveland was a nice place for married people, but not much of a city for singles, especially people who didn't have family or roots in the city.

I hadn't expected to feel this way. I'd always thought of myself as a resourceful person who enjoyed time on my own. But after a few months in Cleveland, I felt I'd had enough. I was living the life I thought a young, aspiring reporter should be living. But I wasn't happy.

So I had to make a gut-wrenching decision: Take the job for the sake of my career and my finances (compared with New York, Cleveland is a more affordable city) or pass up the opportunity for the sake of my mental health.

I chose my career.

And then I changed my mind. After eight months in Cleveland, I returned to New York.

Two weeks ago, I wrote a column about moving to a new city as a twentysomething -- particularly as a single twentysomething -- and I've since learned a few things about what I did wrong, factors that probably contributed to my decision to give up and return to New York.

For one, I never really tried to make Cleveland my home.

Because I was reluctant to give up my apartment in New York, I continued to sublet it. Instead of moving all of my furniture to Cleveland, I lived a very spartan lifestyle there, even after I gave up the rented bedroom where I spent the summer for a loft-like apartment in downtown Cleveland. Someone from the paper gave me a futon, and I bought a few things from Target. Other than that, the place was empty -- a look I thought worked for a converted warehouse apartment with gigantic windows and exposed pipes.

While the apartment was very hip -- I never could have afforded anything like it in New York -- I wasn't comfortable there. My Manhattan apartment is decorated with pieces of furniture I've found over the years from antique stores as well as a few big items from Ikea and Pier One, and its walls are painted in warm pastel tones. I am also devoted to my 1,000-plus novel collection, which I keep in alphabetical order -- and which, like everything else I cared about, I left in New York.

Leslie Levine, author of the book, "Will This Place Ever Feel Like Home?" advises people moving to an unfamiliar city to pack a "soul box" -- a box of things like photos and mementos that you can set up right away in your new place to make it feel more like home.

"You want to make your new home a place you want to come back to," she says. "You want to simulate the hominess you might have after six months."

In New York, if I ever feel sad or lonely, I can always take comfort in curling up on my couch with a throw blanket and a glass of wine and a novel from my collection. In Cleveland, all I had was a lot of empty space -- which was hardly cheerful.

Another mistake I made was being lax on research before I chose where to live. When I rented an apartment in Cleveland, I found one downtown because I missed New York, and the downtown felt like the closest thing to the urban environment I had left. But I should have learned where people like me lived in Cleveland.

It turned out, the best neighborhood in Cleveland for a single person who likes coffee shops, reading and cultural events was probably an area on the outskirts of the city near Case Western Reserve University. Downtown Cleveland may have reminded me physically of New York, but Cleveland isn't New York, and its small downtown probably wasn't the best area to meet people.

When I said my good-byes to my Plain Dealer co-workers, one of them, business writer Peter Krouse, told me that if I had lived in the area near the university instead of downtown, he'd be willing to bet that I wouldn't have been nearly so unhappy -- and wouldn't be quitting the job after just a few months.

In prior jobs, I had made friends at work without much effort. When I realized that the experience at the Plain Dealer wouldn't be the same -- owing to the fact that my co-workers were largely in different stages of their lives -- I didn't adapt, but simply moped. That was a mistake.

Ms. Levine says it's important to get involved in activities that will help you meet people -- from classes to community organizations to events for newcomers. "Sometimes it feels geeky going to those events, but if you meet one person who comes up to you ... you've made a friend," she says.

I'll have to take her word on that, since I never tried it.

Finally, I probably was too cheap. Ms. Levine suggests having a "settling in" budget -- money you allocate toward making the new place feel like home. That can include buying flowers for yourself to make your new place more cheery to increased spending on ways to meet people, from restaurant meals to after-hours classes.

It was an investment I didn't make. That surely hurt me in terms of making my move work.

On the plus side, when I decided to return to New York without a job, I had money in the bank to cover me for a few months.

In the end, it worked out. I have had awkward conversations with potential employers about my eight-month stint in Cleveland. Having left a job so soon after I got there raises red flags: I look like a flight risk. In retrospect, I probably should have given Cleveland a better -- and longer -- shot.

Nonetheless, for me, returning to New York was probably the right decision. I'm definitely happier here, and that has to count for something. Besides, I figure we're all entitled to one career mistake in our twenties, right?

Filed Under: Job Search


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