I followed this path doggedly and gained two first-class degrees. Forget the university high life: I spent all my time in the library. I did not party with friends until 5am and watch the sunrise, play ultimate frisbee or go to club initiations. Instead, I inhaled the recommended reading lists and studied so hard that I ended up sick.
It was terrifying to realise that the workplace isn’t like university. Bosses aren’t personal tutors; they are more interested in profit than your individual achievements. But I learned the system.
Within seven years of employment at different companies, I had more than quadrupled my salary from a graduate wage. I received a promotion roughly every six months and was headhunted constantly. I treated new titles as a tick box exercise: I needed to do X in order to achieve Y, such as management training for a senior title.
The pandemic escalated things. I felt fortunate to have a job and with little else to do I upped my hours and doubled my department’s growth. As a reward, work gave me a six-figure salary and a very senior title. It was my third promotion in the 18 months since joining the company in 2020. I was shocked: it was a decade ahead of schedule. I wasn’t even 30. I thought it was everything I had ever wanted.
My workload grew to an alarming degree and my boss became dependent on my 'output'. Our relationship turned toxic as they made up for my long hours and tight deadlines with gifts and drinks at fancy bars.
I was mortified by my salary but I hoped it would make my work life more manageable. I ordered organic meal boxes, bought a posh gym membership and booked a five-star hotel break. Naturally, the meals rotted, I was called by work while on holiday and I never had the energy to exercise.
Fearful of an urgent email arriving, I no longer felt like I could shower in the morning. I would wake up at 3am to get ahead of the day and sit in my pyjamas until the afternoon. My partner pointed out that this behaviour wasn’t normal and I suddenly realised how colourless my life was. I drank heavily, I looked pallid, I was constantly on edge. I had no hobbies and bored my partner with daily rants about the company’s internal politics.
At the end of one dreadful week I had heart palpitations and the strongest instinct that while I could do this, I didn’t want to anymore. So I resigned. Instantly I felt extreme relief, despite my fear of leaving the role after just a few months. When colleagues learned the news, they admitted they were unhappy, that their workload caused issues at home but that they accepted their misery. I wasn’t prepared to do that.
I drank heavily, I looked pallid, I was constantly on edge. I had no hobbies and bored my partner with daily rants about the company's internal politics.
One of the benefits of my colourless life was that I didn’t spend much money. I saved a lot and had small outgoings, with a modest mortgage and no kids. Despite everything, I appreciate that I left in a strong position, though I do have years of long hours to thank.
The initial relief soon left me and the first fortnight was difficult. I slept a lot but never felt rested. I panicked that I had made a terrible decision and applied for jobs I didn’t want. Work still contacted me with queries. I couldn’t relax; I didn’t feel I had earned the right to do so.
I had to learn how to be me again. This wasn’t an easy feat after years of nothing but work. I found that going to the cinema was pure escapism as it stopped me scrolling on my phone. It became a weekly pleasure to tour the city’s cinemas. From Operation Mincemeat to Benediction, I immersed myself in narratives other than my own.
When I opened myself up to the world around me, my inner world felt far more positive. I toured art galleries, rekindled forgotten friendships and spent more quality time with my partner. I learned DIY and redecorated my flat and the garden. As the flowers bloomed, I did, too. I became more open-minded about opportunities and started doing freelance work, which gave me more flexibility and balance in my life. I am in no rush to gain another fancy title or a long list of responsibilities.
I applied my conscientiousness to my own life, rather than to a company. I realised how much I had been missing out on. Now I have an intense excitement for life again.
I am so grateful for my partner’s candour; without it, I may have never escaped. A toxic job became my core identity and I got stuck in the girlboss narrative. I believed my strength came from the job title, the salary, the trouser suits and the power. But the truth is, I’ve never felt more me since leaving it all behind.