What Happens When Your Dream Job Becomes A Nightmare

On paper, I had the coolest job ever.
Enjoying the benefit of some really nice set lighting during an overnight shoot on “The Deuce.”
Enjoying the benefit of some really nice set lighting during an overnight shoot on “The Deuce.”
Courtesy of Victoria Carter

I had my dream job.

After college, I had a great career working as a location manager and scout for film and TV. The work was dynamic, challenging, fantastic fodder for dinner party stories, and easily the most interesting thing about me. Unfortunately, it was also ruining my life.

I’d been involved in theater since I was a kid, but the pace of the film industry electrified me. Everyone was so driven and focused, working together toward a single goal. I was inspired. I threw myself into it with everything I had.

I mostly worked in the Locations Department, which meant my co-workers and I were responsible for finding and securing all of the filming locations for whatever project I was working on. We were also responsible for permitting, support needs for the production cast and crew, and anything logistical that nobody else wanted to do. It was kinda like being a wedding planner but rather than having brides as my clients, I had white dudes in baseball hats.

Since this is already an exercise in narcissism, I don’t mind saying that my favorite part of my job was how good I was at it. I had a knack for the multitasking and juggling that came along with the work, and even though I couldn’t find a date, do laundry more than once a month, or sleep more than five hours a night, I never dropped the ball.

Get to set at 3 a.m. to make sure the trucks park in the right spot? I’m on it! Drive to eastern Long Island every day for a week (sometimes multiple times a day!) to find the perfect beach club to play as a restaurant in LA in the 1930s? That sounds fun! Get lost in East New York trying to track down an ice cream truck driver who extorted $500 from me on set by refusing to turn off his music even though he had no customers? SCARY, BUT I DID IT!

Each day presented me with an unpredictable set of challenges, and for the most part I always rose to the occasion.

But it wasn’t all 3 a.m. call times and trying not to fall asleep at the wheel on the Long Island Expressway. There were bad parts, too.

There were the TV directors who needed to see every bland apartment in Queens before picking the right one to discover the dead body in. And I had one day to find it. Oh, actually, the director wants to see more choices, can you work on Saturday?

Then there were the intractable government employees who seemed to take great pleasure in having me fill out the same permit application six times just so they could reject it because I didn’t submit it in time. Did I mention that the entire production and several hundred employees would have to shut down for the day without that permit? No pressure, though.

On paper, I had the coolest job ever. (If you ever want people to ask you about your job, just tell them it has anything to do with celebrities.) None of my friends had better work stories: I got kicked out of the Scientology center, I’ve seen the secret MTA tunnels, I shared a piece of pizza with Matt Damon! I was doing exactly what I said I wanted to do and doing it really well. But, it was driving me insane.

With Matt Damon and my amazing department on the last day of filming on “The Adjustment Bureau”
With Matt Damon and my amazing department on the last day of filming on “The Adjustment Bureau”
Courtesy of Victoria Carter

I would tell myself that I wouldn’t have to work this hard or feel this level of stress forever. But when I looked at my bosses and their bosses, I realized that it was only going to get worse. I’m trying really hard not to quote Spiderman here, but that thing about responsibility and power going hand in hand is totally true.

I saw bosses go to the hospital for stress. I talked to producers who saw their kids once a month. I had a conversation with a director about how sleep wasn’t actually necessary every night. It wasn’t just his personal coping strategy for his unreasonable workload; he just didn’t think sleeping every night was a must.

Was this really what I wanted?

I was tired of not being able to make plans because I didn’t know how long we were going to film that night, and I didn’t want to keep having work nightmares about not finding the right location and having my permits denied. Was it really worth it to do all of this without the benefit of health insurance, sick days, paid vacation and lunch breaks ― the stuff my friends with “normal” jobs had?

That’s right, as a nonunion employee in the industry, I literally had no benefits other than a paycheck and a rental car. Super glamorous, right?

I looked around my industry and saw people being killed by their work, literally. After camera assistant Sarah Jones died in a horrific train accident on a film set, I asked myself if I’d let myself get into a situation like that. The truth of the matter was, I already had. Working an 18-hour day on six hours of sleep and then getting behind the wheel of a car is hardly safe or wise, but it’s an everyday occurrence in the film and TV industry.

“When asked to describe ourselves, we lead with our jobs. But I just can’t believe that there’s nothing more to me than what I do.”

In early 2016, I was working on a movie that seemed to be poisoning me. The production had seemed cursed from the get-go with a crazy-ambitious script, difficult schedule and minute budget. Nothing was going right, and a lot of it was falling on my shoulders. I couldn’t keep solid food down, my ulcer was flaring (all 32-year-olds have stress-related ulcers, right?), and yet for some reason, I was bereft at the prospect of losing this job. The job that was ruining my life.

So I made the decision to leave. I left the job, I left the industry, I left New York, and, most painfully, I left my dream.

I put my stuff in storage and moved in with my parents to figure out what else I might like to do. They’d retired to idyllic California wine country, which seemed as good a place as any for a premature midlife crisis. I got a job working at a restaurant, tried to focus on writing, learned to talk nonsense about pinot noir, and floundered my way forward in a manner generally reserved for rich kids in their early 20s.

I still get sad sometimes when I think about what might’ve been if I had stuck it out, but ultimately, I stand by my choice. It’s not always easy; we live in a country where our worth is directly tied to our productivity. When asked to describe ourselves, we lead with our jobs. But I just can’t believe that there’s nothing more to me than what I do. I have to remind myself I am more, and that it’s possible to find meaning in life in other ways.

I’m not gonna wrap this up with a tidy bow and say I’ve found my true calling as a whatever since moving back to California, because the truth of the matter is that I don’t really know what I’m doing with my life. The uncertainty is unfamiliar and often unwelcome.

The clarity of vision that came with knowing what I wanted to be was a gift, and I never appreciated its value until I didn’t have it anymore. I might not currently have an answer for “What do you want to be when you grow up?” but I do know that the stressors in my life now are mine, and it’s a lot easier to sleep through the night knowing the only problems I have to solve are the ones I create for myself.

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