“How an accidental career became my dream job”

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Amy Swales
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Not sure about the job you ended up in, but have no all-consuming passion to pursue instead? It’s a feeling that most of us can identify with, but all is not lost. Here, Stylist meets the women who forged incredible new careers thanks to chance encounters and, well, a love of cheese.

How many people do you know who embarked on their dream job as soon as they left education? Other than that one friend from school who geared every decision from GCSEs onwards toward their goal with a frankly frightening certainty, it’s probably not that many.

We may read with envy tales of those who swept their desks clear, threw a resignation letter in the general direction of the boss and left uninspiring jobs in order to finally pursue their one true calling, but in reality, most of us take a good while to decide what that calling may be. If indeed, we have one at all; a more likely path for many is floating from one job to the next before suddenly realising years have passed, and we’re halfway up a ladder in a career we feel distinctly ‘meh’ about.

So what if you’ve got itchy feet but don’t have a passion to pursue, or a calling to answer? Know that you’re not alone and take heart from the two women below – both of whom stumbled into their career 2.0 via unconventional means.

The accidental photographer

Sara Lincoln, 32, was working in public relations when a spontaneous decision to see a fortune teller opened up a new career path

“I fell into my previous job and ending up staying for seven years. I’d just finished university and was looking for work in London. A friend of my brother set me up at a super cool PR agency and, after two weeks of work experience, I nabbed a permanent position.

I worked in a couple of high-profile agencies, juggling different client accounts from booze and music brands to hotels and chocolate. It was a high-stress job with late nights and early mornings attending client meetings, copy writing, event planning: everything and anything.

Initially I loved it: I was in the big smoke, doing a grown-up job, meeting some incredible people. But as time went on, I began to realise I wasn’t fulfilled. Instead, it all felt a bit superficial. I loved the social side of it, but I didn’t enjoy the actual work.

I was exhausted and pretty unhappy – I’d struggle to sleep because I was constantly asking myself ‘What the f**k are you even doing with your life?’ I wanted out but I didn’t know what I was aiming for. I knew I wanted to do something different but had no idea what that was. I just knew I didn’t want to work in PR my whole life. I used to look at my seniors and think ‘I don’t want your job’.

I remember feeling very confused, stuck in a rut and, frankly, embarrassed that all my friends seemed to have their heads screwed on whilst I was still bumbling about, treading water.

Now, this is the random part: I went to a tarot reader. I’m not usually the kind of person who would make big life decisions based on a pack of cards, but this time I did.

It was summer 2012 and I walked into a little shop in north London, where I headed downstairs to a tiny room behind velvet curtains. I wouldn’t say I necessarily believed in that kind of stuff, but here I was, sitting across from Ursula at a dimly lit table waiting to hear about my future.

At one point she said she envisioned me doing something with cameras, and I took that idea and ran with it. I’ve always admired good photography, but I didn’t really take any photos myself and would never have thought I could make a living from it.

I had to start from scratch and learn how to handle a camera, how light affects a photo and how to use editing programmes. I stayed up late watching YouTube tutorials, read photography blogs on the way to work and edited images on my lunch break. I threw myself into learning and spent every spare minute researching local photographers and asking them for advice.

I worked for free on weekends with some really great alternative wedding photographers. Their work was so different to the stuffy formal pictures I had seen before: it was very creative, artistic, fun and real. I loved them.

It was a watershed for me when friends started asking me to photograph their weddings. I was honoured they would even consider me for such an important job, and it just snowballed from there. Friends of their friends and complete strangers started booking me. I was even being flown across Europe.

It got to a point where it was physically not possible for me to do two jobs at once and, after a couple of years of juggling both, I felt brave enough to go full-time with photography in 2015. I didn’t know if it would be sustainable, but I did know that I had to give it a go.

It was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I have a freedom that I didn’t have before and I am able to manage my own hours, which suits me. I can say yes to overseas commissions and explore places I may not ordinarily visit.

Being able to create something people will cherish for years to come is the main driving force for me. I have always loved sifting through old family photographs, and seeing pictures of my parents on honeymoon or in their first house. To me, photographs matter. They can capture a moment that may seem of little importance at the time, but looking back, reminds us (and others) of who we were. That is what I love: the idea of being able to transport someone back to a specific time and place with just an image – no flux capacitor needed!

There are, of course, lots of leaps into the unknown: there is no set path, so you have to be prepared to sometimes fall and be OK with that, because actually those little mistakes are pots of gold that help you improve and refine.

My advice to anyone else is: don’t be afraid. Being lost and anxious is also a moment of massive opportunity. That’s when you start learning to trust your gut and knowing what feels right, instead of what sounds right. Dissatisfaction is actually a gift: it means you care. The hard part is finding the strength to channel that energy into change, but you don’t have to do that on your own. Talk to your friends and family, get involved in the relevant communities and throw yourself into it – without the support from all the legendary people I have come to surround myself with, I would still be miserable in a job I hated.”

The inventor of the cheese advent calendar

Annem Hobson, 28, changed career when one of her blog posts on cheese went viral. 

“When I decided to start a food blog, I was working in public relations, primarily with technology companies. It was a role I sort of fell into during university whilst studying journalism, but it soon became a career path. I spent eight years in PR overall, but for the last four I had a lot of anxiety about what I was doing with my life. The job has lots of positives, but it’s also high-pressured and fast-paced. I had little time or head space to consider any other ideas.

I took a few weeks out between roles, during which time I was encouraged to start up a blog – So Wrong It’s Nom – as I enjoyed rambling about food, with a particular love for unusual ingredients, guilty pleasures and cheese. Unfortunately, the next PR role I started didn’t work out. Although I’d faced rejection in jobs before, this time it really knocked my confidence to the point where I desperately wanted a career change. I took the plunge and went freelance, which ended up as the catalyst for my year of experimenting with what to do next.

After a tear-filled motivational talk with my mum, a switch flipped in my mind. I couldn’t understand why people started on a certain career path and never left, and I was desperate to discover if I had different skills. What if I can act? What if I can sew? What if I can code? All of those questions spurred me on, so I started a part-time acting course alongside a coding class to learn Ruby, in order to work on an app idea I had. In the background, my food blog was increasing in traffic, and supplemented with occasional freelance PR work, I was just about managing to cover my rent.

The entire year was filled with extreme highs, and extreme lows. I worried that if I stopped for a year or two to try different things, I would somehow hinder my progression on the career path I was previously on. Social media amplified this as it’s so easy to compare your life with others. Whilst on some days I’d break down and question what I was doing, I’d then achieve something brilliant in my projects and be back on track.

I felt like I was spreading my bets across my blog and my app, so I decided to work hard on both to see which one gained the most traction. I ended up putting the app on ice because So Wrong It’s Nom took off.

I had written a DIY post on how to make your own cheese advent calendar, after seeing that nobody had ever attempted it. Lots of people were hugely amused – I was sent hundreds of emails and photos of their inspired creations. I knew then there was a demand, so I bought the URL and asked people to sign up to the mailing list if they would consider buying one. My plan was to use this as my initial proof of concept, or as research to get a better understanding of developing products, but I was overwhelmed with the response I got. Within four days, over 11,000 people had signed up, and I knew I had to get the product made. In November 2017, a year after my original post, Asda began selling my product nationwide.

It was an incredibly hectic year learning all about the manufacturing process, retailers, accounts, contracts and even understanding trademark and legal issues. But my previous experience dovetailed nicely as I’ve been able to take the lead on communications and marketing and have the freedom to be more experimental with my approach.

Effectively, I’m learning how to grow a brand from the ground up, and although I sometimes make mistakes, you never stop learning through trial and error. At Easter, I added a second product to my brand – The Cheester Egg. I created a small run of a few thousand with an artisan producer, Wildes Cheese, to test the waters and gain feedback. They created a bit of a frenzy and sold out in two days.

I now have a roadmap of different ideas I’m developing on a bigger scale, and I’m currently exploring opportunities with international partners to take the products global. Since the blog has grown significantly, I’m now regularly used as a spokesperson on national radio for various food stories. I get to wear many hats!

I’ve definitely found something that I love doing. I always knew I’d like to occasionally blog about food, but I had no idea I would be in the position to turn the brand into a shop with a portfolio of products. It’s been an unexpected business venture, and it certainly goes to show that you never know where you might be in the future.

If you have an idea that you’ve been considering for some time, it can be overwhelming to know where to start. The biggest piece of advice I have is don’t be afraid to ask. Once you tap into your personal network, you’ll realise there is always a friend of a friend, an aunt, a neighbour or a cousin whose job relates to an aspect of what you’re trying to learn. I’d also encourage you to just pick up the phone. If you’re at research stage, you’ll get more out of a verbal conversation as people can miss emails in their inbox. You might be met with a ‘no’ or a complete dead end, but equally you might surprise yourself with a piece of information that will get you on course.

The other piece of advice I’d give, and perhaps most importantly, is to surround yourself with people who encourage you. Absorbing people’s negativity heightens the fear of failing. But failure isn’t the worst thing: losing my job is what inspired me.”

Images: and Martijn Roos, with permission / Annem Hobson


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Amy Swales

Amy Swales is a freelance writer who likes to eat, drink and talk about her dog. She will continue to plunder her own life and the lives of her loved ones for material in the name of comedy, catharsis and getting pictures of her dog on the internet.