It's not your salary (although that is very important). It’s not the perks.
It’s your manager. It’s your colleagues. Your mental health. And your self-worth.
Don’t agree? Hear me out.
During these uncertain times, us early career planners find ourselves on different paths in our lives; finishing our studies, changing career paths, moving to a new place. Whatever situation you find yourself in professionally, I can guarantee that one of the things on your mind is to "gain planning experience”. Looking for that job can be daunting and challenging in and of itself. But what lies behind the doors of potential may not always be what you imagined.
For a long time, I used to think that when applying for jobs, I only needed to think about what the job is, how much I’m going to get paid, and what the benefits are. I just wanted to start working as a planner and I thought I could handle everything else that came my way, until the pandemic happened.
For such a long time, many of us have been told that getting a "good job” should be our priority. However, the overplayed narrative of getting a "good job” is tainted with archaic values - does it have good benefits? What’s the salary? What’s your title? And rarely seeks answers to: how is the work environment? Is your manager going to be supportive of your growth? Are you going to be given the space to learn? And perhaps most importantly, what’s the overall culture around mental health and burnout? Some of us have recently started asking more of these questions when we interview for jobs, but they rarely make or break the decision to join an organization.
The thing about these things is that no one talks about it - and if they do, it’s played off in a blazé, normalized fashion. The first place that you work can truly set the stage for the future planner you will become. Think about it. When you are a child, the kind of environment you grow up in and what you are exposed to plays a big role in the kind of person you might become. Think of when you start off going to school. Your primary years set the stage as to what student you may become. Similarly, when you first start working, you walk into that environment with a clean slate, and so that environment might dictate what kind of a colleague or manager you might become. I understood the value of this when I found myself in New Delhi, India, in 2021 during the pandemic.
Due to certain personal reasons, I moved to India and initially was optimistic about the planning opportunities that might come my way. However, there were not a lot of opportunities. It came to a point where I was happy to accept whatever came my way, with the same mentality of taking any job. After months of looking, I found a contract job and I decided to take it. I had never worked in India. I was aware of how difficult and demanding the work culture could be but was confident in my skills and what I had to offer. However, all of that vanished when my boss started verbally attacking and insulting me on my third day of work for not completing a task exactly how she wanted. Most days after that, she let me know how incompetent she thought I was for not ‘figuring out’ what she wanted. No one said anything because she was the boss; her behavior was widely accepted and rarely challenged. Working in that environment became so toxic for me that my mental health started to suffer, I started feeling anxious every day that I worked there, and even more so when she used to call me into her office. Just think about that for a second. Having anxiety around your name being called because you just know something bad is going to happen. In all of this, my salary, my job title, my perks (even though I had none) didn’t do anything to offset these negative feelings I was feeling on a daily basis. They didn’t even matter.
It was in this experience that I realized that toxic managers can make or break you. And how their toxicity can be contagious, because if the leader deems this behavior appropriate, first-time employees might observe their behaviour, think this is how it is, and once they themselves reach a certain of level of seniority, might think it is appropriate to carry on this kind of behaviour, having been exposed to it. This is how a toxic work culture is tolerated and further perpetuated. Navigating these situations is hard because you are implicated in a position of a trade-off; for instance, putting up with your toxic boss or colleagues so you can pay your bills. Or the people-pleaser in you wants to take on the challenge to grow and increase your capacity. It made me think whether my self-worth and mental health is less important than my job experience? The one thing I knew for sure, was that I was not going to allow that into my life. Just because somebody has reached a certain position in their life and is successful does not give them the right to treat you as though you are lesser.
I have since returned to Canada. I have been working hard to rebuild my self-confidence and remind myself that one bad experience does not determine your competence or how you good you are at your job. I make sure to give my best everyday at work, that I remain open to constantly learning, and most of all, that I don't let my mistakes define me or deter me from doing what I need to do. I have become more patient with myself, and have come to realize that only when you allow yourself the space to heal can you get better, learn, and improve in your professional career. I have learned that investing in your self-worth, establishing healthy boundaries and advocating for yourself might be as important, if not more, than your work experience and job perks.
Deeksha Choudhry is a Heritage Planner who completed her post-graduate degree in Architectural Conservation from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. She completed her undergraduate degree in Urban Planning from the University of Waterloo in Canada in 2017. In addition to being a Heritage Planner, she is also a fierce advocate for mental health and is always looking for ways to de-stigmatize the conversation around mental health.
Paying it forward through knowledge sharing and community investment, along with Deeksha's knowledge contribution, a donation has been made by Your Planning Career to the Canadian Mental Health Association which is a nationwide organization that promotes mental health and supports people recovering from mental illness.