I Left A Stable, High-Paying Job To Chase My Dream

I asked myself, 'When was the last time you were truly happy?'
PHOTO: (LEFT) Chingkee Vergel de Dios, (RIGHT) Courtesy of Ann Marie D. Cunanan & Meaningful Travels PH

I grew up in a farm in Davao City, where I spent my childhood days roaming fields, climbing trees, and swimming in rivers. As a kid, I was restless, a ball of energy who easily made friends with strangers.  And I always had the spirit of the explorer in me.

Back then, I had no idea what I wanted to become when I grew up, although I remember claiming that I wanted to be a doctor or lawyer because, from what I heard from family and relatives, such stable, high-paying jobs were the jobs to have. “O, ‘yung tita mo doktor,” “O, ‘yung pinsan mo, nag-aaral maging abogado”—these were the kinds of statements that were drilled into my head growing up.

Right after graduating from high school, I still didn’t have a clue what I wanted to become, but this much was clear: I wanted to study at Ateneo de Davao University. However, my family did not have the means to afford the university’s tuition fees; my father had no regular income from farming, while my mother ran a sari-sari store to cover our daily living expenses. I knew I had to find a way to get into college myself.

I applied for one of the scholarships the university was offering underprivileged students and luckily got in as a BS Mathematics major. College was a revelation for me, because that’s where I finally found my niche volunteering in the university’s community development projects. Through these projects, I got to visit marginalized communities, assist students in immersion programs, and help train other volunteers.

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I enjoyed volunteer work so much that after graduating, I contemplated joining Jesuit Volunteers of the Philippines (JVP), a program that invites individuals to devote a year to community service. However, soon after graduation, I was offered a job by a prestigious multinational company. The job would see me handling activations for the whole of Mindanao, making sure that the company’s national promotions were implemented well across my area of responsibility—from supermarkets to drugstores to sari-sari stores. It sounded like a huge, important job and the perks seemed irresistible: I’d have a car, a laptop, a cell phone, a high salary—for a fresh grad scholar, it all seemed too good to be true. Plus, I saw the job as a way I could help out my parents who were struggling to put my sister through college. Blown away by the offer and eager to contribute to my family, I took the job.

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A few months into my first job, I started to feel the disconnect. The environment was competitive, the pressure was high, and I had a hard time adjusting to the company culture. I remember one of my teammates saying to me, “Ann Marie, you either sink or swim” and another colleague pointing out that I was “too kind” for the job. There were moments I would cry at home because I felt that I didn’t fit in; that I was too slow, and yes, too kind; that I, a free spirit, stuck out like a sore thumb in the rigid corporate structure.

Despite the unhappiness I felt, I was scared of letting go. It was my first job, and, at only 20 years old then, I didn’t know where else to go. Furthermore, the pressure I felt to provide for my family was weighing heavily on me. At that time, my salary was in the P25,000-30,000 range—almost three times the average starting salary in Davao back in 2005 and complete with benefits at that—and it went a long way into helping my family.

So I stayed. I ended up staying in that job for almost four years, during which I was always unsure whether I should keep soldiering on or surrender completely. It wasn’t until 2009 when I decided to leave and seek a career which I thought fit my personality more: sales.

I applied for a business development manager post at another big multinational company which would have me covering different areas in Samar and Leyte by car on rough roads. I was only 24, and taking the job meant moving out of Davao and being away from my family, but without any hesitation, I took the opportunity.

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I started asking myself, “Ann Marie, when was the last time you were truly happy?” Without fail, the first thing that would pop into my head in these moments of introspection were my memories doing community work back in college. I knew I had to go back to it.

I grew to love my second company, whose office culture was a better fit for me. I found that the sales role was more empowering and allowed me more freedom because I was able to make decisions on my own with the support of my boss. Plus, compared to my previous job, I enjoyed a better work-life balance this time, and a salary that was almost double what I was getting back then. On top of the hefty pay, I was also achieving high sales incentives quarterly, such that I would get up to twice my salary as a bonus per quarter.

I was hitting my career targets and actually enjoying the work at the same time, but after three years in my second job, I realized that there was still something missing. At one point, I found myself sitting in my cubicle, facing Excel sheets filled with figures, and no longer feeling connected to any of it.

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I started asking myself, “Ann Marie, when was the last time you were truly happy?” Without fail, the first thing that would pop into my head in these moments of introspection were my memories doing community work back in college. I knew I had to go back to it.

In 2012, I quit my second job and began preparing for an entirely different career path. By then, my sister had graduated from college, so I felt released from the pressure to earn for my family and free to find my way back to my passion. Since one of my bucket list items was to study abroad, I applied for and was granted a scholarship for a masteral program in social entrepreneurship at a university in Australia. I figured I already had the business development side down pat; I could use my further learnings to help empower local communities.

One of the things we did in our masteral studies was to make a business plan for the business we wanted to build. That’s when I had the breakthrough of creating a business that marries my passions for traveling, engaging with local communities, and doing volunteer work. That idea turned into Meaningful Travels PH, a travel platform that lets tourists immerse in communities, make connections with locals, and learn lasting lessons about their culture—an opportunity for tourists to travel not just for the ‘gram, but for a purpose.

After completing two years of study in Australia, I flew home and started working on the business idea for Meaningful Travels PH for another two years, during which I kept myself afloat with consultancy and teaching jobs. Last year, I made the bold move to go full-time with Meaningful Travels PH.

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While it has finally brought me face-to-face with my passions, make no mistake: Running Meaningful Travels PH is still a lot of hard, exhausting work. It’s like having a baby: There were birthing pains at the start, and once it was out, I quickly realized that my pains were far from over because this baby needed my constant attention! However, the fulfilment I feel at seeing it slowly stand on its own two feet and reveal itself to the world is like nothing I’ve ever felt in my previous jobs. I still get tired like I used to, but it’s a different kind of tiredness now, because I am genuinely happy with what I do.

I haven’t yet reached how much I was earning at my last corporate job, but I’m happy to report that I’m earning well for myself and have enough to hire part-time staff. I’ve got many plans lined up for Meaningful Travels PH and I know I’ve got a long way to go, but I also know that I’ll get there eventually.

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Coming from such a drastic career detour, here are three things I learned that I hope will help anyone who finds herself at a similar crossroads in her professional journey.

One, move. Don’t get stuck in one place just because you’re scared. If I hadn’t gathered up the courage to leave my first job, I wouldn’t have discovered a career in sales that was more suited to my personality; if I hadn’t decided that I had outgrown my sales job, I wouldn’t be talking to you about chasing my dreams now.

I still get tired like I used to, but it’s a different kind of tiredness now, because I am genuinely happy with what I do.

Two, if for some reason you find yourself unable to move, dig deep and find out what’s really stopping you from pursuing what you truly want. For me, it was my fear of not knowing where else to go and the burden I felt at being the breadwinner of the family. Once you’ve been brutally honest in exposing those obstacles, you’ll be better able to come up with solutions to overcome them.

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Finally, once you’re on the path to doing what you love, know that it’s not going to be a walk in the park. Be ready to make sacrifices, have foresight and contingency plans, and prepare yourself for all eventualities—from financial ones to emotional ones to managing probable disappointment from family members.

Sounds hard, but as long as you keep your eyes on your destination, all the hurdles will be worth it.

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