The phrase “dream job” is misleading. It’s like saying there’s one singular goal-focused occupation out there for all of us, and we either attain it, or we don’t. It suggests that all of our carefully-calculated actions – meeting the right people, following the right advice, working for the right companies, taking on the best internships, fostering the right connections – exist to lead us toward one singular goal. And if we hit that goal and attain that dream job? Great! You’ll still be thinking about the next best thing a year into it, I guarantee. Or worse – you don’t get it, and the disappointment rains on your career like a black cloud, tainting everything that follows with the hashtag #secondbest.
I’m being a tad dramatic. But I do think it’s necessary to recognize the potential pitfalls of gearing your career plan around one singular focus in terms of where you see yourself thriving and being able to contribute value. One of the major problems I see with the notion behind chasing your dream job is that you’re not acknowledging realistically the fact that your interests, needs and priorities shift relative to where you are in life. Your idea of your dream job or career at 25 can be very different from your vision even at 30. I speak from experience.
What Denotes a “Dream Job” in the First Place?
No doubt you had some idea of where you envisioned yourself in 10 years when you first stepped into the workforce. My original dream circa 2000 was to become a Creative Director at a prestigious advertising agency. To me, it was about putting my creative capabilities to work full-force, working with interesting and equally creative and artistic people, and garnering recognition for my good work. The original plan didn’t pan out, but I did fall into an enjoyable career recruiting within the creative industry, and eventually as an entrepreneur, that still fulfilled that need for me to exercise my creative passions and let my work ethic shine. Along the way, I also picked up the knowledge and confidence I needed to realize that working for myself was my true goal.
Perhaps you really love working with clients in the beauty and fashion industry, and that’s truly your undeniable passion. Is the only avenue for fulfilling that, working for a major designer? Perhaps it’s the innovation and creativity that drives you, and some of the smaller indie labels and designers in places like Brooklyn would be a great opportunity for you to satisfy those aspects, and also give you an opportunity to grow entrepreneurially. Read between the lines, find the subtext beneath what you thought having that dream job would provide you, and find those base-level aspects in their rawest form. You’ll probably find it’s not actually about the brand name, the reputation, the cool environment, or the job title, and it’s more about things that speak to your own personal values. Now, are those aspects only available to you in the form of one career model?
Dream Jobs Risk Setting the Bar Impossibly High
Setting your sights full speed ahead on that dream job might be good for ambition and drive, but you also risk setting yourself up for failure by building up the expectation that everything will be perfectly in place once you’ve finally reached point B. And the reality is that we have difficult days, bad bosses, shitty coworkers, annoying clients, and frustrating projects, no matter where you go and who you work for. I’ve had days like that working for other people, and certainly days like that working for myself.
It’s also subconsciously putting your happiness on hold and diminishing the value of everything else you’re doing in your life, until you hit a certain milestone point in your career. When you start thinking about that ideal scenario and dreaming about how much better it will be when X, Y and Z are in place for you, you are putting on blinders.
Avoid the Urge to Look at Other People
It’s natural to look at someone you either admire or look up to in your career and conclude without hesitation, “I want what she has.” Going back to the idea of understanding what aspects denote your personal notion of a dream job, what makes up one person’s dream job may not be identical to what you require for yours.
One of my closest friends is a travel writer. She lives in the New York City area, works for herself, and is on a plane every other week to places like Las Vegas, the Galapagos Islands, and a million other locales. Whenever she meets other young writers, they always express their desire to do what she does, because who wouldn’t want to travel for free and then spend their days photographing and writing about it? The only problem with that is that all the young aspiring writers with stars in their eyes and grand visions of what being a travel writer is about… have no idea what being a travel writer is about. And my friend finds this troubling because the quick judgment around the simplicity of what she does is not only wrong, but also negates all of the hard work she put into the 10 years leading up to running her own writing business, working in jobs she hated because in publishing, it’s about putting in your time and making the right connections.
Make your judgements based on what is important to you internally, and not based on the glamour or intrigue gleaming form someone else’s facade. It’s too easy to look past the surface with blinders, and end up leading yourself down the wrong path.
And If You Do Find that Dream Job… Where Do You Go Next?
Some people work themselves to the bone throughout college and into their early 20s, paving the way for multiple promotions, strategic connection building, and tons of success. But is that sustainable? Generation Y wasn’t raised under the idea that you put in a lifetime of work and garner your rewards upon retirement. They’re built upon the notion of work hard now, and be rewarded shortly after. In other words, the 20 and 30-somethings today don’t want to wait decades to reach their dream jobs, and they’re also aware that the economic climate no longer guarantees any kind of predictable outcome. So what happens then, when you hit your peak in your 20s and 30s, and you find yourself asking, “well, now what?”
Perhaps it make more sense to look at the progression of your career as a constantly evolving chain of events, peppered with different milestones, accomplishments, lessons and high (and low) points along the way, rather than compartmentalizing it into different planned stages that each have a very different significance. Everything you’re doing each day is a stepping stone toward where you are going next, whether you connect those dots or not. Inevitably, there will be lessons learned, skills gained, ideas birthed, and realizations made that open up doors to unforeseen opportunities.
Now this isn’t to say you should completely ignore your 10-year career plan and leave it up to fate. But the same way that businesses have to expect and prepare for change if they’re going to survive and grow, you have to position yourself to be able to shift and adapt along the way as a career professional. Instead of focusing on a singular dream job with lofty expectations, aim for a fulfilling role that works your talents, and creates great opportunities around it in the other areas of your life. Not everyone is willing to trade the ability to leave work and work, in return for having a big agency name on their resume.
Often a dream job has nothing to do with the company you work for or the title you hold, and is really about the satisfaction you draw personally from different aspects of your work. Identifying what those aspects are will help you open up a ton more doors and opportunities, and allow you to draw the same rewards from your work, without setting yourself up against stressful and often unhealthy expectations. It will provide you more opportunities to succeed, more options, and honestly, more joy overall in what you do.
Photo by Nicole Pierce on Flickr