Two weeks ago I was featured in the Wall Street Journal. (I can assure you, no one is as surprised as I am by this fact.)
The piece was titled, “When Your Dream Job Disappoints, How To Find Plan B.”The section mentioning me detailed my excitement about — and subsequent disillusionment with — landing my first job in the advertising industry, something I had spent years in college dreaming of.
I watched as the article made the rounds that Wednesday afternoon: on the WSJ home page, on the cover of the Personal Journal print section, re-shared on LinkedIn’s trending feed and through several outlets on Twitter. Subsequently the congratulatory messages started to pour in, something I half-expected being that it was the Wall Street Journal, after all. What I did not expect was the commentary surrounding the article and the debate that seemed to stem from this idea of the proverbial “dream job.”
The day the article was published, a friend invited me to a closed Facebook group of young professionals where a member had shared the story with one simple question – a question that seemed to sum up most of the comments I’d seen about the article:
“Is the dream job a myth?”
That simple question got me thinking. What is this idea of the dream job, and why does it seems so often to lead to disappointment?
Sometimes we think of dreams as the literal images that dance in our heads as we fall asleep. Other times we use the word dream to simply represent a future goal, an ideal that we aspire to, the place on the horizon that we focus on to motivate us through the present moment.
But I have two bones to pick with dreams, and they have to do with a couple key words I included above: future and ideal.
A dream job is the ideal career that we envision for our future selves. This is where the root of unrealistic expectations begins, and unrealistic expectations will lead to disappointment every time.
We drift off to sleep and we dream of a career that will bring us money or recognition or power or fulfillment. All the good stuff. The broad strokes. The ideal. What we don’t do is dream about the day-to-day. The not-so-pretty fine strokes of sacrifice and hard work. The struggles. The stress.
That’s the point of dreams after all: to escape reality. And so, as one might expect, in a state of escaping reality, unrealistic expectations tend to run amok.
In that dream state, we focus on what we think we know about a field, what we want to believe, and not what we have ever experienced. That means we cannot possibly see a job or career path for its wholeness — the rewards AND the sacrifice, the luster AND the daily grind. The result is a recipe for disappointment, and it continues to plague the world of work. How many people do you know who had their hearts set on their “dream career” only to discover it was nothing like what they expected? I’m betting it’s more than a few.
And so, in that sense, yes, I would have to conclude that your dream job is a myth to the extent that it can’t possibly exist in reality the way it exists in your dreams.
But FEAR NOT big dreamers!
This does NOT mean fulfilling work is a myth too.
When the WSJ article posted, another friend sent me a Jezebel article providing cynical commentary on the WSJ piece arguing the position that Milennials place too much emphasis on needing to find fulfillment in their work.
“It’s not your job’s job to make you happy,” the article read.
And while I disagree with the overall tone of the Jezebel post, I do whole-heartedly agree with that quote. Jobs do not exist to make us happy – only WE can create that for ourselves.
If I’ve learned one thing over the past few years it’s that fulfillment and satisfaction in every area of our lives – including work – starts with self-knowledge. And so we have to start doing the work to understand ourselves before we can find a job path that is aligned with our true sense of self.
I think back to all those nights I dreamt about my glamorous life as an advertising exec, winning awards for my creativity and helping shape public sentiment for the biggest brands on the planet. What if, instead of the TV spots and the photo shoots and the Manhattan office, I had spent those nights dreaming of how I wanted to feel. Of what kind of person I wanted to become. Of what values would be most important to me. I think I could have saved myself a lot of time and trouble figuring out the hard way that high-pressure, low-flexibility environments tear me apart from the inside out.
From the time we’re little, the emphasis is placed so strongly on what we will be when we grow up, not who we will be.
Instead of “I want to be a firefighter.”
“I want to be a teacher.”
“I want to be an astronaut.”
How about “I want to be adventurous.”
“I want to be selfless.”
“I want to be inspirational.”
I love dreams. I believe that when we reach for the stars, it leads us to greatness. And so I will never stop dreaming. But I can tell you that after years of wishing that the perfect job opportunity would come along, I’ve stopped placing the onus on the job and started placing it on myself.
I’ve traded in my dream job for my dream life. And as far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as “unrealistic expectations” when it comes to the greatness I can create for my own life, and, better yet, the greatness you can create for yours.
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