Work + Life
You need to stop thinking in terms of a "dream job"
because work isn't all unicorns and rainbow sprinkles
by Brittany Taylor
published February 1, 2017
updated June 5, 2018
¶ My name is Brittany Taylor and I don’t have a dream job. I never have. If there’s an interview question that stumps me, it’s that one.
Oof. That felt awfully confessional.
Perhaps it’s the truth or perhaps it’s just me, explaining away my insecurities, but I’ve always thought there was a bizarre fixation and accompanying anxiety surrounding the idea of dream jobs. A dream job is a notion every person is supposed to have. It’s the default. You’re supposed to be able to answer that question.
I, for one, used to feel self-conscious about it. Was not being able to summon up a dream job a sign that I wasn’t passionate enough about something? Was I not being creative enough? Was I dumb? Was I clueless? Was I interested in the wrong thing?
That feeling made me hesitate. It made me question myself and my choices and my goals until I was feeling unsure about everything, not just that one question.
Maybe I’m the only weirdo without a dream job planted firmly in her brain. What this potential weirdo knows, though, is that for me, the dream job construct isn’t a helpful one. Weird though I may be, I don’t think I’m alone on this.
Maybe we’re all preparing for job interviews in our own puddles of cold sweat, nervous about answering the one question we simply don’t have an honest answer to.
Maybe we’re all questioning our own life plans because this one stupid-easy question is really freaking hard to answer.
Or maybe we’re spending too much time trying to answer a question that points us in the wrong direction.
I hereby assign “What is your dream job?” to the list of stupid questions people should stop asking. It’s like asking a 10-year-old what she asked Santa for this year. Come on, guys. Let’s all agree to stop playing this game.
Or, alternatively, to go for it. Play hard, like that one kid in gym class who takes kickball wayyy too seriously. Want to know what my dream job is? I want to be a part-time Hogwarts professor. The rest of the time, I’ll be hanging out at home writing Harry Potter fanfiction and creating new spells. It’s all planned out in my mind, guys. I could recite my cover letter to you right here, right now. If that job ad crops up, I. Am. Ready.
(Side note: If you have a Harry Potter-verse dream job, I want to know about it. Please, for the love of Lily’s green eyes, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me everything.)
There are three excellent reasons for you to abandon the idea of a dream job
Reason #1: It assumes that you're great at and interested in only one thing. Forever.
Multi-passionate is a terrible word, but it’s also a reality for a lot of us. I am a curious dabbler who accumulates skills and knowledge like a magpie hoards shiny objects (side note: not actually a thing, per Science).
While some of us have arrow-straight focus on a single path, others don’t want to narrow down their possibilities early on or close the door on future opportunities. There’s a reason the side hustle is a thing, and this is a hefty chunk of it.
Reason #2: It relies on old ideas about work
In the 1950s, if you were white and abided by social norms, you could join the workforce and stay at one company on one track for your entire career, and then retire with a pension to see you through your golden years.
For most of workers and most companies, that’s not a thing that exists anymore. Sure, there are some industries where you’re expected to settle down and stay awhile, but as a whole, we tend to change jobs much more frequently than we did all those decades ago. The way we think about and approach work today is different.
Back then, if you had a dream job and you achieved it, it was normal for you to kick your feet up and stay. Now, we’re antsy. We’re curious. We want to try new things, work with new people on different projects—and we’re encouraged to leave a job we thought was pretty dreamy for another one, just for the sake of switching things up.
Reason #3: It sets you up to fail
I have been through the five stages of grief, and I can tell you what I know to be true: Chances are very, very good that your dream job is not a real job at all, or not a real job that you’ll actually get, or not a real job that you’ll get and adore the way you think you will.
But this idea of the dream job—both the one that may or may not exist in your mind right now and the one that society is trying to insist you need to strive toward—is really setting you up for failure.
It’s like buying lottery tickets. Sure, a few people win, but the millions who empty their wallets are left sighing about that around-the-world vacation they’re never going to go on because they spent all their bucks on scratch-offs.
That dream job might come your way. You might get it, and you might love it. But the probability that each of those three things will happen is close to zero.
If you have a dream job in mind, go ahead and give it a Viking funeral. Grieve. Ugly cry into a Hagrid-sized hanky. And then move on to this.
What you should think about instead of your dream job
Think about the work you love to do. Think about the kinds of tasks that you look forward to, what you most love to think about on the job, what problems you’re like to solve, and what projects you’re most proud of.
Then, think about why. Why did you choose those tasks, those thoughts, those problems, those projects? What about them appeals to you the most?
Look for threads that connect them. Once you start seeing the commonalities among the work you most enjoy, then you can begin creating a broad vision of the types of work that you might be interested in undertaking later in your career.
Instead of answering the question, “What is your dream job?” this vision of work you love will answer the question, “What kind of work would you like to do in the future?”
Coincidentally, the answers you come up with for the second question are perfectly reasonable responses to the first, too.
My name is Brittany, but my friends and clients call me "Britt." Online small business owners hire me to create content strategies and write their blog posts, email newsletters, and social media updates. I work with bosses around the world from the marshes of Charleston, S.C.
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