MIT postdoc and blogger Cal Newport provides an argument against “dream jobs” – by placing the dream job on a pedestal, your normal job only appears more “normal”.
Image byCal Newport
The Ivy League Farmer
Earlier this summer, Julie and I attended a dinner at Red Fire Farm, a 110 acre organic farm in rural Granby, Massachusetts. The dinner celebrated the strawberry harvest and the farmhands had set up tables under a tent overlooking the fruit fields. As we poured our wine, the farm’s owner, Ryan Voiland, stood up to say a few words about this year’s harvest.
Ryan is young, only in his early thirties, a fact he tries to hide with a grizzled black beard. As he spoke, his few words stretched into an enthusiastic dissertation on rain fall and cabbage yields. Eventually, Ryan’s wife, Sarah, took over, leading the group in a prayer to the “earth goddess”. As we sipped strawberry gazpacho, a group of college-aged farm interns formed a song circle in a patch of grass near the chicken coop.
In the comfort of cynical Boston, the event would have felt over the top, but in the shaded fields of Granby, it made sense. When I looked over to the main table, I saw Ryan take in the scene. He was smiling.
What makes Ryan’s story canonical is its start. Ten years earlier, he walked out of Cornell University with an Ivy League diploma in his hand and headed straight into the offices of the Farm Service Agency, where he secured a loan to buy his first farm property. A decade later, Red Fire is a success: it sells organic produce straight to the consumers through farmers markets and a sold-out CSA. When I last visited the farm, in mid-August, they were installing a $US200,000 solar array. Ryan loves what he does and does it well.
The Dream Job Trope
Ryan has a dream job – which I define to be an occupation built around a hobby or casual side interest that you enjoy. (Growing up, Ryan loved to garden, so, naturally, he started a farm.)
The dream job is a powerful trope in the job satisfaction literature. For example, here’s the opening paragraph from a popular career advice guide:
“[A]New York investment banker becomes a small-town college chef. A college professor becomes a chocolatier. An entrenched corporate exec…converts to the ministry.”
These are all dream jobs. When Tim Ferriss tells his famous story of an attorney who drops everything to open a Brazilian surf shop, that’s also a dream job, as are most of the examples touted in the perennially popular quit your terrible cubicle job to start a business advice guide niche.
You like to cook? Become a chef! Love chocolate? Open a chocolate shop! Like surfing on exotic beaches? Open a surf shop! And so on.
We’re entranced by dream jobs. When we hear stories like the one that opened this post, we feel a rush of aspiration. Hundreds make a living writing books and blogs about mustering the courage to pursue dream jobs, and millions dedicate their day dreaming to the topic. In this post, however, I want to argue that this is a problem.
The dream job trope isn’t the path to job satisfaction, and it’s not just harmless wistful thinking: it’s instead downright dangerous.
I Don’t Know What I Want, But It Might Be This
In a fascinating study, published in the Journal of Research in Personality in 1997, a research team lead by Amy Wrzesniewski of the University of Michigan studied the differences between a job, a career, and a calling. Early in the paper they describe a surprising finding:
The way individuals view work may be a function of [personality]traits, not just reflections of the work itself.
In other words, the reason why some people see their work as a calling might have little to do with the work itself, and a lot to do with how the person approaches the work. Wrzensniewski’s team, for example, found that the proportions of people calling their work a calling versus a career versus a job, was about the same whether you looked at hundreds of people spread across dozens of occupations, or focused on a small group that all have the same position at the same company.
Around a year ago, inspired by this work, I launched my own (informal) study. My goal was to interview people who self-described as “loving what they do”. As my collection of interviews grew, I was struck by the normalcy of the respondent’s jobs, which included:
- A certified behaviour analyst.
- An executive assistant.
- A milkman.
- A personal trainer.
- An employee for a health care consultancy.
- An employee for a company that designs online ethics courses.
- A language instructor.
- A computer programmer.
None of these are dream jobs. Instead, their mundane nature reinforces Wrzesniewski’s findings: when it comes to loving what you do, the type of job you have might matter much less than what you do with it.
This is where the dream job trope becomes dangerous. The more you’re bombarded with messages promoting the dream job path to happiness, the more likely you are to ossify your view of the working world into normal boring jobs vs exciting dream jobs. Once you’ve made this division, you’re much less likely to start investing the hard, unsexy, longterm work into your current career needed to grow it into something deeply fulfilling. You’ll instead save this mental energy for your vague day dreams of starting a small town wine store or teaching surfing in Cabo.
(See Ramit Sethi’s exhaustively researched Earn 1k program for more details on the reality of making money by selling services; here a preview: almost everyone who succeeds leverages a valuable skill they built up in a traditional job.)
Assuming you accept this premise, the question remains of how best to nurture this growth of your existing career into something inspiring. I don’t know all the answers yet, but if you’ve been reading Study Hacks this past year you know that my instincts lead me toward the importance of becoming very good at something rare and valuable and then cashing in the career capital this generates for things you value.
When you dive deeper into Ryan’s story, for example, you discover that he grew up around farms and went to Cornell to study fruit and vegetable horticulture in their world class ag school. His story is less about mustering the courage to follow his dreams, and more about the determination required to systematically gather the difficult skills needed to succeed in a demanding (but rewarding) field.
If these less sexy, but ultimately more fulfilling ideas about work satisfaction interest you, stay tuned: once we discard the saccharine tropes of the “follow your passion” camp, we face a lot more exploration to figure out what’s really going on.