There’s a notion being sold and perpetuated, as our jobs have become increasingly entangled with our personal identities: The idea is that work isn’t so much a means to an end (of paying bills, putting food on the table, and financing our lives), but rather a way to live out our passions and realise our dreams for 40-plus hours a week. It’s a phenomenon that psychologists refer to as “enmeshment,” and it involves increasingly blurry lines between the self, work, and personal identity.
This concept is emboldened by the idea of a “dream job,” which you can see plastered onto questionably predatory job listings, listicles, and the musings of motivational speakers. The idea is undeniably a trap — how can work, regardless of what you do, assume qualities that don’t feel like work? — but the concept remains a fixation for workers who strive to claim a certain sense of fulfillment from their careers.
Does a dream job exist?
If you’re a consultant who pledges to help unhappy workers find their ideal calling, then sure, dream jobs are real. These career coaches and workplace guides perpetuate the idea because it’s profitable, or at least lucrative enough to keep the dream, so to speak, alive.
In an aspirational society that celebrates rockstar CEOs, it’s no surprise that many Americans are gunning for their dream jobs in what’s ultimately a futile quest to attain something that doesn’t necessarily exist. Of course, having such lofty expectations can set workers up for a dramatic crash when reality sets in.
For Sophie Brown, a young journalist interviewed by the BBC in 2018, an idealised version of work didn’t match up with the long hours and demands of her fist big break in the industry.
She told the publication:
I hated the job and I hated the people there…Late nights, early mornings and weekends… me and my partner were like passing ships in the night, I hadn’t spent any time with my family in years and I realised that this dream job, that I’d worked really hard for, actually wasn’t what I wanted at all.
It’s true that you can (and probably should) try to glean a sense of fulfillment and contentedness from your work. But when you place too much emphasis on becoming your job or deriving personal satisfaction from it, you risk an existential crisis.
How to be happier at work
For Ross McCammon, author of the corporate etiquette guide Works Well With Others, the key to ultimately finding your emotional footing in the workplace involves focusing less on the job and more on your personal and professional development. “We should all aspire to a certain field or even a certain job title, but to a certain job? That seems misguided,” he says.
He urges people to have a more realistic understanding of what a workplace is, telling Lifehacker: “A job is the work you do and the people you work with and the culture of the place you work. Some of that you can seek out, some of it you can control, but a lot of it just happens organically.”
A dream can be a motivational tool that helps you embark on a path that you might enjoy, but when actualizing a dream or achieving perfection becomes the driving force behind a career, “you’ll never get there,” McCammon says.
Instead, focus on the professional and personal improvement you’ll invariably experience over the course of a career — and savour those victories.
“There are way too many variables,” in any one career for it to mirror one’s subjective notions of a dream. But, as McCammon says, “that’s what makes a career so interesting and fun and fulfilling — that you can look back and see how you adapted your vision to take advantage of all the opportunities that you could never expect.”
Moreover, it’s most important to understand that all jobs suffer from monotony and their own particular headaches. This can be especially disheartening if you do what you love for a living and find that your burning passion is now little more than a vocation riddled with emails, Zoom meetings, and daily deadlines.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t let your passion dictate your work, but learning how to separate the your full-time job from your human need for fulfillment will serve you well throughout the course of a career. You’re a person, not your job.