Job satisfaction, meaningful work, dream jobs–these buzzworthy terms are popular in today’s zeitgeist for a reason. People are overwhelmingly placing more value in work they love.
While surveys of today’s workforce certainly speak to this trend, we can also find proof that doing what we love is worth the payoff through the stories of people who go to extremes to make their dream jobs work for them.
So if you’re looking for a little inspiration, check out these four people who went to unthinkable lengths to make their dreams come true.
Swimming through shadowy recesses, Jill Heinerth’s workplace is the rarely explored underwater caves all over the world.
“The foreboding doorways of underwater caves repel most people, but I am attracted to the constricted corridors, pressing my way through the blackness while relying on sophisticated technology for each sustaining breath,” she says.
For more than 20 years Heinerth’s work has allowed her to help discover new species, track climate change, examine our finite freshwater reserves, and witness skeletal remains of ancient civilizations and geologic formations that tell the story of Earth’s past. But while Heinerth says she pinches herself every day because she gets to do precisely what she loves and what she’s good at, her line of work comes at a cost.
Heinerth says her survival depends on internalizing both curiosity and fear. Dozens of her closest friends have died exploring caves, she says.
“Each time I get a call informing me of the death of a friend, I second-guess my decision to take on what is arguably the most dangerous participatory sport on Earth. But something calls me back to the place where I feel more comfortable and capable than anything else I do,” Heinerth explains.
She says she sticks with it because there are few occupations where you can actually apply a creative mind and explore things never before witnessed by humankind.
Heinerth aslo credits her impact on others. She gets to see firsthand how our activities on the Earth affect the water we drink, and she uses this knowledge to spread the message about how important it is to protect our water resources. “Using my unique voice from inside the planet feels like the most important thing I can do with my life.”
Her advice for following your dangerous dream job
I had to give up everything to follow my dreams. It was really hard and is still difficult to get by at times, but when you do what you absolutely love, you will find a way to make it work. It is far more important to live fully than to fear dying. If you delay your happiness for some idea of a cushy retirement, it may never happen. You have to be willing to fail, learn from your mistakes, and chase what seems impossible.
Alan Muskat makes a living by eating wild mushrooms and convincing others to do the same. “By most people’s standards, my chosen profession is not exactly safe,” admits the CEO–(that’s “Chief Edutainment Officer”) of the adventure tour company No Taste Like Home.
For 20 years Muskat has owned and operated the No Taste Like Home, specializing in wild food foraging. He and his team take groups out into the woods of Asheville, NC to hunt and gather wild mushrooms, plants, and other “extreme cuisine.” They cook up a sampling for a wild food tasting on site and bring the rest of their catch of the day to a local fine restaurant for what he calls “find dining.”
“Apparently, I have filled a niche: Everyone else is afraid to do it,” he says. Thankfully, Muskat says, he hasn’t lost a customer yet.
“I like to joke that whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you famous. But I do believe that success comes ‘naturally’ to those who are brave enough to be true to themselves because they are dedicated to serving the whole by filling a gap that they see,” Muskat says.
The gap he saw is our disconnect from nature. He cites people’s food insecurities, environmental instability, and epidemic rates of degenerative disease as proof that we need to embrace the “weirdness” of wild foods.
“It’s not easy to be, literally and figuratively, an ‘outsider,’ he says. “But it’s not easy to follow the crowd either.”
His advice on following your unconventional dreams:
Peter Drucker is known for saying, “wherever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision.” This is the same courage that it takes to eat wild food. In this culture, eating wild mushrooms is arguably one of the scariest and most radical things a person can do. This degree of self-confidence has been literally bred out of us, just as the nutrition has been bred out of our food. We are what we eat, for to be civilized is to be domesticated.
81 days straight–that’s precisely how long senior software engineer Perrin Westrich spent eating, sleeping, and coding in the office of social media platform LockerDome.
In 2013, the company set out to redesign and rebuild its website. Because Westrich knew the project would be a monumental task, one day in September last year he brought a basket of laundry into work and announced that he wasn’t going to leave until finished launching the new LockerDome site. He and the rest of the team worked more than 120 hours a week and slept in 45- to 60-minute increments in the company’s “LockerDorm” bunk beds.
Westrich says that normal day-to-day worries were either taken care of or ignored, and coworkers stepped in to take care of each other. Food would appear throughout the day. Clothes would get washed. And when any employee took a nap, the rest of the office went into lights-off silent mode in order to let that person sleep as best they could. “There was only code and sleep,” he says.
Thanksgiving came and went without so much as a turkey leg or dollop of stuffing. “I measured the passage of time mostly by the completion of pieces of the project,” Westrich explains.
But finally, come December, LockerDome launched its new site, and Westrich believes it was worth the sacrifice–for one thing, the site has more than doubled its traffic. But the sacrifice brought much more, in Westrich’s opinion.
“Working on this team is like being a part of an orchestra playing a symphony,” he says. “There are ups and downs. Each person impacts the harmony. It is really quite something being a part of something so intricate watching everything unfold into something beautiful. I, along with everyone else on the team, just give it all that we have.”
His advice on sticking with your dream
If you go to the extremes for your job, you’ll obviously have to give up other parts of your life–at least temporarily. Before you consider doing that, ask yourself if you really believe in this company and its vision. Then ask yourself if you can actually drive this vision forward. If the answer to either one of those questions is “no,” move along. You will burn out if you don’t believe what you’re doing is important and that it’s positively impacting the entire company.
In 2011 Dr. Gaëtan Bonhomme was the first Kurion team member on-site at Fukushima after the nuclear disaster.
In order to start a water treatment system before Japan’s rainy season led to potential overflow of deadly radioactive water, he worked around the clock to assist Tokyo Electric Power Company in the startup of the Kurion cesium removal system, a dangerous process for workers.
At a time when you had to drive to the plant wearing full radioactive suits with face masks, Bonhomme spent several days sleeping on-site in his protective suit to support the team’s effort.
Bonhomme has been working with the clean tech startup tackling nuclear waste since 2008, and despite the risks, has never considered giving up the job. “I’m passionate about my work for Kurion, and I can’t imagine doing anything else,” he says.
“I continue my work because that’s pretty much why I joined Kurion–to help clean up the environment and prevent workers from getting irradiated,” he adds.
His advice on commitment to your dream job:
I work with the best of the best. The power of teamwork has no match.