Why It’s Okay If You Don’t Have Your “Dream Job”

Research suggests you don’t have to love a job immediately to find happiness and fulfillment at work.

Why It’s Okay If You Don’t Have Your “Dream Job”
[Photo: Flickr user University of the Fraser Valley]

Would you say you agree with the following statement?


There is a perfect job fit for every individual, and finding the right line of work will determine one’s happiness and success at work.

According to a recent study from the University of Michigan, nearly 80% of Americans believe this statement to be true. They subscribe to what researchers call the “fit theory,” which says there is one perfect job out there for you, one that aligns with your passion, and you just have to find it and eternal career happiness will follow.

It’s no surprise so many people in our society believe this theory. Consider the common rhetoric: “Follow your dreams!” “Find your passion!” “Do what you love!” Leaders and career coaches promote this mantra all the time. Steve Jobs famously said, “The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.”

While this idea of finding the perfect fit, the dream job, is nice in theory, it’s not particularly common. Indeed, how many of us have had to take a job that wasn’t perfect just to make ends meet, or to get a foot in the door, or because we weren’t sure exactly what our passion was at the time?

“The mantra of following your passion that’s so prevalent in modern popular media can create so much pressure,” says social psychologist Patricia Chen, lead author of the new study. “Not everyone in life has the luxury or courage to follow their interests purely, and we shouldn’t judge them for not doing so.”


Fit Theory Vs. Develop Theory

Encouragingly, Chen’s research suggests you don’t have to love a job immediately to find happiness and fulfillment at work. She and her team identified a less popular alternative to the fit theory: the “develop theory.” People who subscribe to this mentality believe passion for a job can be developed over time through experience. They don’t need love at first sight. The studies suggest these people end up just as happy and satisfied at work as those who looked for the perfect fit at the outset. In fact, develop theorists may actually be happier in the long run, because they tend to take income into consideration when accepting a job, whereas fit theorists are more likely to sacrifice pay for passion.

This kind of takes some of the pressure off, doesn’t it? As in the dating world, a perfect match during the job hunt is rare. So instead of hoping your dream job falls into your lap, the research gives you permission to date around, test the waters, find out what you like and feel passionate about, and see if you can learn to love a job.

“Being on your path towards finding your ideal career doesn’t mean you’re gonna love it at entry level or at every point along the way,” says career coach Maggie Mistal. “I think it’s gotten screwed up so that people think, ‘If I have permission to follow my passion, I have to love my first job.’ Who said that?”

So, when should you take a job you’re not initially all that jazzed about? How do you know if it has the potential to become something more? Researchers at Baruch College, part of the City University of New York, recently identified some of the most important factors that determine how successful we feel at work, going beyond title, pay, or even “passion.” Based on their findings, here are a few questions worth asking yourself:

Does the job have meaning? One recurring measurement of career success from the study is whether a person feels their job has any kind of impact, “that they are contributing to something larger than themselves.” Kristen Shockley, associate professor and deputy chair of psychology at Baruch College, says this was true across industries. “It needs to feel like it’s more than just clocking in, clocking out, and getting the paycheck,” Shockley says.

Is it authentic? “This is the idea that people want to feel their career is true to how they want it to be,” Shockley explains. “A kind of a self-management idea.” People who feel authenticity at work agree with statements like, “I have felt as though I am in charge of my own career,” and, “I have chosen my own career path.” Maybe this means you get to pick your own hours, or can elect to focus on a particular project whenever you want. A sense of autonomy is key.


Does it provide a work/life balance? “We had a CEO, someone at the top, who said, ‘By all measures I’m successful, but the fact that I had to give up so much makes me not feel as successful,’” Shockley says.

Is there opportunity to grow? Will you learn new skills and improve old ones? Can this job prepare you for the next by paving the way with a solid foundation of knowledge and connections? Will it help you learn more about your own professional goals and desires? “It’s ok if you don’t like your job,” Mistal says. “It doesn’t mean you’re a failure in finding what you love. What it means is you’re figuring out a lot of things that you want that this job doesn’t have.”

Research also suggests that people who frequently change jobs in their early career have higher incomes and a greater sense of work fulfillment later in life. The key, it seems, is to see your career path as a learning process.

Of course, there are limitations to the develop theory. Mistal says if a job goes directly against your core beliefs or ideals, don’t take it. And sometimes, no matter what you do or how your boss tries to accommodate your needs, the job just isn’t a good fit, and it’s time to end it. But even in those cases, you’ll come out with a better understanding of yourself. “Even if you learn what you don’t like, you can always flip that into what you do like,” Mistal says. “There’s no unrecoverable path you can go down.”


About the author

Jessica Hullinger is a London-based journalist who covers science, health, and innovation. She currently serves as a Senior Editor at