I used to believe in dream jobs. Then I watched friend after friend announce, "Landed my dream job!!!" Six months later every one of those dream jobs had ended. Now, when I hear someone make this announcement, I mark my calendar and put a bottle of tequila on standby.
This isn't baseless cynicism, either. I made my own "dream job" announcement once. Five months later, I was laid off. Even after a string of bad bosses and several layoffs after that, I still clung to my belief that a dream job was somewhere out there, waiting for me. Why was it so hard to let it go?
Early in our careers, we’re idealistic, imagining what our lives will look like when we finally have that perfect job. We believe things will be easier once we find this holiest of career grails. The dream job myth is pervasive, even if it's one you think you've personally abandoned. A Google search of "how to find your dream job" pulls in upwards of 15 million results. Top articles implore us to drop everything to follow our passion. Headlines like, "3 Creative Ways To Find Your Dream Job" are everywhere.
Even prospective employers reinforce the concept with the common interview question, "What’s your dream job?" It makes us think that others are living professional dream lives—and that we should, too.
We begin our first jobs optimistic that even if it isn’t quite our dream job, we know it will lead us toward it. We hit our first road bump when that second job isn’t what we expect. Cynicism hits. We blame something about our current job—our boss, our work, the commute. We try to solve our unhappiness by ditching our current circumstances for greener career pastures.
Big companies are often seen as the culprit, so many of us jump ship for the sexier-seeming startup life. But startups are notoriously long on challenges and short on resources, which often means they’re stress factories. After landing her dream job at a startup, Sarah Jane Coffey thought she was lucky. Just six months in, she was in the bathroom crying several times a week. Exhausted, burned out, and disillusioned, she quit on her one-year anniversary.
My friend Tom traded his work at a large Silicon Valley darling for a startup, hoping to find his dream job there. Instead he found heartbreak in a chaotic environment, struggling to plot out his career path on his own. When Lauren Taylor Shute got her dream job in book publishing, she was happy at first. But it wasn't long before she realized, "I was working finance hours without the compensation. And I was building someone else’s dream job, not my own."
Even when this next job doesn’t work out, we hold onto our hope. We decide to tweak something else. During the next round of interviewing, we scrutinize things even harder—convinced we've grown a lot wiser. When we accept a job, we think this time we’ve got it, but eventually we find similar challenges and frustrations.
Few of us realize from the very start that a dream job is like a mirage in the career desert. Once we get to the spot we'd pinpointed, we discover it isn’t what we thought—it's actually a little further up ahead, in the distance—so we keep searching. We commit even harder to finding it. Even though we’re tired and thirsty for something real, we set out again, our sights on the next target. This cycle repeats itself over and over.
Despite the fact that each job is less and less like our ideal, we continue to cling to the belief in it. We’ve been so indoctrinated to the dream job fallacy that we instead focus on building a case for it, even in the face of mounting contrary evidence—a form of confirmation bias.
It isn't easy learning to see things more objectively, to look inwardly—and even critically—to develop more realistic career aspirations and discover what we really want. But when we finally do give up on the myth of the dream job, the cycle of optimism and cynicism ceases.
Instead, you can start building a real career for yourself. It may be long and slow, but eventually you build something that's fulfilling, even if it isn't perfect.
Coffey discovered that "the inherent problem with a dream job is the idea that something outside of myself is going to make me happy." She’s now happily working for a company that helps entrepreneurs deal with the ups and downs of startup life. Shute went to work for herself, nearly doubling her salary while drastically cutting her hours, and now she truly feels in charge of her career. My friend Tom is still at his startup, pondering his next move—holding fast to the belief that his dream job is out there.
As for me? I don't believe in dream jobs anymore, at least not those that are created by someone else. Self-employment isn't the answer for everyone who's struggling to match their career path to a personal ideal, but it has satisfied me. I’ve worked for myself for the past 10 years. Running your own business isn’t a dream job, to be sure, but it is work that I personally shape and have ultimate control over.
After all, the dream-job myth is all about control—having a measure of self-determination over our career paths that so often feels elusive. Personally, anyhow, supporting myself through something I built is close enough to a dream for me.
Suzan Bond teaches professionals how to gain independence by working for themselves. She is the author of The Anti-Goals Guide and is writing a series of books called Bet on Yourself. Follow her on Twitter at @suzanbond.