Before I started my career, I worked in jobs unrelated to my training. One day, I found myself telling a friend–a partner in a law firm–about what I thought I wanted to do in the future. At the time, I was working as an assistant and feared getting stuck there forever.
My attorney friend said: Be careful what you wish for. Several lawyers on the partner track at his law firm, he said, wanted to be their executive assistants. The stress was too much. They longed for less complexity.
I knew at the time that that his words weren’t wise, nor did they apply to my particular situation. Looking back, I see that I was envisioning a dream job, while my friend was talking about a fantasy job. They are two completely different concepts, though thinking about one can help you do better in the other.
Dream jobs versus fantasy jobs
I’m a coach to executives who need to make complex decisions every day and whose time is always in demand. A lot of them are managing the effects of chronic stress.
But I know that deep down inside, they don’t want to give up the substance of their jobs or the responsibility that comes along with it. They just want more time to rest and recover, and have greater flexibility and control in their personal lives. If they fantasize about being an executive assistant, they don’t exactly want to trade places with one–they are imagining a level of freedom that their current job isn’t giving them, whether or not it is actually better “over there.”
A dream job is something that excites you. You’re probably aware of the challenges, but you’re eager to tackle them anyway. A fantasy job is something that lets you escape reality (like the monotonous and unpleasant aspects of your dream job). Knowing how they relate to each other can help you to improve the quality of your working life.
What’s in a fantasy?
Maura is a division president at a global media firm–the sort of role she dreamed of while obtaining an MBA, starting a family, and purchasing a home in an expensive city. The fantasy job to which her mind drifts when times are tough? Waitressing, which she did during summers in college. Candace directs a multi-tiered R&D team at a prestigious philanthropic organization and fantasizes about teaching Pilates.
The psychoanalysts Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok define fantasy as anything that doesn’t effect a topographical shift on reality. In other words, fantasy provides an element that we might be missing from our dream jobs, but it doesn’t change the status quo or actually make our lives that much better, or worse.
I’ve learned that “fantasy jobs” provide great clues as to what we currently lack in our work. When we identify that specific element, we can figure out how to introduce it into our current position without perpetually losing focus daydreaming about it.
Let’s go back to our examples–when Maura is fantasizing about being a waitress, she isn’t wishing that she can trade her high-powered role for waiting tables. What she is really craving is a sense of humanity and service–which can be hard to come by in an earnings-focused–and at times highly transactional–environment. Candace is desperate to stretch in her role as a leader of R&D, but she feels constrained by the bureaucracy at her organization. To her, Pilates represents that freedom of movement she is yearning to make.
How fantasy jobs can improve our quality of life
With this knowledge in mind, we can learn to put fantasies to work in the service of our learning and growth. Our relationships with ourselves and our relationships at and to work will be stronger for it.
Maura can continue to evolve her leadership style so that she invests in, rather than extracts from, her team. She can also prompt her direct reports to share more of themselves–by opening up about where she herself is coming from, and her vision of the future. Candace can exercise her creativity and work on a proposal that would benefit the R&D department, or take on a new cross-functional project that necessitates the movement she craves.
Fantasy can add richness to your life when you learn to make the most of it. Identifying the elements that attract you to the fantasy role will help you to identify what you’re missing (and craving) in your current job. You are then in a better position to incorporate that into your day-to-day responsibilities. One day, you may discover that your old fantasy job has run its course. Don’t be afraid to let your mind drift a little–you just might find a clue as to what’s next.