“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
My hand shot up but the boy two rows down shouted first.
“A robber! I’ll be RICH!”
My seatmate and I snorted as my pretty teacher blanched.
“You can’t be a robber, Mark!” she exclaimed. “Robbers are bad! And they go to jail.”
“Oh.” Mark shrugged his shoulders. “So I’ll be a policeman.”
I abruptly stopped giggling as Teacher turned to me.
“How about you, Daisy?” I scrunched my face in thought.
“I want to be a secretary, Teacher,” I lisped. “Like my mom.”
To my five-year-old mind, my Mom’s desk buried in papers looked like a secretary’s job anyway.
Why do I remember this random episode?
Aside from the discovery of that lisp sending me to remedial speech classes, it stuck in my mind as the first time I wondered about my dream job.
(Keep reading for the free worksheet I made you, by the way!)
Fast-forward almost 20 years to when I was a junior freaking out over Life After Graduation (yep, with capital letters). I didn’t know if I wanted to do what chemical engineers did for the rest of my life. I’d interned at a factory but I didn’t enjoy it. The jobs I saw around me didn’t seem like things I really wanted to do either.
And what about how I love to write and travel?
Maybe this dream job thing’s a myth, and I’m romanticizing how real life’s supposed to be.
You should be happy you can afford to choose jobs, I scolded myself. So many would kill to even have one! But though I was grateful for that truth, the fact was I could make this decision about my future so I wanted to do it right. I just didn’t know what the right choice was for me.
Skip forward to today, I’m working in Sales and Marketing for an international food manufacturer that my family started. I say “started” because it’s professionally run and way above the Mom and Pop shop it was before I was born. My job allows me to travel, meet interesting people, and take part in projects I believe in.
It’s my dream job.
So how did I get from the confusion to work that fits me to a tee? How can you do the same?
It starts with rethinking our dream jobs, friends.
Your dream job’s not your real dream job.
How jobs are like and how we think they’re like don’t match.
I mean, look at my kindergarten class. I thought being a secretary meant being at a desk with paperwork. My old classmate thought robbers and policemen were pretty much the same.
But secretaries DO sit at desks with paperwork, Daisy. And of course, you didn’t know what jobs were like. You were 5!
True, that! But the thought behind my story stands: We only have a vague idea about work we want to do. So when we land our dream job, we’re sometimes unhappy and guilty we’re unhappy with work others want to have.
“It isn’t how I thought it would be,” a friend confided when her job wasn’t working out.
There are two reasons why this isn’t really our fault.
For one, TV gives us weird ideas about work. Like how Law & Order showed me trials were gripping and dramatic. My lawyer friends politely told me they also include paperwork and all the laws to remember and the months of waiting between hearings.
Two, people around us don’t talk about the downsides of their work in detail. Workplace confidentiality rules might get them fired and they want to look good at what they do (which means, you know, not sharing the messy parts).
If you and I don’t know what our dream jobs are, how can we find out?
Download this free worksheet before we start!
So that following along with this post will be easy and fun! Just click the button below to get it.
First, cut to the core of your dream job.
Identify your why.
Why are you working? What do you need to work happily?
Money’s an easy answer as we do need it, after all. But if it’s the only reason you’re going in, it gets old really fast.
Research says we spend over half our day at work and even more time if we’re sleeping less than 8 hours a night. When we think of that, you’re not too eager to spend at least 21% of your life at a job you don’t like just to make money, huh?
OK, if not only that, what then? Viktor Frankl, a famous psychiatrist, said people want their lives to mean something. (Some background info: he survived Hitler’s concentration camps, studied people for most of his life, and wrote an inspiring book called Man’s Search for Meaning.)
He observed you and I are not looking for pleasure or happiness because when we get those things, something feels missing from our lives.
We want more than just to be happy; we want a reason to be happy. And those two aren’t the same things.
To find meaning, Mr. Frankl said a person needs “a human being who affectionately waits for him” and “the striving and struggling for a worthy goal”. He’s talking about relationships and work we’ve freely decided to do. When we have those two things, we have the “why” we’re living for and our reason to be happy.
So moving back, why do you need to work aside from money? To be part of a project you believe in? To connect with people? To learn and feel challenged to grow?
Your answer will be different from mine, but knowing your why is important. You need to know what it is so you can fit it in your next job. You’ll be happier in the long run.
Then we flip the question.
Or as we used to say in my Uni, we reverse engineer.
(I’m not going to scare you with engineering-speak, promise!)
Reverse engineering looks at the ending we want first then works backwards to the beginning. The answer shows us where to start to get to that ending.
So asking “What’s my dream job?” Getting the job is just the start of doing awesome work, so that’s the wrong question.
“What’s the perks of my dream job?” is the right one.
(Again, the free worksheet you can download a few paragraphs up makes this easy!)
You and I only have to look at the jobs we’ve had before to answer that question. List them down and separate the ones you loved and hated. Ask yourself why you felt that way.
When you think through the list, the same likes and dislikes start to repeat themselves. Those patterns clue you in to what your dream job’s perks should be, and the downsides you don’t want to have.
Here are a few you should think about:
- What’s your boss’s management style?
- How about your relationship with your coworkers?
- What’s the job’s pace: routine or unpredictable? at a desk or on the field?
- Are you willing to move away from family and friends for it?
Then choose your non-negotiable perks, the pros you’d like but can live without, and the downsides you can handle.
Because at the end of the day, work’s work. There’s going to be some of it we have to force ourselves to do so we can keep doing the stuff we do like.
With me, I found I was happiest with work that, among other things,
- wasn’t routine or me being at a desk all the time,
- included talking with people,
- let me use my engineering degree in a practical way,
- allowed me to travel and write,
- and let me work on interesting projects.
So my freelance web designer job way back when? I got bored fast after facing the computer all day without anyone to talk to. The receptionist-type gigs I had between semesters? I liked making chit-chat with people but didn’t enjoy doing the same things over and over as much.
So what happens when we define the core of how we work? We can look at the job vacancies we find with new eyes.
Be open to jobs matching your list.
I chose the words “be open” on purpose, by the way.
Because since we didn’t really know our dream jobs, the work that makes us happy might be something we didn’t think it would be.
Like I’ve met doctors who own restaurants, nurses who were in marketing, and non-accountants who work in finance. Their work suits them even as it doesn’t relate to their college degrees.
In my case, sales? Pssh. I’m more of the artist type, thank you very much. I wrote for three school newspapers, drew on Adobe Illustrator, and played the violin for more than 20 years. Sure, the business my family started was in the back of my mind, but I never seriously considered working there.
Then I heard the family business had an opening for an executive assistant in international sales. My first instinct was to write it off. Like I said, I never thought of myself as a salesperson. Besides, the family connection didn’t mean it would be an easy job. I’d go through a lot of training, handle customers who were way older than me, be on call all the time, and have my Dad as one of my bosses (and isn’t that a tricky can of worms?).
It was intimidating and not what I imagined doing.
Then I compared it to the perks of my dream job. Traveling, meeting people, using a technical background to connect with clients, handling different projects… It’s checking off my whole list!
So I took a deep breath, pushed forward, and eventually got hired.
And I won’t lie: it was sink or swim at first.
Like when I took over a meeting with a businessman twice my age who spoke no English. Or when I worked until 5 am to correct missteps on my first project. Or the lunch break I hid to cry because I messed up.
But each time, I learned and grew more confident. The papers I wrote for work got better until my words got published in industry-related books. I started to get sent on trips without my bosses, and eventually learned to handle clients by myself.
There’s still lots more to learn and do, but it’s my dream job and I’m loving it.
So yeah, be open. When you look over a job listing, don’t turn work away because it’s not the job title you’ve dreamed about. You might be bowled over by how your dream job isn’t what you thought it would be!
In case you missed it, here’s that free worksheet!
Rethinking your dream job will be more fun with a pretty fillable pdf, yeah? Just click the button below to get it.