Is it wise to have a ‘dream job’ in mind?

Oliver Burkeman invites you to try out a new work concept in each month's Work Life Lab Experiment, is the idea of a dream job helpful or unhelpful?


Is it wise to have a 'dream job’ in mind?

The project

According to countless career coaches, the key to satisfying work is to identify what you are passionate about, then do it. However, the idea of a dream job can sometimes be dangerous. It can make you hate your current job and condemn you to a frustrating lifelong quest for ‘perfect’ work.

The aim

By understanding that passion isn’t found but rather cultivated, you can take concrete steps to find fulfilment now.

The theory

What makes work satisfying, multiple studies suggest, is some combination of a meaty but realistic challenge and recognition for your achievements. Cal Newport, author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You (Business Plus, £12.99), recommends becoming what he calls a career craftsperson. Choose a skill that is in demand and that strikes you as fairly interesting, and then work hard to get good at it. One trick is to find some aspect of your work at which you excel, however seemingly irrelevant. Do you hate being a lawyer, but find strange satisfaction in maintaining your filing system? Consider librarianship… Career coach Barbara Sher says many of us are ‘scanners’ – people who have multiple or changing interests. If this sounds like you, you may be best advised to spend a few years pursuing one thing, and then a few years doing something else, rather than following one particular ‘passion’.

Try it out

Make a list of the tasks your work involves, then pick the three you enjoy most (or hate least). Do the answers point to a different job? Perhaps towards requesting new responsibilities in your current one? Or to cultivating a skill in your spare time? If there’s some other work you have always longed to do, resolve to do it (or work towards it, or do research) for at least an hour each week. It may be the start of a new career – or maybe you’ll discover you only loved the dream, not the thing itself. Then you can stop fretting and focus on creating a meaningful real life instead.

Oliver Burkeman is the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (Canongate, £8.99)

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