Dream Jobs Don’t Exist and Why That’s Actually a Good Thing.

If you stop searching for the “Dream,” you’ll find something even better.

When I first got my job at The Startup, I went around proclaiming to anyone who’d listen, “This is my Dream Job.” I said it with a feigned modesty — some people never get so lucky and that wasn’t lost on me. I wore my company swag with glowing pride and quickly started to embed this job, the supposed perfect marriage of my passions and skill set, into my identity. I was cool because of where I worked and boy did I strike gold.

Yet I sit here writing this today, at the cusp of another opportunity. I’ll be moving on to another role soon, though I’m not sure what it is yet. I’ve come to realize that the Dream Job is a farce. And while that may seem depressing, it’s actually incredibly freeing.

So, how did I get from A to B? From bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and blissfully satisfied to, well, none of the above?

I spent a year-and-a-half doing said Dream Job.

The Dream Job’s decline (or my ascension to the truth!) was its own profound grieving process, complete with five essential steps. I distinctly felt each phase — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — and I sifted through a lot of mental shit to reach my come-to-Jesus moment, all while the corporate world kept spinning along without me.

I’ve come out the other end as a different professional, a different person. One with a much more astute understanding of what an ideal job should and shouldn’t include. And here’s what I’ve learned:

  1. It ain’t a dream, so stop saying it is: Thinking of any role as your Dream Job is distracting and confusing as you build your career. You can certainly be grateful to be employed and thankful you’re doing something you love, but by conceptualizing your role as a Dream Job, you’re giving it all the power. You are also much more likely to give those in power a pass when you’re in awe of the company and your miraculous good fortune that got you there. If you got the job, you earned the job — it wasn’t fortune, it was merit.
  2. Beer is nice but goals are better: How defined is your role or the role you want? As someone who works in startups, there can be a lot of fluidity here. That’s okay. However, I know I should still have relative clarity about expectations (so I can can exceed them). Define what’s in your purview with a manager or be proactive and do it on your own. Iterate on this quarterly and continue to communicate about goals, expectations and role. There should be no surprises here.
  3. Be sure you personally can make an impact: This is about adding value to whatever field you’re in, to whatever company you work for. What projects will you work on? Do they make a direct impact on something important to you that’s also important to the organization? When you leave the office every day, do you feel like you advanced your work and made progress? These are things that on a day-to-day level will make a job great, boost your self-worth and make you a valuable member of your team.
  4. Mentorship is rare, but totally awesome: Can you learn from someone who has the time to teach you? This is a tough one to come by these days in my experience, but find it if you can. Identify a mentor in your company (ideally someone you work with closely) and be a sponge. Spend time learning and observing and ask questions from those who know your field better than you.
  5. Don’t be invisible: Look around. Does anyone you report to know what your goals are and how you’re doing against them? If not, be proactive in bringing yourself to the attention of someone influential. Share your performance goals, ask for actionable feedback and work to improve. The worst thing you can do is spend months or years busting your ass without anyone being the wiser. If a tree falls in the woods…
  6. Think about your path: Where is this role bringing you? Ideally, there is growth opportunity at your current company (if you like it). If there isn’t a trajectory there, are you in the right role to set you up for advancement when you leave? Make sure you are performing tasks that you can speak to, showcase and put in your portfolio when you’re ready to make the case for promotion or ready to leave, even if those tasks aren’t necessarily reflected in your title.
  7. Don’t forget emotional intellect: I’m not going to suggest that every good leader is emotionally intelligent nor that all people with high EI make good co-workers. I will say that when looking for a new job, or a higher-up to align yourself with, you should feel out that person’s ability to navigate emotions in the workplace. They’re not your therapist, but they should be able to hear (constructive) frustrations and help you resolve them. They should also be able to celebrate your achievements.
  8. And lastly, always put yourself first: This is pretty self-explanatory, but it’s particularly hard to do when you feel indebted to your company. You’re never indebted to your job. You get paid for your services. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship and when reciprocity no longer exists, you need to look out for number one.

These pointers are by no means an inclusive list of what makes working somewhere great. Nor will the absence of a few points guarantee the job from hell (though if all are missing, run the fuck away and thank me later).

You’ll find, as I have, that each organization and role has unique benefits and drawbacks — none are perfect, obviously. It’s just when the latter outweigh the former, it’s crucial to remain objective, which you’ll struggle to do if under the spell of a Dream Job. I’ve been at The Startup for at least six months too many due to my unwarranted reverence for the company I’ve constructed in my mind. The reality looks a lot different.

So, if/when you find yourself where I have been, get out. Move on. Trust your gut and ignore that nagging hope that things will improve. Instead, look for the right things in your next role and then work your ass off for people who value you and care holistically about their organization.

Focus on that and your life will get a lot more dreamy, I promise.

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