Love and work are not fairy tales

Ana Vargas Santos
4 min readFeb 21, 2018
500 days of Summer

If you’ve never seen this movie, please do. There’s something about watching Joseph Gordon Levitt have his heart broken that strongly contributed to my emotional — and professional — education. Maybe it’s because I watched him grow up in 3rd Rock from the Sun. Maybe it’s because Zooey Deschanel felt so right for him. Or maybe, it’s just because Tom Hansen, the character he plays, clearly depicts two of the most pernicious myths that influence our attitudes towards love and work:

#1. It was love at first sight

Tom Hansen grew up believing that he’d never truly be happy until the day he met the one. Tom meets Summer on January 8th. He knows almost immediately she is who he has been searching for.

Blame it on romantic movies as you will, but the truth is, it’s everywhere. Songs. Our thoughts. Our conversations. It just seems natural to believe that two strangers who don’t know the first thing about each other will suddenly become aware that they are meant to spend the rest of their lives together.

Surprisingly enough, we hold the same kind of assumption in the professional field. There is even a name for this belief — it is called The vocation myth. Without so much as a day spent in a particular job, we expect to suddenly become aware of what we want to do with the rest of our careers.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that it exempts us from the responsibility of finding our passion (be it towards a person or a job). We accept that fate, luck, coincidence or other mysterious force will bring us happiness served in a silver plate. So, instead of experimenting, failing, hurting, reflecting, learning and eventually succeeding, we just hope for the best.

And the worst thing is, it doesn’t stop with finding the one. That’s actually when the second myth comes into play:

#2. They lived happily ever after

This is a story of boy meets girl, but you should know upfront, this is not a love story.

After finding the one, we just assume that things will turn out well. We will always understand each other, finish each other’s sentences, know what’s best for each other and how to make each other happy. After all, we’re meant to be together, right?

The same happens after finding the vocation. Because we assume this is the career we’re supposed to pursue, we expect to always feel motivated to go to work, excited about the projects we’re doing, and in a permanent state of flow.

The issue here is, once again, that we don’t hold ourselves accountable for how things turn out. We don’t factor in the differences in personality, motivation or, quite simply, ways of doing things. We don’t consider the amount of work, effort and dedication that we must put into building a happy relationship or a meaningful career.

As Mark Manson puts it:

Just like few of us experience love at first sight, few will experience passion and meaning at first experience. Like a relationship, we must build it from scratch, piece-by-piece, until after years of brick and sweat, it can stand on its own.

Boy-meets-girl (please feel free to replace subjects accordingly) or person-finds-fulfilling-job does not mean happily ever after. There is a memorable scene from the movie that clearly depicts how creating unreasonable expectations sets us up for disaster:

As Tom Hansen eventually learned, love and work are not fairy tales.

The bright side? It’s up to you.

This is the third of a series of articles intended to dive into the not so obvious relationships between love and work. The first one, Why should love be more like work, elaborated on the idea that some learnings from the work context could positively impact our love lives. The second one, Not ready to commit to a job? Here’s why, explored the contrary hypothesis: that lessons learned in the love arena could improve our relationship with work.

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Ana Vargas Santos

HR Research Partner. I write about learning and career management.