Forget your dream job

I finally landed mine. And I was miserable.

We all grew up with the idea of a “dream job.” I certainly did. Maybe it starts with the question we’re all asked as kids, “what do you want to be when you grow up?”

When I was 10 it was probably an astronaut, but as I grew up it evolved into something more concrete and realistic. At some point in college I decided that it would be really awesome to design interfaces for cars (unique and quite specific, I know, further cementing it as an ideal). I went to graduate school to study Human-Computer Interaction and began my career as a User Experience (UX) designer right after. In 2012, ten years after I started grad school, after cutting my teeth at various companies and honing my design skills, I had my chance. I saw an opening for a UX designer for a major car manufacturer and was offered the job after a long interview process. I was sure I had landed my dream job.

It didn’t feel like it though.

In fact, within weeks I hated it. I dreaded going in. Never had I disliked a job so much so soon after starting it.

What I got right and what I got wrong

I was truly thrown off by what I was feeling. This couldn’t be right. This was supposed to be it.

In hindsight, here’s what I think happened.

Somewhat unconsciously, over the course of my career up to that point I had learned more and more what I liked in a company as I experienced different jobs. I was pretty miserable in my first UX job at a large, enterprise software company, but it was the only real job I’d known at that point so I just assumed that’s what work was like. But then I moved to a small company and loved feeling like I was a part of something, rather than just a cog. And after that I got a job with really awesome people who I totally clicked with. And I learned about Agile development and shipping code every 2 weeks and how exciting it can be. My next job was similar, except that I worked from home most of the time, which I discovered really suited me.

More and more pieces had been falling into place for me as I went along, even though I didn’t see it as a progression at the time. Most of my job changes were prompted by moves to different cities, so I didn’t see them as steps toward something. And, still, I couldn’t let go of the idea that I wasn’t doing what I wanted to be doing.

My job at the car company had the “dream job” part, but none of the other things I’d come to enjoy about my previous jobs. In fact, it was the exact opposite in many ways. I had an awful commute, the company was huge, they shipped code rarely, if at all. And nobody really seemed to connect with each other there (I didn’t feel a connection, at least). It was just a place where people went during the day and just kind of tolerated one another. I had become actual friends with my co-workers at my previous jobs, like staying-in-touch-after-you-leave friends.

Not at this place. I quit after just a few months.

While I was job hunting near the end of my time there I came up with a test for the type of company I was looking for, based mostly on what I didn’t have at the car job. It went like this: Let’s say most days you drive yourself to work. But one day your car is in the shop so your wife comes to pick you up. Do you always meet her outside or do you ask her to come in so she can say hello to your co-workers? I decided that I wanted to be somewhere that I’d at least want my wife to come in from time-to-time. That my outside-of-work life should be safe to cross into my inside-of-work life.

My real dream job

I don’t mean to rub it in, but I love my new job (where I’ve been for just over a year).

I love my job even though I’m doing a lot of things that I never would’ve gotten excited about in the past. I do customer support, I write help articles, tutorials, and blog posts, with some UX design mixed in here and there. That might not work for some people, especially designers, but my career tombstone was never going to read, “he was a great designer.” I don’t sweat every pixel and bezel like Jony Ive or Dieter Rams (though I’m working on it). My design bar has historically been set to: “make it not suck.”

But there is a common theme, which may go on my career tombstone. The work I do helps people. It helps people get better at using a product that I think is genuinely useful. And that makes what I “do” fulfilling. (Pro tip: Look for common themes in things you enjoy doing, it will help expand your horizons.)

I work from home again now, which means that I get to live where in want and don’t have to sit in traffic at all. I also get so much more flexibility and thinking time, which I cherish. The company is small. My ideas are heard. I love my co-workers. That’s a lot of really great things that make this role a dream for me.

And, here’s the thing, I do actually love the work that I’m doing. It’s not that I’m putting up with it because of the other stuff. That’s the real point, that doing what you love is a lot about the stuff around your job and not so much the specifics. You don’t always find what you love, sometimes you make what you love. You love it because you’ve put yourself into it. And you’ve put yourself into it because the conditions make you want to.

In my current job I’ve discovered that I really enjoy writing. And I love the feeling of helping someone by explaining to them how to do something. And I love talking to our customers who are excited about our product. It really sounds cheesy and I never thought I’d hear myself talking like this, but it’s still kind of amazing to me, even after the other jobs I’ve had that I thought were pretty darn good.

I’m not advocating for giving up on the idea of a dream job, just that your dream job not be what you’ve imagined all this time (it wasn’t for me). It might be more of a dream company or dream circumstances. It’s a whole group of things that make you happy at work. Pay attention to all the other things besides just what you “do”. Work is work. Don’t expect to love what you’re doing every minute of the day. That’s why the other stuff matters so much.