The Danger of the Dream Job

Last weekend, I was driving through the UConn campus on graduation day. There were undergrads and their proud parents taking pictures with the bucolic campus, painted pastel with Spring, behind them.

I wanted to go up to them, put my hands on their shoulders and tell them, “Stay here! The real world sucks and sometimes the responsibility makes you a kind of tired you previously thought impossible! It renders you incapable of doing anything but lying in bed and binge watching Parenthood!”

Then I thought, you know, it’s actually kind of awesome. Sure, your 20s can be lonely. You will occasionally wonder if you’re missing the magical piece of knowledge that gives you the ability to figure it all out, or if everyone is secretly hanging out without you, but it’s awesome because you have a steady income and the money to travel, to eat at real restaurants and drink real beer. It’s been years since I’ve had a Natural Light or a shot of cherry Burnett’s and, you know what, I’m okay with that. It’s awesome because you really figure out who you are, and who matters in your life, and all the ancillary bullshit slowly disappears.

But most of all, I wanted to tell them that their dream job is a myth.

The mantra of our youth has become “find a career doing what you love and never work a day in your life.” For me, this instilled a panic of not knowing what I love. Would someone pay me to eat sushi and watch Netflix? Or play yard games with my friends? Unlikely. It wasn’t until I decided to love what I do, to be the arbiter of my own happiness, that the pressure suddenly lifted.

That find-what-you-love mantra inherently infers that for every one person, there is one true calling that you are supposed to be led to by a nebulous feeling of passion. But maybe — just maybe — it’s not the passion that comes first. Maybe the opportunity comes first, and you create the passion.

From the time these graduates enter the grey fog of adulthood, wide-eyed and hungry to make an impact, they are saddled with an expectation to find exactly what they want to do and go do it. From there, your life is supposed to be a boulevard of unbroken green lights. Granted, some people do know exactly what they want to do from a young age and they follow that dream with a singular focus. This is not true of most people, despite what you read on motivational Pinterest boards. Even for the ones who live that life, there are most certainly days where it is still “work.” There are inevitably always days you’re burdened with expense reports and time sheets and insurance forms and taxes. (No one warns you adulthood comes with so much paperwork.)

For the rest of us, we pick a career path and pursue it, dangerously wondering if we are missing our true calling and forever lured by the story of the guy who quit his insurance job to go open a jet ski rental business in some island paradise. The “dream job” concept is toxic because it infers that the type of job we have should dictate our happiness. That loving what you do is more important than loving what you do with it.

Once you categorize your current situation as “boring cubicle job” and not “island jet ski rental business”, you tread the dangerous waters of giving up and not investing energy, time, passion into it. But the reality is — passion feeds passion, no matter how small it starts. If you can find something, anything, in your current job, or your current opportunity, that excites you — latch onto it. Feed it. Lean into it. And that’s really fucking hard sometimes. It’s unsexy, and sometimes thankless, and it takes a long time. But there is so much greatness in the tedium. That’s where the growth happens — both personal growth and career growth. As you nurture your career into something you love, it reciprocates.

Progress, passion, love are incremental things. Sometimes those increments are huge and leave you with a stomach-flipping combination of awe and possibility, and sometimes they are steps so small you don’t even feel yourself moving. But most importantly, they are self-manifested. The making of your character mirrors the making of your career path, and if you can muster, day by day, what’s required to build your skills and love that journey, then you create something in you that will become indelible.

We often ascribe the word “courage” people like Jet Ski Guy, and I’m sure that’s a fair assessment. But we can’t expect an average high of 75 degrees to be the fix for all notions of loneliness and unhappiness. There’s so much freedom in embracing the wax and wane of passion — to let it cyclically build and peak and grow dim enough we have to squint at it. It’s not a sentiment of resignation, it’s an empowerment to construct ourselves to be the creator of our own happiness — even if there aren’t always jet skis.

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