Note: I originally wrote this in the fall of 2016 as I was on my own personal job hunt. It felt wrong to publish the piece without validating the points myself — but having enjoyed my last two (very different) jobs, I’m happy to publish this today.
In the past couple of years, I, along with a surprising amount of people that I know have admitted that we’re either unhappy with or unfulfilled by our jobs. This seems to be a mid-twenties trend, where we’ve given a certain career a shot, and after a few years realize that we don’t necessarily want to stay in the same job / role / industry for the remainder of our career. This can be terrifying, because for many, they’re in a career that they thought they wanted since they were teenagers! In order to get to where they are, they had to pick the right university or training program, study the right curriculum, gain experience in the right internships, get their foot in the door, etc. A lot of work has been put in to get to where they are, and there’s no such thing as a “redo.” When you feel as though you’re only trained for your current career, you can feel trapped and scared that there’s no way you’ll ever get out. Even if you managed to transition into another career — who’s to say you’ll get it right the second time?
It seems to me that a large part of this early career discontentment stems from what we’re told from a young age about what makes a “dream job.” There are usually two factors described — passion and money. It seems to make intuitive sense: if you’re doing something that you’re interested in and earning a lot of money, of course you’d be happy with your career, right? It’s just not that simple.
Yet, “follow your passion” and “go to a good school to get a good job” seem to be the foundation of society’s advice for the future workforce.
Consider that the average American student will spend over 14,000 hours in K-12 education and rarely (if ever) have the opportunity to take a course on how to identify a fulfilling career. Our societal ideas of a “good job” are still mostly steeped in the amount it pays and the amount of physical labor it requires, even though these factors aren’t as closely associated to a happy employee as others.
Our schools leave it up to teenage students to discover and research what type of job they think they’d like, and students often make a relatively uninformed decision on where to continue their studies (to hopefully qualify for a “better job” with better pay), what they’re going to study, and what singular career path they’ll follow for the rest of their lives. Surely, not many of us believe our 17 year-old selves were the best decision makers on our own. And yet, some people let this teenager with an under-developed brain decide their entire future.
On top of this lack of informed direction from schools, even job rankings in the U.S. are probably misleading people into careers that won’t fulfill them. One popular ranking service rates jobs on the following four factors:
- Is it highly paid?
- Will it be highly paid in the future?
- Is it stressful?
- Is the work environment unpleasant?
At first glance, these criteria may seem like a good measure of what qualities the best jobs would have — high pay and low stress in a pleasant environment. However, upon further thought and research, it becomes clear that there could be a significant difference between a “good” job and a fulfilling one. First and foremost, anyone who has worked in a low-stress job that doesn’t challenge them will quickly tell you that having a boring job is not conducive to fulfillment, no matter how much it pays. There is such thing as a good type of stress, when one finds their work challenging but achievable, and has a feeling of accomplishment when they tackle a difficult problem.
Second, research shows that annual salary is significantly tied to happiness only up to a point — around $75,000 / year (give or take a few thousand dollars depending on where you live). After that, its marginal impact on your satisfaction declines. I know most of us have heard this before and pretend that we accept it, but truthfully, I think most people still believe that they’d be an exception — having more money would make them significantly happier. You’re probably not an exception, and the sooner you realize that there’s a difference between what you think will make you happier and what will actually make you happier, the lower your chances of a quarter/mid/late life crisis. If you want to improve your decision making, two great research-backed books on how awful we are at predicting our own happiness (among other things) are Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert and Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.
By rating jobs based on absolute income and lack of stress, we could be setting ourselves up for a disappointing career and the anxiety and depression that accompanies it. Our schools, job rankings, and society as a whole are making the same mistake that we all make when we assume that money is one of the most important factors to being happy.
Recognizing the lack of proper direction and education for professional fulfillment, a non-profit organization named 80,000 hours (after how many working hours you’ll probably have in your life) has put together a guide on how to find your personal “dream job.” Here are the six factors that they’ve found as most important:
- It’s engaging.
- It helps others.
- You’re good at it.
- You have supportive colleagues.
- It meets your basic needs.
- It fits with the rest of your life.
An engaging job is one where you’re engrossed in your work. You’re not watching the clock and counting down the hours until the end of the work day. You enter a state of “flow” and are excited by the projects that you work on.
It helps others
In my opinion, this is one of the most important factors to feeling fulfilled. Feeling as though the output of your work is making a positive impact on people is energizing and motivating. That said, this doesn’t require that you are directly saving lives or giving shelter to the homeless. If you can find a tangential way in which your work contributes to the betterment of humanity, focus on that aspect. If you can’t justify any meaningful way your job helps others, one option is earning to give, a pledge to donate a certain percentage of your income to charitable organizations annually. Even if your particular job responsibilities don’t make a measurable impact, the outcome of your productivity can still have a large one. Imagine looking back on your life and career - you’ll want to be able to say that your work was worthwhile because it had a positive impact on someone.
You’re good at it
This one should be obvious but is notably absent from traditional advice about how to find your dream job. It’s fun and rewarding to do work that you’re good at. It’s demoralizing and frustrating to do work that you’re not good at. Matching your strengths and abilities to a career will have better results than following a passion that you don’t have the talent to succeed in. One caveat is that it’s not necessary to be good at a job from day one — all that’s required is the capacity to eventually be talented in the role. It may take years to develop the experience and knowledge to truly conquer the position.
You have supportive colleagues
Another obvious necessity of a dream job is being surrounded by supportive people. If you feel as though you can ask others for help without embarrassment, you’re going to be more comfortable and better at your job. If you’re lucky enough to become friends with your colleagues, you’re more likely to look forward to going to work in the morning.
It meets your basic needs
Beyond a roof over your head and food in the fridge, this factor includes things like a reasonable commute, reasonable hours, fair pay, job security, and a livable wage. Interestingly, it’s the only of the six factors dealing with income, and it’s only a measure of meeting a minimum. After that, additional income has little impact.
It fits with the rest of your life
The entrepreneurial myth that your life must be fully consumed by your work isn’t the ideal lifestyle for everyone. Some people are content working 40 hours a week in order to pay their bills and spend time with their friends on the weekend. Whatever your ideal lifestyle — from working hours to vacation time, etc., a dream job will fit into your life instead of making you fit your life into your free time.
If your current job has all six factors above — congratulations! If it has a few but you still enjoy what you do, try to address the factors that are lacking. That could mean negotiating for different hours / more vacation, developing closer relationships with colleagues, or investing in training to make you better at your job.
For those who are still in school or are unhappy in their current career, the above is great to keep in mind along your search. One of my favorite thinkers / writers, Tim Urban of WaitButWhy.com, recently published an in depth post. 80,000 hours also provides a guide to help you find your dream job. Their #1 advice is to try a lot of things. As mentioned above, we’re terrible predictors of the future, so the best way to find a career you’ll enjoy is to try many different things — that could mean taking internships, night classes, freelancing, volunteering on weekends, etc. The more experiences you have, the better you’ll know yourself — and that’s the real key to finding a fulfilling career.