You’ve been told you can achieve anything you set your mind to, right? That’s the message that’s been ingrained in us since childhood when we imagined becoming astronauts, athletes, and movie stars. Most of us come to realize that we can’t all be LeBron James or Taylor Swift—and that we don’t want to be, anyway! As we get older, we typically outgrow these fantasies of youth and begin mapping out a career that’s aligned with our personal goals and values.
Yet, in spite of this seemingly straightforward and logical process, many people still have a number of misconceptions about what a “dream job” actually entails. Career platitudes that we’ve absorb over time may not only be misleading, they can also be downright damaging.
Let me be clear: There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to do something you love. After all, everyone wants a career that is both fulfilling and that pays the bills. The problem is that having an idealized view of what constitutes this perfect job can actually wind up leading you away from work you love instead of toward it. When your expectations don’t match reality, you can wind up plateauing, wondering what to do next and where to go.
The key to finding your dream role is being able to distinguish the achievable from the fairy tale, and recognizing what it means to be fulfilled from a practical—not just passionate—standpoint. By becoming aware of the myths surrounding the ultimate fantasy job, you can make sure you don’t pass up worthwhile work in a hopeless pursuit of an elusive ideal.
1. Passion Will Pay the Bills
It’s a tough pill to swallow, but passion alone doesn’t pay the bills—at least not for most of us. Just because you care about something doesn’t mean you can earn a living from it. In order for any venture to be successful, the market has to have a willingness and ability to pay for what you’re offering. For example, you may love working with college students on resume prep, but students are typically cash strapped, and universities often offer free career development support in response to this.
That doesn’t mean, however, that you should give up on doing what brings you excitement. Instead of diving head first into anything new, take small steps toward establishing yourself. Focus on your side projects and work on getting them to a place where you can survive on them alone.
It’s a strategy author Jeff Goins calls “building a bridge” in his book The Art of Work: A Proven Path to Discovering What You Were Meant to Do. Rushing things along won’t pay off in the long run. Considering the case above, you could start helping college students by volunteering in the career services department or providing free advice on your blog. Over time, you can assess your success and determine when and how to monetize your endeavors.
2. When You Love What You Do, It Won’t Feel Like Work
There is no such thing as a model career. No job has zero downsides, and it’s unrealistic to expect perfection from a particular role, employer, or yourself. There will always be tradeoffs and compromises you’ll need to make in any position no matter how great the organization is or how awesome your boss is, and that’s OK; knowing this ahead of time can help you make smart decisions that get you closer to the job you want.
The trick is to be clear with yourself about what your values and priorities are. Having a solid grasp of this will likely make the unsavory parts of your job more tolerable. Often, you have to be willing to put up with a lot in order to follow your passion. You’re the only one who can decide whether it’s worth the compromise.
I work with people who desire to be entrepreneurs, and while running your own business is a worthy goal, I remind them that there will still be elements they don’t 100% enjoy. You might love sales and working with customers and hate managing a budget, but until you grow and scale the company, you’re going to be responsible for tasks that bring you joy and others that don’t.
3. There’s a Linear Path to Success—and Hard Work is All it Takes to Get There
Many people make a short-sighted decision to work in a position that isn’t up their alley, believing if they just work hard enough, it’ll lead them to future success. The employee who victoriously rises from the mailroom to the C-Suite is a Cinderella story that fuels this dream-job myth.
And, it’s a pattern I frequently see with well-intentioned clients, who often fail to research whether there’s an explicit connection between the job they take and the one they want. Even if they discover that a path does exist, they don’t approach getting into their dream role in a proactive and effective way. They rely on working harder and longer hours, praying their boss will notice and reward them with a promotion that will suddenly make everything better.
To side-step this trap, seek out mentors and see how you can model their career trajectory. Conducting informational interviews can give you peace of mind that you’re heading in the right direction and ensure that once you do get promoted, you’ll be as content as you expect (which sure beats investing years in a dead-end job). Be clear with your employer about your expectations during the hiring process and throughout your tenure. Make your career goals known, and work together with your supervisor to establish defined objectives and milestones that put you in line for promotions that’ll have you doing work that drives you.
Your dream job isn’t an exact destination; rather, it’s constantly evolving. The ideal career when you’re in your 20s may be a poor work-life fit by the time you turn 35. It’s OK to change your mind and then change it again, but avoid constantly striving for some elusive professional fantasy. Instead of getting caught up in false truths about what defines a perfect job, keep your options open, and embrace the many opportunities that you encounter on along the way.