Commentary: Looking for a dream job can create nightmare expectations
The weight of expectations has never been greater – we want an enlightened boss and work that is fulfilling and yet pays well. Crystal Lim-Lange says the concept of a dream job can be problematic.
SINGAPORE: You’d think that a gloomy economic outlook would make us appreciate the careers that we have but about half of our workforce is planning to leave their employer this year, according to Microsoft’s recent Work Trend Index.
I’ve seen this growing trend of dissatisfaction gain momentum amongst the hundreds of people that I’ve trained and coached since the pandemic started last year.
One concept that keeps cropping up in my discussions with my coaching clients is the concept of the “dream job”. This is both powerful and problematic.
On one hand, many successful careers and businesses start off with commitment to a vision.
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However, the “dream” becomes dangerous when people suffer from the magical thinking that the elusive dream job is responsible for transforming one’s life into an unfettered smorgasbord of unicorns and rainbows.
While I do think that it is healthy for us to want fulfilling work, the concept of a dream job needs careful re-evaluation.
Firstly, there is the phenomenon of expectation inflation. Behavioural economics research suggests that happiness and satisfaction can be reduced to a simple equation of expectations minus reality.
Simply put, if your expectations are lower than your reality, this results in happiness. However, if your expectations are higher than what life offers, then the net result is unhappiness.
Take the pioneer generation for example, who grew up in times of war and uncertainty. Their expectations were mainly to survive, provide for their family and lead a stable life.
Couple these relatively low expectations with the unexpected reality of their lives in a developing Singapore – affordable property prices, asset appreciation, a rapidly expanding economy - and you get a situation where their reality was significantly better than their expectations. Net happiness, in other words.
Now, contrast this with the experience of millennials, the biggest proportion of today’s workforce. These are job seekers who grew up in times of prosperity in households with fewer kids and higher parental attention. The messaging for this generation is to accomplish anything they want – the sky is the limit.
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Add social media to this mix – the continuous drip feeding of overnight success stories and influencers doing what they love – and you get a sea of unmet expectations at a level unseen before.
For many, this means being constantly disappointed that their job is no longer just a means of providing for oneself or family. It now has to be much more: Fulfilling, meaningful, fun, secure and providing a sense of freedom.
THE WEIGHT OF GREAT EXPECTATIONS
This reminds me of what renowned psychotherapist Esther Perel said about marriages. For centuries marriage was merely a financial and legal transaction.
These days, we expect our partner to be our confidante, lover, therapist, mentor, best friend, soulmate etc. In effect, we are looking to one person to provide us with what a village or tribe used to.
Similarly, employees tell us that it is no longer enough for their job to provide them with money, but that they also expect personal growth and intellectual stimulation.
They expect more out of their managers – to provide mentorship and feedback, a work culture that gives them a sense of community, not to mention recognition, agency, stability and of course, a steady income goes without saying.
It’s not just the employees that have raised the bar, we see this expectation inflation at work from companies as well. Employers too expect gruelling hours before quarterly results reporting and micromanage every detail of how work is done in pandemic times.
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Yes, the state of play has changed. Wanting much more in a career is not wrong – it speaks to how work and the value we place on it has evolved.
Especially in these last few months, work has become all-consuming so it is natural that people have less time for leisure, self-care and community. And this may explain why we want work to provide us with all the stimulation and fulfilment that we would have sought in our leisure time.
CRAFTING CAREER EXPERIMENTS
Are these expectations of work and life sustainable or healthy?
I’d say we need to take responsibility for our mental and emotional well-being rather than expect our jobs to fulfil us on every level.
One likely enemy in your pursuit for your dream job is the paradox of choice.
Psychologist Barry Schartz, the author of The Paradox of Choice argues that: “One effect of having so many options is that it produces paralysis rather than liberation (and) even if we manage to overcome the paralysis and make a choice, we end up less satisfied with the result of the choice than we would be if we had fewer options”.
What we can do instead is spend more time on constructing careful career experiments and these can be grouped into three main categories.
The first type of type of experiments are high-risk ones involving an extended break from one’s normal work, for example the “radical sabbatical”, a term coined by Laura van Bouchot who celebrated her 30th birthday trying 30 different jobs.
Interestingly, Laura compared her experience to dating – she found that prospects who technically met her mental wishlist of qualities did nothing for her, while at some points she found something that didn’t meet half her checklist but blew her away.
Her conclusion? “Finding the right career is not about thinking and planning but about doing lots of job dating, trying things out until you feel a spark.”
This approach is quite unrealistic for most of us and as it requires massive investment and risk.
The second type of career experiments are mid-risk ones known as “branching projects” or “temporary assignments” which are more practical and less intimidating. These couple existing work with temporary experiences, such as stretch assignments, volunteering part-time or starting a side-hustle business.
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For example, you may teach pilates on the weekends to test whether it brings you joy. Or perhaps you want to venture into event management – volunteer to help out at a large event to check out what the job really entails behind the scenes?
The third type of experiments are the lowest-risk and entail networking with people from a diverse array of industries and broadening your social circle. Our world view is inordinately shaped by who we regularly spend time with.
If you desperately long to break out of law but all the people you hang out with are lawyers, it’s going to be much more difficult to envisage a different reality and transition to it.
Instead of pondering imaginary options in your head, join a new networking group online and schedule coffee with people in fields that you may be interested to venture in.
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IS THE DREAM REALLY YOURS?
Many of my clients tell me their jobs were a result of their parents’ dreams, not theirs. Family pressures and expectations can have outsized impact on our early educational and job decisions, especially for Asians.
In one UK study, 25 per cent of British Asian graduates admitted to feeling that their parents significantly influenced their career choice compared to just one in 10 non-Asians.
As you grow and evolve as a person, your idea of what constitutes a dream job changes too.
Instead of constantly thinking of a dream job, a healthier way to approach work is to look for growth experiences where you can build skills for life.
When I worked in a large university, I found the bureaucracy tedious but forced myself to look at areas of opportunity. In doing that, I took on tasks that allowed me to navigate large, complex systems and learnt how career guidance worked. These skills proved highly useful when I eventually transitioned to setting up my coaching business.
Similarly, instead of over-focusing on finding the ideal boss, spend your time working on your relationship skills with the one you have.
This is not to say you need to stay in a job you hate or tolerate a boss from hell, but as in all relationships, there are good and bad times and in an era of change, managers don’t stay put for too long. Or ask to do something different if your organisation is large enough.
The people I find most fulfilled by their work are those who use the concept of a dream job to sharpen their self-awareness about their values, while holding their expectations lightly.
Ultimately, the secret of a rewarding career lies in the ability to enjoy and throw yourself into this lifelong journey of experimentation, evolution, course correction and growth.
Above all, trust that with effort, all the pieces may form a tapestry of work that is bigger and more rewarding than the notion of an elusive dream job could ever be.
Crystal Lim-Lange is co-author of the national bestselling book Deep Human - Practical Superskills for a Future of Success, strategic advisor to Minerva Project, and the CEO of Forest Wolf, a leadership training and talent development consultancy.