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What makes a dream job – Recognizing that ‘dream job’ is not a static term

It comes up everywhere, from first dates to family cookouts to LinkedIn Ads to interviews: the elusive “dream job.” Chances are good that on some sunny afternoon in the first grade you were asked to draw a picture of what that looked like. Or during your senior year of high school, you were probably given […]

It comes up everywhere, from first dates to family cookouts to LinkedIn Ads to interviews: the elusive “dream job.” Chances are good that on some sunny afternoon in the first grade you were asked to draw a picture of what that looked like. Or during your senior year of high school, you were probably given a test that was supposed to “tell you” what your “ideal career” might be. Or maybe you never encountered the concept of a dream job until college, when it seemed that everybody knew their definition for this term except you.

The fact is that a “dream job” is just that: a dream. It’s likely that although you have a concept of what this might look like in your head, your current employment does not perfectly reflect your vision. Certainly, the dream job you laid out on butcher paper in first grade does not look the same as the dream job your test reflected your senior year of high school, and that probably doesn’t even look like the dream job you discovered during your quarter-life crisis in the quad your junior year of college. Chances are good that your dream job has changed four or five times even since then – the dream you had setting out after accepting that diploma is probably different from the one you found sitting at the kitchen table on your 29th birthday or the one you molded after deciding to start a family. It will probably continue to change for the rest of your career, because your dream job is not stagnant.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. What is a dream job?

There are a lot of factors that make up a dream job. Employers tend to attempt to satisfy these factors with Friday ice cream socials during July, bring-your-dog-to-work days, one really great corporate retreat to a timeshare in Arizona every year, or maybe simply an open office floor plan. These are the impersonal, glittery bullet points of the “pro” column when we think about our office space, our coworkers, and our employers, but they probably are not a good reflection of the factors that comprise a dream job.

Rather, our factors might be things like projects we find valuable, one-on-one interactions, or even just clearly defined work hours. Basically, the things that make our dream jobs a dream are the things that include us in the decision making process. You see, we might hate ice cream socials, we might not have a dog, and we might not like Arizona much. But if we are given a say in what is happening, if we feel like we have a genuine relationship with our employment and our employer, we are much more likely to feel like we are living the dream.

This definition of a dream job has a sense of implied flexibility. A recent college graduate probably isn’t going to worry so much if there is no childcare at the office. A new mother almost certainly will. These sorts of points are what make your role in your relationship with your employer so important. You have changing needs and experiences, which means that the things that made your job a dream five years ago might not cut it today.

Take, for instance, Emma Herring. When she entered the job market, she craved the courtroom drama and long hours of litigation. However, she discovered along the way that she also had a passion for project management. She still wanted to be involved in making positive change and helping people in need with her legal expertise, though, so she began to do pro bono work with her litigation skills while also project managing.

After five years in New York City, she realized that the lifestyle was not what she wanted for raising a family, and moved to Charlotte. Her new role was in project management alone, and while she appreciated the lifestyle changes, she felt a lack in her professional life. Using her interpersonal skills, she was able to pivot to become the firm’s first-ever Pro Bono Director, working to unite twenty firms in the Charlotte area around a common goal of creating a model for pro bono service in Charlotte.

Emma’s dream job looked different when she graduated from law school and entered the job market than it did when she started her family. Right out of college, Emma dreamt of being a litigator. Her passions were intellectual rigor and advocacy for her clients. After moving for Charlotte, Emma dreamt of combining her organizational and advocacy skills while also being there to cheer on her kids for Saturday morning soccer games and managing to carve out personal time in which to practice yoga. Her passions were still intellectual rigor and advocacy for her clients, but she had different needs and had had new experiences that prepared her for innovation in the field of pro bono work.

While Emma’s story is interesting, it is not unique. Almost everyone experiences changes in their lives that warrant changes in what constitutes their “dream job.” For some, it’s starting a family. For others, it’s a desire to travel. For still others, it’s a desire to make a long-distance relationship a short distance one. There are countless changes that can lead to a change in your definition of “dream job.”

The fact is, this term should not be stagnant. Can you imagine if the butcher paper illustration of your dream job from 1985 was the job you had today? You might be a space cowboy, a nail polish namer, or simply a tractor now. And if any of that is your dream, by all means, go for it. But the fact is that nearly all of us have changed something about how we perceive a dream job over the course of our lives, and certainly over the course of our careers too. The term is not static because we are not static in our understanding of self or in our understanding of the world around us.

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Carson serves as a consultant to executives at Fortune 500 companies. The author of Work Simply: Embracing the Power of Your Personal Productivity Style, her views have been included in Bloomberg Businessweek, Fast Company, Forbes, Harvard Business Review blog, and The New York Times.

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