There is no shortage of career advice articles telling you to just chase your dream career and actualise your true potential. If I allow myself to be snarky, I can dismiss these motivational pieces as saccharine and merely relying on platitudes that are of no practical value. On the other hand, an optimistic and anti-cynical side to me can recognise that maybe some people benefit from these encouraging career advice pieces. I, for one, hope to be impactful when writing any career-related content, but that would be for the reader to judge. I do genuinely believe, as many career writers also opine, that one should not waste any time in pursuing a meaningful career. However, I find the issue with a lot of advice given on this topic – and the subsequent following of this advice – is that there is a lack of realism. When pursuing a fulfilling career, whatever it may be, it’s important to maintain realism for a variety of reasons.
There are different ways that you can discover or get a hint of your desired career. Understanding your personality type, for example, may sow the seeds of that fulfilling future, as might the pursuit of a hobby or personal project, or through having a consistent passion in life. It’s common to think that there is a perfect career out there for everyone, just as there is a perfect partner for everyone, but it may be more sensible to think of fulfilling careers as those that are most suitable to the individual, rather than interpret them as an ideal, as an unattainable standard of perfectness (in reality, it is rare – perhaps impossible – to land a career that is perfect in the truest sense, in that the career is fine-tuned to have every aspect one could possibly desire in a career).
By maintaining a more down-to-earth perspective in one’s search for a fulfilling career, one can avoid the dissatisfaction that may come from striving for a career goal that is extremely difficult – or unlikely – to be achieved. Fortunately, most of us can envision achievable career goals. For example, you might want to learn to be a pilot, start a business, or write a novel that you have been outlining for the past five years. What you want to watch out for is the tendency to overidealise these career goals. For example, if you know deep down you want to be a pilot, you may fantasise about being the most renowned and skilled pilot in the world, with celebrities chartering your private jet, or you may imagine spending your life travelling the world in your own jet. All of this is possible, of course. But if you invest your happiness in such lofty goals, there is a strong chance of disappointment following.
The more optimistically minded and motivational types may insist, ignore this limiting attitude, you can achieve anything you want! I sympathise with this perspective to an extent, but it does sometimes strike me as steeped in unrealism. It’s an attractive and uplifting message to take on board, yet it misses out on many nuances in an individual’s life: lack of privileges and opportunities, changing circumstances, shifting priorities, and sheer bad luck. Going back to the pilot example, it may be that through hard work, grit, and determination you do become a pilot, just not in the exact way you imagine. Perhaps you become a commercial pilot for an airline. At that moment in your career, things may not feel perfect, but your career may still be fulfilling because it aligns with your genuine interests and personality type.
So, depending on how you visualise it, your ‘dream job’ may not actually exist, or not exist yet. But there’s nothing wrong with that. Who says happiness in one’s work is necessitated by an ideal career? One can certainly feel fulfilled in a job that is meaningful and enjoyable but not perfect. At the same time, if you define your ‘dream job’ in a down-to-earth way, then such a career path could be feasible. According to the effective altruism organisation 80,000 Hours, based on a review of 60 studies, dream jobs – or the most satisfying jobs – are distinguished by six characteristics:
- Work that’s engaging
- Work that helps others
- Work you’re good at
- Work with supportive colleagues
- Lack of major negatives
- Work that fits with the rest of your life
It may take a while, however, to get to a point in your life in which your job has these characteristics or where you have achieved the career success you desire. Here, one should try to further maintain a realistic perspective. It’s all too easy to be on the correct career path but – because one is unrealistic about the time, effort, skill development, and luck needed to progress – there is frustration about not being where one wants to be, right now. Keep in mind that many of the most successful people started their careers very late in the game and/or took many years – decades even – to fulfil the career potential they knew they could achieve.
It can be incredibly useful to hold on to an image of an ideal career for the purposes of motivation, persistence, and mental resilience. But if this is done without a sense of realism, without the knowledge that one may approach but never actualise the ideal or that it could take a very long time to reach the ideal, then one could end up feeling quite despondent and self-critical in one’s pursuit. You don’t have to buy into the American Dream way of thinking in order to find a career that is personally rewarding and positively impactful. By redirecting your focus from ideal career paths to fulfilling career paths, you will give yourself the best chances of achieving long-term success and enduring life satisfaction.