“The dream job” vs. “what would you do if you could do anything?”

In seven years of working with professionally-oriented MA students, I have yet to encounter one who could not answer the question “what would you do if you could do anything?” Of course, the answer is often followed by a litany of qualifications: “well, but I really couldn’t move away from my family” or, “I couldn’t really work for such a low salary”, or “but I don’t have the required qualifications. “

But this doesn’t mean that there isn’t an answer in that initial response to this question. We just need to know how to listen for it.

Listen interpretively
When you take the Myer’s Briggs or the Strong interests and skills inventory, the facilitator will teach you how to hear the jobs that the instrument suggests for you. For example, I often get “bus driver” on this test and I do not take it to mean that I should stop what I am doing now to go work for WMATA. As the test facilitator taught me, I now know that this profession is simply one in which people who share my personality type report a great deal of job satisfaction. And there are reasons for this. I have a strong inclination to be of service, to help people get where they are going (my work as Career Linguist speaks to this calling). I also enjoy travel and variety and feeling like I am in the middle of things – in a hub of activity (so long as I can have a quiet retreat to escape to at the end of the day). So there are real qualities to the job of bus driver to attend to for me. Tasks, activities and responsibilities. And I often do use the bus metaphor when I am advising students “who is driving this bus?”

If you take a few minutes to stop to think about it (or even better yet, write about it), there are probably some things that you have always talked about doing, or have been thinking about doing, or have been dreaming about doing. Or are told by others that you should be doing. What is behind that? What deeper need is that speaking to? Conversely, what is in front of that? What skills and training do you lack in order to be able to pursue this path? Are these things that you might actually be interested in devoting time and energy to in future?

In my case, if you had asked me twenty years ago “what would you do if you could do anything?” My answer would have been “work at Disney.” And if you had asked me then what was standing in my way, I probably would have said that I only lacked the technical skills and experience that I would need to work in a film production studio. 🙂 However, in the same breath, I probably also would have told you that I didn’t care what I was doing at Disney – I could have been the person who swept the floors and I would have been happy.

However, twenty years passed and in that time I did not choose to pursue those technical skills. I have also known people who have worked at Disney and neither did I pursue networking opportunities with those individuals. Instead, I pursued training in linguistics, and the people who I network with now are those who share my passions and deeply value language, culture, and communication. What has come to motivate me professionally is the desire to put those technical skills into practice. And one day, who knows, I might end up working for a project with Disney, but I say that the initial inclination to work at Disney is more interesting to think about.

How do I hear my answer now and with the passage of time?
At the time, I was studying English literature and I think that what Disney represented to me was the place to go if you appreciated narrative, the place to be for someone who valued storytelling. What I also now understand that answer to have meant is that I knew that I would enjoy working in a creative environment and with people who are also creative and who think very innovatively. I am also drawn to the West Coast. Illuminating, no? Take the time to unpack your own “what would you do?” answer.

Which brings me to the question of “dream jobs”
I maintain that the answer to the question “what would you do if you could do anything?” is not your dream job.  For one thing “what would you do?” couches the question in terms of activities you would perform, asks you to think about the things you would do as part of performing this job. This is already a much better place to be because you are dealing with concretes rather than dreams.

Also, remember that much of the thinking about dream jobs can be informed by the strong ideas and opinions of others, not necessarily yours. I want to ask you to be a linguist for yourself by listening to the stories that you tell and attend to the patterns in the choices you have already made. And also, do listen to the input of others, but by actively listening – paying attention to how their perspective resonates with you.

Ask why
When people tell you “you know what you should be doing? X!” ask them “why?” what is it that they see in you that would seem to be suited to that thing that they are recommending? In my case, there have been two things that people have always told me that I should be:

1) a teacher
2) a storyteller

I didn’t always know how to hear this, possibly because I was hearing this advice literally and thinking that I was supposed to be out there searching for some job as a person who teaches storytelling, and I knew that this would probably not pay the bills. However, if I take a step back to look at things, I actually am doing this now, and further, I have come to no matter what I do with the next twenty years of my professional life, I know that it will touch on those two things!

Know that every job has aspects that are going to be challenging both in good ways and in bad ways. The more you know about yourself, and how you work, the better you can choose and then actively navigate a job and work environment that are most conducive to your success and happiness. This is the dream after all…

As you can perhaps tell, I do not particularly like the idea of the “dream job.” This is because I find that many of us carry some unexamined and dangerous thinking around an “ideal job,” “perfect job” or “dream job” just waiting out there that just needs to be “hunted” down sometime in the future. And maybe as you read this, you are even working in a job that looked like it was going to be a dream and in many ways is in reality very much less than ideal. For me, this is an important moment because it can help you to accept the idea that there is no perfect job out there. I hope this awareness and acceptance will help to interrupt unproductive processes of thinking that sometimes surround the idea of “the perfect job,” which can be unnecessarily demotivating and paralyzing because it seems so far away and out of reach. Maybe a place to start is “a dream job.” Standing where you stand now, what would be A DREAM JOB that you could take steps towards pursuing tomorrow? And then what steps could you do to help achieve this goal next week? And the week after that? Are there professional experiences you could start pursuing in the meantime?

and don’t forget to tell me all about it! 🙂