Stop Fantasizing About the Perfect Job
Some careers seem to maintain a powerful allure. Many people fantasizing about leaving their jobs for careers that seem to offer deep meaning, like teaching or non-profit work, or apparent autonomy, like entrepreneurship. Others are attracted by high-status, high-pay occupations such as law and consulting. Still others want to work in broadcasting or publishing, for example, which maintain a glamorous allure. The irony is that there are probably just as many people itching to get out of these roles as fighting to get in. In any industry, not just these, it’s fairly easy to find people who dislike the work they do.
Why do smart people have such odd blind spots?
Holding out for a job you love offers to solve all problems at one stroke – boss problems, earning enough, making choices. Perhaps most of all it offers us two big-ticket items: meaning and entertainment. Ideal jobs appear to fulfil deep-seated needs both for variety and task enjoyment, as well as fulfilling a sense of purpose. When you ask people to describe their ideal role, their chosen mix is distinctive but not unique. Many people want a boss who guides rather than pushes, who doesn’t micromanage. Many want an organizational culture that does what it says on the tin. When people talk about idealized work they often also express longing for a job that feels worthwhile: “I want to make a difference” or “I want to give something back.”
So what’s wrong with targeting to a job that you will find totally satisfying and meaningful? Only one thing. You’re probably not going to find it.
Perfection is an odd goal in career choice. We learn not to limit ourselves to perfect when it comes to choosing holidays, houses, or partners, so why are we obsessed with the idea of a job that will fill all our fantasies about work?
When people think about getting their ideal role, they’re falling into an all-or-nothing trap. It’s a kind of challenge to the universe – give me everything now, or leave me alone. Which of course reveals how passive the whole idea is: you may talk about “finding” the perfect job, but secretly you hope it finds you. The deep, dark secret of “all or nothing” is that it gives you and me permission to do absolutely nothing. If something wonderful comes along, you might take a look, but otherwise the same lukewarm plan will do.
Playing the game of ideal-versus-real means that you can toy with the idea of alternative futures without taking the simplest first step towards actual change – which nearly always means talking to someone about the reality of their work.
Holding out for all-satisfying work may be dream territory, but we need the concept of idealized work – or at least the idea that some work can be exciting. We need it because that excitement is what gives people the energy to pick up the phone, to explore, to keep knocking on doors. And we need impassioned door-openers. But we also need pragmatic deal-closers who look for a strong match between their wish lists and an employer’s wants – which means digging deep enough to know what success looks like and what the trade-offs will be. It means asking “What’s the job really like?” and “What will I be doing most of the time?” and “What’s the worst part of this job?”
Finding work that inspires – just a little – means learning how to match yourself properly against job reality, and knowing how to keep reaching out until you find a better deal. And all work is a deal – a deal between what you want to get out of life and what an organization (or customer) wants to get out of you.
Don’t accept second-hand information. Find out what the job feels like from the inside. Don’t allow employer branding or media portrayals make you starry-eyed: look with energy, get offers, and ask the right questions. If it’s a role that takes your resume in a risky direction, perform as much due diligence as you would if you were an investor.
Perfect means hoping and waiting, but doing little. Actively reaching out for good enough can transform your career.