The Myth of the Dream Job and the True Pursuit of Happiness

The Myth of the Dream Job and the True Pursuit of Happiness

“If you want to be happy, find a career doing what you love.” 

It’s a simple enough motto, echoed through homes, classrooms, and counselor’s offices across the nation.  It was the singular motto of my youth.  If I wanted to break out of the family’s dying farming business, I needed to get educated and pursue a career I was wildly passionate about.  Only then would I unlock the door to success and fulfillment.

But what happens when you get your dream job, and it doesn’t solve all your problems?

Let’s take a step back and look at my passions.  Ever since I was little, I have loved fiction writing.  I was the type of kid who devoured novels and knew all the local librarians by first name.  I entered short story contests any chance I could.  I completed my first novel in my early 20s.  I knew I wanted to write, but I also craved the stability of a salaried job.  Impossible right?

Well, as it turns out I had another passion: video games.  My siblings and I played video games back when the “graphics” were square blobs and you had to load them into the computer via a floppy drive.  As I got older, the games became more complicated and the stories more immersive.  There, I discovered my dream job: video game writing.  Though only a sacred few people ever got to call themselves video game writers, they did exist.  As I drifted through an undergraduate degree and my first teaching job, I daydreamed about one day becoming a video game writer.

My daydreaming turned to action when I enrolled in a Master’s degree program in business.   I set out on the video game networking warpath.  I combed through the university’s alumni contacts and reached out to anyone involved in games.  I cold-called people.  I found local game developers and followed their progress.  Through my dedication, I found an unpaid marketing internship in a small video game studio that eventually led to a full-time job when I graduated.  It only paid half of what other companies offered me, but I didn’t care.  I wanted to work in the video game industry no matter what the cost.

After two years doing marketing and production work, I saw my opportunity.  At a company-wide meeting, the CEO announced that we would be working on a new game of epic proportions.  Everyone else at the company meeting got excited about gameplay and design, but all I could see was “video game writing opportunity.”  I emailed the CEO and begged him to let me write for the new game.  I would write player manuals, I would write boring tutorial text, but I wanted to write.  Unproven, he allowed me to make the switch, and in November 2010, I officially became a video game writer.

I had made it.  This was THE job, the one that would make my life meaningful and happy, the one I had wanted for years, the one I had worked so hard to achieve.  All my education, all my dreams and aspirations, everything led to this, the video game writing job.

But a funny thing happened.  It’s not that I didn’t love my dream job.  I did.  I got to work under someone who had been writing games for several years, and he taught me phenomenal things about the art of creative writing.  I had a job many envied.  People in the industry who couldn’t have cared less about me before suddenly wanted to know what I was doing day-to-day.  And I wrote for a living.  That in itself was thrilling, the fact that I got a paycheck each month for doing something I had done for free for a long time.

But at the end of the day, the dream job was still a job.  The same politics of having a job applied: I was no more in charge of what I did as a writer than I was as a marketer.  In fact, my peers scrutinized me even more as a writer because it’s a field that everyone thinks they can do (and many think they can do better than you).  I had a conflict with a team member for several months that actually made me hate going to work, even though I loved the work itself.  And writing for someone else meant I had less time to write for myself.  I began to miss the days where I had energy to work on my novel and personal projects.

In the end, I discovered that having a video game writing job didn’t make me any more or less happy than I already was.   My happiness still hinged on many other things in my life that had nothing to do with my career.  I still had to deal with the after effects of a divorce that ended one of my most treasured friendships.   My grandfather got cancer that year.  I was approaching my late 20s and I knew I wanted children, but also knew that this goal conflicted with my job.  If I took time off in a very male-dominated industry to raise kids, how would that look to my peers?

As with many video game studios, ours met with financial troubles and the company eventually folded, leaving me jobless.  My video game writing mentor offered me an opportunity to move with him to L.A. and write for another studio, but I didn’t take it.  It would have been a fun job, but there were too many trade-offs for me.  I didn’t know anyone in L.A.  I enjoyed writing for games, but loved writing for myself much more.  The new studio didn’t offer any better job security than the last one.  Instead, I moved back closer to my friends and family, and started having children rather than keeping up with my video game career.

So what did I learn after landing and losing my dream job?  For starters, I would change that mantra I told myself all those years to this:

If you want to be happy, find a career doing what you love.”

It’s great if your career is what you love, but that’s not the most important thing to everyone.  If what you love is your family, if what you love is a hobby, if what you love is community involvement, then pursue it with passion.  Happiness is much bigger than just how you make money.  I’m actually much happier now doing marketing consultation work part-time and having more time to spend with my kids than I ever was as a video game writer.  I still love writing, but now I focus only on things I’m truly passionate about, not projects that others have dictated for me.

So for those of you reaching for the dream job, go for it.  Give it all you got.  It’s an incredible rush when you reach the end, and it can give you a feeling of accomplishment and self-worth.  But don’t expect it to define your happiness.  Happiness isn’t a career.  It’s a state of being.  So be happy now by doing whatever it is you love, whether you get paid or not.  The rest will likely follow.

Photo by Andrea

Deborah Fike

Deborah Fike is the Director of Educational Outreach for Spotkin, an educational games company that marries fun with learning.  She’s also the founder of Avalon Labs, which provides marketing consultations and writing services for start-ups and online businesses.   She carves out a significant portion of her time to raising her two younger daughters.

48 Comments

  1. Idolization is dangerous for anything, but perhaps especially when it comes to your own future, because you’re creating way too high expectations for what your life will be like when you reach a certain goal, and disregarding the fact that it will take work. Studies have shown that we’re happier window shopping than you are after buying something.

    Like when I exchange studied I thought it would be interesting and exciting on it’s own, but it takes work. You have to actively seek happiness, strive to keep a positive outlook, and do interesting things even after you think you’ve arrived.

    I would just also like to point out that maybe you ended up in your dream job after all. For example, my dream job has little to do with the work itself, and more to do with the flexibility it offers me and the opportunity to build skills on my own terms.

    Reply
    • That’s an interesting perspective, Ragnar. My dream job might have had less to do with the work itself than the other benefits it provides me. Whatever the case, I think the “dream job” is also an ever elusive, changing thing. I have a feeling that my current situation will not satisfy me in the long-term as much as it does in the short-term, and that’s okay. Everybody has to change and grow over time.

      Reply
    • Deborah,

      Well done!

      I too feel my family/raising my son is most important (though, they can be annoying at times…)

      Even though I used to be a computer professional (which I enjoyed), working for a big company, before I had my family, discovering aromatherapy as a way to keep my family and friends well, have become my passion. I continuously read and learn about psychology, medicine, latest research, and do a lot of hands-on. And, most importantly, share with the world what I know.

      My other passion is music – I teach piano, and have written a fantasy book for the little one to be in a fantasy, learning how to play piano.

      Doing what I love, and working for myself, and creating/sharing with/for the world makes me truly happy.

      Reply
  2. Such a long, difficult lesson to learn, and it goes beyond just careers. We can spend our entire lives working toward the creation of a perfect scenario, a perfect retirement, thinking the entire time “once I get there, I’ll be happy”. But we can’t guarantee the creation of situations in the future no matter how diligent we are, so we must strive to be happy now, to do what we love regardless.

    Thanks for writing this, I enjoyed it immensely. :)

    Reply
    • That’s a great sentiment. I think you are correct that it’s not just about the perfect job, it’s about the “perfect life.” You have to learn how to attain happiness now and not wait until the stars align in the way you think you need to in order to be happy.

      Reply
  3. I enjoyed this post. I’ve been caught in the trap of thinking a job would fulfill/make me happy. A couple years ago I threw my heart into a college teaching job. I got a Fulbright scholarship and assumed I was set, but that didn’t happen. I actually got ousted from my job while I was in India on my Fulbright! I came home to a tiny town and my college job gone. I was devestated then, but now 2 years later it was the best thing that ever happened to me, career-wise anyway. Thanks for writing this.

    Reply
    • Isn’t it strange how sometimes what you think is the worst case scenario can be the best thing for you in the long-run? When I first graduated college, the job market was terrible and I couldn’t find a job in my field. So instead of staying in the US, I ended up doing nothing related to my degree and teaching abroad. For someone who never thought she would even leave the US, this was a huge decision, and it changed my perspective for the better.

      Reply
  4. A very helpful post. I think we can get suckered into the job/career myth as that’s what the system wants – hardworking taxpayers spending money to keep the economy ticking over. What you get is organisations, poltics and the unanswerable “what’s next?” when you get “there”. For many creative people the need for control and freedom over what they do might mean that the job is what pays the rent in the least painful way and leaves enough space for the real vocation.

    Reply
    • It’s not only that the “system” wants it, it’s what many individual people want for you. Parents in particular (with the best intentions in the world) want children to be financially safe and secure, and often parents translate that into finding stable, high paying jobs. But that doesn’t necessarily equate into the best scenarios for people who don’t necessarily understand what they want out of life in their early 20s. A little experimentation and risk tasking can lead to better understanding yourself and what makes you tick.

      Reply
  5. I completely agree that your happiness/identity etc should not rely on your career or any other external influence. However, for many people, a career is what we spend most of the hours of our day focusing on. If you’re in that situation and you don’t love your job, your overall well-being is going to suffer. Do what you love, and if this involves a career, make sure you love that too.

    Reply
    • I agree that, given how much time you spend in a job, you should want to aim to be content at that job. There’s absolutely no point in hating that much time in your life. I also applaud people who do live to work. I wish them nothing but the best. Everyone has to find their own path to happiness.

      Reply
      • Work is an oasis for happiness. There’s no substitute for becoming the kind of person you want to become. You can become kinder, more forgiving, compassionate, etc. There’s many people who give plenty of reasons for disliking them, however, they provide many and perfect opportunitites to become a better person. The better the person you are the more people will like you, the more people like you, better relationships. better relationships and friendships = more happiness. Life is 10% what happens to you 90% how you react.

        Reply
        • I absolutely love this quote, Ramon:

          “Life is 10% what happens to you 90% how you react.”

          It’s one of those phrases that just hits the nail right on the head.

          Reply
  6. Great post and advice! I recently came to that same conclusion and am much happier now. I always compared my career to others and thought it wasn’t “impressive”, even at times felt it didn’t demonstrate my potential as a person. I work as an executive assistant and while I was conflicted if I needed to find another job, I realized I just needed to find my passions in life. And what I found out with my job, one that I give my 100% to, it gives me time to pursue what makes me happy. I learned how I crave anything creative so I focus on blogging, photography and learning calligraphy – things I never thought would make me happy. But with time, patience and insight you slowly start listening to yourself and intuition kicks in. It’s important to keep positive even when nagging/negative thoughts creep in. Because yes, happiness is a state of mind and sometimes it’s as easy as making the choice to be so. Sometimes easier said than done, but totally possible.

    Reply
    • Glad to hear that you’ve done some experimentation and have found a way of life that works for you, Mariann. I hope you always work with your inner voice and try not to live a life that others deem “best” for you.

      Reply
    • Mariann,
      Love your reminders – “happiness is a state of mind and sometimes it’s as easy as making the choice to be so. Sometimes easier said than done, but totally possible.”

      Thank you!

      Reply
  7. If the reality is that no matter if we attain or don’t attain we will not be content it becomes more clear that the “problem” is non-existent or all in our heads. So… by extension we can ask – why can’t i feel happy/content/peaceful right now? possibly a question posed in the negative is easier for us to process…I think Buddha did it that way to encourage present moment living despite our ever “answer” seeking minds! Cheers on great article

    Reply
    • I have a grandmother who lived both through the Great Depression and Japanese American internment camps. She could have let this overwhelm her, but instead, she accepted what life threw at her and has lived a very full life. So yes, I think it is quite possible to find happiness/peace in almost any situation. (And I have nothing but the greatest respect for people who have gone through these kinds of situations and found happiness.)

      Reply
  8. I was going through my emails, as i am in a job searching phase, and required a change in my low paying job and came across this article, its heading is very interesting, which compelled me to read through, gr8 work done.
    Here i want to express that, although i am happy at heart, but still sometimes find it difficult to manage with less money, Money never really mattered to me so much as work did, until recently, as i moved out of my town and far from my loved ones for job,i now believe that One must work for ones happiness upto a certain limit, while also thinking of the way out from this Per month salary thing, and try to create a continuous revenue generating asset in ones lifetime, which will help them while they grow old.

    Nice to read your article….hope to read u further….thanks…

    Reply
    • I think everyone has to find their own happiness balance, Anup, and I think it’s ever changing. I hope that whatever you seek, both in your career and in your personal fortunes, you can find what you’re looking for.

      Reply
  9. Nice article and loved it. In general, many of these articles are só helpful b/c they give me ‘permission’ tô be happy and pursue my own definition of happiness, rather than chasing some society-defined happiness.

    Reply
    • That’s the beauty of The Change Blog, and why I love writing for it. Happiness and life isn’t about one set of “rules” we must all follow, but a journey where we discover ourselves and what makes us tick individually.

      Reply
  10. That is great advice Deborah. I have always told people “I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.” (I am 49). But in reality I think I have been doing it for years. I stayed home and raised my children full time. I kept a the home pleasant and tidy for the the family. I supported my husband in his career by keeping the home fires burning (so to speak). While doing volunteer work in the community.

    Yet I kept wondering what it was I really wanted as a career. The problem was, I was allowing society to dictate that I should have a career. Convention always seems to dictate that passion is paired with making money from it. I was, in effect, sabotaging my own happiness by belittling the significance of what I was already doing.

    Thank you for validating my passion and to hell with convention. I am a mother, a wife and a community volunteer and proud and happy to be so.

    Reply
    • The truth is, Colleen, that we need women and men of all kinds in our society. We need people doing good work at their jobs, and we need people doing great work in the home and our communities. I applaud you for doing what you think is best for yourself and your family, and have no doubt you’ve done nothing but great work, even if it’s not something society has “paid” you for.

      Reply
  11. Great article, Deborah. I agree that if you do are happy right where you are, the rest will fall into place. And that’s true whether you are a homemaker, a dog walker, or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

    Reply
    • Thanks for reading, Sandy! I’m glad you agree with the premise: that no matter what the passion – career to volunteer work to hobby – it all can create meaning and happiness for individuals.

      Reply
  12. Great post! I also write for a living and this sentence really resonated with me: “In fact, my peers scrutinized me even more as a writer because it’s a field that everyone thinks they can do (and many think they can do better than you).” I couldn’t agree more and experience this almost daily.

    Finding happiness and satisfaction by working for others is elusive at best. For a while, I too worked at what became a dream job. The company was great, the culture was amazing, the people were the brightest I’d ever met, and the work was challenging with lots of variety. I happily went above and beyond, sacrificing my personal relationships to work long days and weekends. And then things changed. The company was purchased, the culture crumbled, and many of my colleagues left–both voluntarily and otherwise.

    Suddenly I was working for a company I didn’t recognize–and certainly didn’t sign up to be part of. I was angry, bitter, and unmotivated. I hated going to work every day. I knew I had to make a change. I looked for other jobs, sent out resumes, and went to interviews. At the same time, I looked for other opportunities with my current employer and landed in a really good place. That experience made me realize two things: 1.) Too much of my happiness, satisfaction, and self worth were associated with how I made money. 2.) What needed to change most was not where I worked or what I did for a living, but how I chose to feel about my circumstances. I could go on being an angry, bitter, checked-out victim, or I could choose to be cheerful, grateful, and present.

    I now look at that experience as a gift. It taught me that a company can disappear or lay you off at any time. And then what happens? Does your happiness, satisfaction, and self-worth disappear, too? It also taught me that life is WAY bigger than how you make money. I’m now an advocate of the “slash” career. For me it’s writer/author/entrepreneur/still figuring out what I want to be when I grow up. One pays the bills and keeps food in my belly, the others feed my soul. And if the bill paying gig disappears, well…my belly might be grumbling but my soul will be satisfied.

    Reply
    • Great to meet a fellow writer, Rita. I also am a person with many hats, some of them quite similar to the ones you’re wearing. I enjoy doing them all in their own time and space. I also enjoy the freedom to try new things and learn and grow, which sounds up your alley too. Being flexible with your life and career can take you down paths you never thought possible. It shapes you in ways that are wonderful, but don’t feel so wonderful at the time. Thank you for sharing your story.

      Reply
  13. Terrific post and lesson, Deborah. I’m curious….are you still pursuing your fiction writing?

    Reply
    • I’ve actually put fiction writing aside to do more posts like this in the short term. They allow me to tap into the same creative reserves for writing, and I’ve found outlets (like The Change Blog) so my work can be read by thousands of people. I plan to pick up fiction writing again when my kids get a bit older.

      Reply
      • Good for you Deborah that you’ve found a place for your creativity. Good luck!

        Reply
  14. Deborah,

    I think you really hit the nail on the head with following passions. The main thing you’re passionate about in life does not have to be your career. Funny enough, I found that passions tend to fizzle when they become my job. I feel like it’s so much easier to remain passionate when the drive comes purely from yourself. You do what you’re doing solely for your own joy. What can beat that?!

    Thanks for the great article though. I’ve been hitting some points like this in my own blog.

    Reply
    • I think there is something to enjoying a passion purely for its own sake versus doing it for a job. When you have to do something to earn money, you can’t just choose how or when to do it. You’re on demand. I will say that I did immensely enjoy creative writing as a paid job, but it was different and changed my perspective on what it means to be a writer.

      Reply
  15. Our concept of “the dream job” is probably a pretty recent element in human evolution. For most of human history, people didn’t work, exactly. They just got up each day and searched for food, cooked food, ate food, played with the kids and each other, and explored the territory. After many years of great jobs, I now do what the tribal people did. It’s terrific having no job at all. Gary

    Reply
    • I agree that the “dream job” is a modern construct, built out of an honest desire to find meaning in something we devote a ton of time to. I applaud people who find and absolute love their dream job; it obviously works for them. But I do think people like you, who have no job at all but have found other pursuits in life, can also find equal, fulfilling happiness.

      Reply
  16. Great post, thank you for sharing, Deborah!

    Reply
  17. Deborah,
    After 40 years working with Multi National Corporations and serving many different portfolios, I have not encountered a dream job in totality. There are parts of the job you will like and parts which bugs you. I guess, it boils down to how you navigate the situations to make the job tenable. I have come to the conclusion that you cannot find true happiness if you have to work for someone as you have to accept that you are not empowered to make all the decisions even if they affect you. You are trading your time for money in the pursuit of somebody else’s goals.
    In the pursuit of happiness, I left a mall operations job after two months, recently to focus on my two websites, one where I share my experience in work and life and the other to write about what interests me. Happily.

    Reply
    • Thank you for sharing your many years of experience, Stu. I would agree that working for someone else’s goals will probably leave you feeling wanting. Having started my own business, even working for yourself has its clear downsides. I’ve come to the conclusion that, for me at least, happiness is a holistic thing, not something tied only to job or family or other pursuits. It’s also ever changing, so what works for me now will not likely work later. Enjoying the journey helps keep everything in perspective.

      Reply
  18. Hi Deborah,
    Thanks for sharing your story. I think you’re right – too much of the time, we get caught up in “when I achieve X, then I will be happy.”
    Happiness comes from within. It’s hard too accept though, as frankly, part of me still believes that I would be happier living in a house by the beach than in my current apartment in the city..

    Reply
    • Annika,

      It’s completely okay to have goals. If you ultimately want that house on the beach, then trying to get there is great. However, I do think it is important to try to be happy sooner, and to also look at happiness as a holistic sum of our entire selves, not merely our job or our possessions.

      Reply
  19. It’s never been easier to monetize your passion. And by easy, I mean access to a global marketplace. Not that the skill or expertise you need got easier, nor the reaching of other people in a noisy marketplace.

    But if you got it, and you align with others who recognize it, it’s a heck of a ride!

    Great post, Deborah. :)

    Reply
    • It’s very true…there are so many more options available now than just a traditional 9-to-5 job. Although the risk of starting something new is still there, there’s more infrastructure to support you. It’s a very exciting time to define how you make a living.

      Reply
  20. Hi Deborah,

    Great post. Thanks.

    I think sometimes chasing after the “dream” job creates more unhappiness than happiness. Those who don’t know what their dream job is feel inadequate and frustrated because they don’t know what they want and feel like they are missing out and in a state of envy of those whom the perceive have their “dream” job. Then as you experienced, the actual dream job, isn’t the same as the imagined dream job and sometimes disillusionment sets in as a result. I think you are right, people should focus on do-ing what they love, for the pure love of it.

    Clay

    Reply
    • I agree, Clay, that there are two sides to the coin: the envy and then the reality when you get the dream job. If you already love what you’re doing, then it doesn’t matter if you don’t have the job just yet or if the job isn’t exactly what you envisioned. Being happy now far outweighs waiting for it in the future.

      Reply
  21. You are right happiness is not just about making money or finding the dream job. I know many people around me who got the job they’ve always dream of, but still they aren’t happy.
    Enjoy what you are doing and make your job interesting for you. It’s just a matter of thinking. Think positive and then everything will become positive.

    Reply
    • You’re right, Elina, that it’s more a state of mind than a state of employment. Thanks for reading!

      Reply
  22. Deborah, thank you so much for this article. I’ve always wondered if there was something wrong with me because I’m not ambitious and have never had a “dream job”. I’ve only ever been prepared to do jobs that don’t involve travelling or working outside regular hours, because I hate spending any more time away from my husband and home than I have to. My passion in life is my marriage and home life. I work as an administrator for a research company. I’m fed up of being told I “could do more” or I should get a promotion – I don’t want to, because the more senior jobs involve longer hours and a bigger commitment outside of the regular hours, and I don’t want that. A pleasant job with fixed hours is all I’ve ever wanted, and that’s what I’ve got.

    Reply
    • SJ, if you know what you want out of life, that’s a huge advantage. I know many people (myself included) who have struggled with work life balance. So first, congrats on knowing the type of job you need to be happy. And second, I think it’s great that you want to stay put where you are. If you are good at what you do (and it sounds like you do), there will always be pressure to move up the corporate ladder. Take it as a compliment that people want to see you do more, but maintain what makes your life work. In the end, you are the only one who can say you’re doing the right thing.

      Reply

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