Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
Because I write a work advice column, I hear from a lot of people who think they’ve found their “dream job”—often based on little more than an ad. They write to me wanting to know how to get hired at this dream job, or seeking guidance on how to get over not being hired, or excited that they have been hired … and I’m often left thinking, “Don’t be too sure.”
Some of this might be the cynicism that naturally develops when your inbox is full of strangers’ work horror stories, but most of it is the reality that you just can’t tell from the outside whether something is a dream job—or whether it’ll end up being a nightmare job, or a just-OK job. The things that make people think “dream job,” such as the type of work or the prestige of the company, can quickly be trumped by a horrible boss, toxic culture, crushing workload, or any of the other factors that will turn a job you were excited about into one that you dread coming to every day.
Jobs don’t always look the same way from the outside that they do once you’re working there. For example, here’s one person who wrote to me after quickly realizing that:
I was teaching preschool and I had heard that the in-company daycare of a large local biotech company was a fantastic place. I dreamed of working there for years. And then it so happened that there was an opening for a teacher in my preferred age group, I applied, and I got the job.
That place was a NIGHTMARE. So many of the parents were under super high-pressure in their own jobs that they would often flatly refuse to come pick up a sick child so they wouldn’t miss any time. We weren’t allowed to deprive the children of any “sensory experiences” which led to one kid with pica eating an *entire bucket* of sidewalk chalk. That was a fun dozen diapers (that I had to change)!
It all came to a head for me when our class had an incorrigible biter and I was told directly by my supervisor to lie to parents if they asked. This kid literally permanently scarred another child he bit his face so hard. And I was supposed to deny that we had a biter in the class if parents asked. (They all KNEW. Word got AROUND.) So one day after my supervisor again insisted that I tell parents the biting problem was “handled,” I left a note, walked out, and dropped my badge in the parking garage. I don’t put that “dream job” on my resume.
It’s not just that buying into the myth of the dream job sets people up for disappointment (although it does). Some job searchers are so convinced they’ve found their dream job that they ignore danger signs that should give them pause:
My current job is considered an absolute “dream job” in my industry, plus it’s directly related to my super niche degree. The company prides itself on its “cool” progressive image. In my initial interview, the office was a disgusting mess and everyone in the company was in on the initial interview, which definitely turned out to be symptomatic of the chaos here. Also, I saw in my interview that everything in this office seemed to be done by consensus, even when the other people in the office have no expertise or skills relating to the task at hand, but I ignored it because I really thought it was my dream job. I figured it couldn’t be as bad as it seemed in the interview. It is. Recently this played out with me having to do over 60 drafts of one pamphlet because they couldn’t decide what looked the “coolest.”
The myth of the “dream job” can also make people stay in bad situations far longer than they should. It’s supposed to be their dream, after all, and it’s hard to reconcile that with walking away:
I was hired over two years ago by a visual arts organization. It’s been a really amazing opportunity, but a huge amount of work. … This job has been affecting me negatively emotionally for a while, I’m starting to get burnt out, I dread going in in the morning. … I love the work in theory, but it’s just too much for one person to keep up long-term and I know I’m not doing as good of a job as I could be. I’m really underpaid, have never gotten a raise, and am working a second job to make ends meet.
My second job is looking for staff, and would be able to hire me full time. I would be making more money, and would actually be able to start saving. Resigning from the organization would mean sacrificing a paying job in the arts, future opportunities that it could give me and a lot of autonomy and control over my work. But in a lot of ways, I feel like I would be getting my life back. I would be able to take a vacation, save for grad school and actually start making art again. It’s a really difficult decision. Do I leave a “dream job” because it’s consuming my life?
Dream jobs do exist. You just can’t spot one until you’ve been in it for a while and have had the chance to get to know your co-workers, the manager, the work expectations, and the culture:
I’m currently in my Dream Job. When I interviewed, it seemed like a good place with interesting work, and [the] manager for whom I’d be working seemed reasonable. I’d been here between 6-12 months when I realized I was in my Dream Job. I fit here. I’m appreciated here. The team I’m in is full of wonderful people and I’m very happy when I’m in the office (most of the time). No way I could have known that before I started.
Rather than thinking in terms of “dream jobs,” job seekers would do far better to look for “interesting possibilities” and “openings I’d like to learn more about.” These more-grounded frameworks, which preserve a healthy skepticism and leave the idealizing out of it, will keep your head out of the clouds.