“What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s a question we often ask young children—and the possibilities are endless. A doctor? A firefighter? An astronaut? But nobody ever tells us to think about the logistics, the seemingly boring details that only become relevant once we actually land that “dream job.” Doctors? They work 24-hour shifts and rarely see their family. Firefighters? They put their life on the line every day. Astronauts? Besides the impossible odds of landing that job, they’re going to spend months inside a spaceship light years from home. Even with a dream job that’s more down to earth, you might end up working in a company that has a toxic culture, or demands too much of you, or just isn’t how you imagined it would be.
Our idea of the dream job rarely takes into account the possibility of insurmountable problems. And while you might love your new post, it can’t always make up for unsociable hours, bullying, bad work culture or alienation from your loved ones. Realizing that your dream isn’t all it’s cracked up to be may seem devastating, but the experience can help you to re-evaluate your priorities and find a career that really fulfills you.
Canadian biologist Rachel spent seven years living from one job to the next. “I worked on short-term contracts with no benefits, no sick days. The work itself was really cool. But it is tough trying to buy a house while living paycheck to paycheck, or having to pay for the dentist and it costs $500.”
Tough times seemed to be over when she landed her dream job on a permanent contract. “It was full time, working with endangered species—a biologist’s dream—and more specifically, endangered reptiles, which is my forte. So I was pretty excited to join this company.”
But Rachel quickly realized that the job wasn’t quite the dream she had imagined. As a biologist, she was equipped for dealing with harsh conditions. But her employer pushed her to her limits: she was working 15-hour days in the middle of nowhere. “I’d be out there for seven days, then they would say, ‘The weather looks good for the next three days, so you’re just going to stay.’ Now I need to find someone to take care of my dog for three more days. I’m not going to see my husband, who’s a paramedic, working shifts. I’d get back and he’d be on nights for a week.”
That wasn’t the only dilemma. “We would be in the middle of nowhere with no cell range and they would have us split up. So you’d be alone on this bog, and beneath it is water nobody knows how deep. I could fall in and die and no one would know. That was the end for me. I thought, ‘I’m not ready to die for this job.’ Finding turtles was cool. But employers exploit the coolness factor. They make it seem like you’re lucky to be here.”
British risk analyst Lara had a similar experience when she landed a position at a consultancy in London. She thought she had found her dream job. “They wanted me to hit the ground running. I got into the role and it was deeply stressful. They gave me no help. I was quickly seen as the one who didn’t do things well.” Despite her being a new employee, the culture of Lara’s workplace was not one of training and understanding. She soon realized nobody was going to help her pick up the slack. “I made mistakes. But instead of asking me why, their mindset was, ‘Why would we bother trying to help you when there are people on the team who can do it without any problem?’”
Lara’s dream turned into a nightmare as the toxic environment of her workplace started to affect her mental health. “I was coming home really late, crying. I remember having to go to the gym every day to do boxing classes because I needed to release the stress.”
Lara says coming to the realization that her dream job wasn’t all it was cracked up to be was a bitter pill to swallow. “It was heartbreaking, because it was my dream. I stayed for three months because I wanted to make it work. I’ve always bought into the silly ideal of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. I could work harder if I went into the office earlier, if I stayed later, if I put more effort into it. And it didn’t work because I clearly wasn’t suited for it.”
So what do you do when your dreams go up in a puff of smoke? Realizing that everything you’ve been working towards isn’t what you wanted can be a huge disappointment. Mourning that loss is only natural, but career coach Jimi Wall says that ultimately, it’s a learning experience. “It can be really tempting to see this situation as a failure—and quite a catastrophic failure, if it is something you have been excited about for so long. It’s human nature to feel disappointed.”
What can you do? “Remind yourself of how driven you were to find that dream job. You will find that drive again. This is just a blip, but it’s a learning point, too. In the long run, you will end up benefiting so much more from this failure than you would if you’d succeeded. How many people do we know from the boomer generation who have done the same job since they were 18, then look back and say, ‘I wish I’d tried something else?’ It may not be the whole experience that is negative.”
For Lara, leaving her job in risk analysis was a turning point: she realized what she was good at. “It’s tough because you think it’s something you want and that you’re going to be really good at. Being faced with the realization that you’re not is hard to come to terms with. It took me a while. But it helped me realize the things I am actually good at. Sometimes working your way through the negative stuff leads you to the positive.”
Revising the dream
Early in our working lives, we tend to have lofty ideas about what we want to do. Rachel says her goals were informed by stories sold to her at university. “As a biologist, they’re selling you this narrative that you’re going to be saving animals, saving the environment,” she says. “Then you graduate with that expectation. If you don’t land a position that does that, you feel guilty. And if you do land that position, you might have to sacrifice a family, or owning a home. Finding that compromise is hard.”
Wall points out that we aren’t taught to ask questions or dig into what the company culture might be like before taking a new job. “An organization is never going to come out and say, ‘We’ve got bullying.’ Use the tools available to you, such as Glassdoor or LinkedIn, for getting information. Connect with a current employee and ask them for a coffee, a 15-minute chat to find out a bit more about the workplace. But to some extent you have to accept that you’re not going to know everything about the culture until you get in.”
Workplace culture is tricky to surmount. You may have dreamed of working for the company with the best reputation or the biggest reach in your field, but when you arrive the culture is toxic. There isn’t a lot you can do about that, says Wall. “The cultural or social situation can make you miserable. The reality is, it isn’t always easy.” Think about what you need in a working environment. Lara says that leaving her job in risk consultancy made her realize the value of happiness. “In my last job, everybody was incredibly progressive and fiercely intelligent, almost to the point where it was intimidating. It changed the way I think about work.”
Wall suggests that job seekers should take a moment to assess their values. Your work goals might not line up with what you want in your personal life. “I would absolutely advise that individuals in this situation are really clear on their top four core values. That will help you to define what’s realistic, and how that fits in with your dreams.” Wall reassessed his own values, which led to a career change. “I know when I went out to New York when I was 24, my values were family, friends and socializing. Now that I’m 34, I am completely different. I want calmness, I want stillness. I want to help others. I’m no longer a sales director in marketing, I’m a career coach. That’s because my values have changed.” If your dream is to be a pilot, but you also value stability and family, something’s got to give. Flying around the world means you won’t have as much time to spend with loved ones as you would if you were working a bus ride away from home. Your dreams will always be part of the picture, but make sure your values have an influence, too.
Wall’s top tips
Be kind to yourself. This wasn’t a mistake: you took the job based on the best of your knowledge at that time. Try not to beat yourself up.
Identify your learnings
What have you learned about yourself and the industry? What have you learned about your preferences when it comes to the work environment, working culture, work/life balance, location? Try journaling this information, so you have a reference point for the future.
Reassess your core values
Identify your top four core values right now: they will help you to define what you want.
Turn to your network and be honest with them
If the reason you’re leaving is down to the company, then maybe you are in your dream industry, but that particular role didn’t work out. If the reason you’re leaving is down to the realities of the job, be honest about that with others—there’s no shame in this as a learning experience.
Photo: Welcome to the Jungle
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