A cursory read-through of my high school diaries reveals that I dreamed of becoming a political speech writer, a novelist, a poet, an ad copywriter, a parent, and, of course, a millionaire. I assumed that, no matter which path I chose, I would make more money than I'd know what to do with.
By college, I was more realistic. As an English major and, later, as a graduate student in creative writing, I knew that fame and fortune weren’t likely. But I still assumed that I would eventually find a concrete representation of my imaginary ideal: a full-time writing gig with unlimited upward mobility that would keep me employed for the rest of my life. Everything else (money, lifestyle, parenthood) would fall into place.
Now that I’m nearing 30 and have a son, I realize that my conception of a dream job was, well, a misconception.
I now know that dream jobs really are like dreams—fleeting, short-lived, and ever-changing. What seemed like a dream when I was 24 (teaching college students creative writing while I published my own work) later seemed almost unbearable (live in a remote town thousands of miles away from my family grading papers all day?!).
If I could speak to my younger self, I’d tell her to try to anticipate how her dream could evolve—to look at the people working her dream job to determine if they were living the type of life she wanted to live, from a financial, social, and ethical standpoint. My passionate young self was very much focused on a dream career, but she couldn’t see (or didn’t want to see) how a job was only one component of a dream life. While I’m still committed to the passion behind the various dream jobs I’ve pursued, I wish I’d dreamed less about the job and more about the lifestyle I wanted.
The good news is that the job market is catching up with the short shelf life of dream jobs. Staying in jobs for shorter stints is becoming the norm, and while chronic job-hopping can still be a blemish on your resume, remaining with a company for years just for the sake of seeming “loyal” is no longer as attractive to employers. New research shows that staying in one position for only a few years before moving to the next may help you keep your skills fresh, build a larger network, and reach more senior ranks in less time.
So, instead of dreaming of a specific career path from which they’d never waver, recent graduates are better off dreaming of a general career path in conjunction with a desired lifestyle. And they shouldn’t be afraid to follow their dreams as it shape-shifts according to their circumstances. For example, my current position is a dream in that I love my work, but I also value the flexible schedule that allows me to spend time with my son without a stressful commute or impossibly long hours. Several years ago, I may not have even considered this job—a small company with a veteran staff in a technical field—much less classified it as a dream job.
Right now my son’s long-term goal is to crawl across the living room, but once he’s old enough to have career aspirations, I plan to preach what I practice. While I will, of course, encourage him to pursue his passions, I’ll also try to teach him about the other aspects of a successful career: earning money, work-life balance, and the importance of daily happiness.
An unscientific survey of my mom-friends revealed that they plan to do the same. One friend and mother of two, reports: “I talk about work in terms of money to my almost-five- and three-year-olds and have for a couple of years. Kids know that Mommy and Daddy go to work in order to earn money. They know that we need money in order to pay for the house, food, TV, computer, clothes, the fun stuff.” Another friend to an almost-two-year-old explained that she sees this type of conversation changing as her child matures: “I want to encourage my son to follow his dreams and work hard and let him know that he can be whatever he wants to be. But as he gets older, we'll have discussions about the economics and reality of any career or education choice and what that may mean in terms of a lifestyle.”
I hope that this type of age-appropriate straight-talk will help my son be confident and smart about his career choices—as well as remind me that I still have plenty of time to change my mind about my “dream jobs” of the future.