When Your “Dream Job” Becomes a Nightmare

Caroline Beaton

Lawyers surround me. My mom, dad, only sibling, boyfriend’s parents and soon my boyfriend are all lawyers.

I would have been one, too.

But, after three legal jobs by the time I was 23, my dream of being a lawyer had dulled. Once enamored with pencil skirts and roman numerals, I could no longer see myself in that world.

Why?

There are two main reasons our dreams die on the job.

The first: We change.

I loved the side of myself that was structured, sharp and persuasive. Once I made a PowerPoint of the new wardrobe I wanted to convince my parents to buy.

But, over time, I increasingly valued patience, open-mindedness and creativity. These traits aren’t incompatible with law, but they did make it less appealing – at least to me.

Research has long suggested that personalities aren’t fixed, and now the “personality myth”—a theory proposing personality is more a social construct than a psychological reality—is finally catching on. We’re inconsistent. We change more than we think we will. There may not be some permanent “me” to uncover. “Maybe people who go deeper and deeper into the self are actually journeying into a void,” New York Times columnist David Brooks once wrote.

The personality myth has lots of implications, but for careers it means this: dream jobs change because we change.

“If you’re changing,” psychotherapist and career coach Nina Ham told the New York Times, “Why not expect that what you want from a job is going to change?”

Once I realized who I was no longer matched my life plan, I needed a new one. Much of my struggle came from assuming any other option was inferior to my initial plan. Research shows that our brains adjust the value we ascribe to something based on how we think others value it. Because my family loves law, I felt paralyzed.

I eventually opened my eyes to other valuable career possibilities by researching and connecting with people doing other things. As I experimented with and immersed myself in new paths, my professional identity evolved from lawyer-wannabe to workplace psychology writer. But it wasn’t all flowers and unicorns. This brings me to my second reason dreams die on the job: reality.

Reality

Research psychologist Jean Twenge found that, contrary to the historical trend of happiness increasing with age, today’s young adults experience a decline in happiness around the time they turn 30. She attributes the change to millennials’ unrealistic expectations.

Less than half of high schoolers in 1976 expected to be managers by age 30. Today, nearly two-thirds do. In reality, only 18% become managers by 30. Likewise, millennials expect to find their ideal job right after college. Yet only 29% of millennials are currently engaged at work.

Many kununu reviewers confess that their dream careers weren’t what they thought they’d be. Day-to-day work is different than anticipated, and office politics are often overwrought with fear and pressure. One kununu reviewer commented that advancement never happened and there was “a huge disconnect between reality and expectations.”

“With expectations so high, less happiness is the inevitable result,” writes Twenge, characterizing today’s 30-somethings as disappointed and frustrated in “a more circumscribed reality.”

Twenge’s analysis is cynical, but I can vouch for it. Law isn’t like CSI, I learned, slightly too late. Much of it is high stress but low stakes and low impact. Later I took a “dream” editing position at an online magazine. There I learned that digital media doesn’t have a functional revenue model, and most writers don’t get noticed, let alone paid. My dreams for each position I went into were dashed against the rocks of truth. As London School of Economics professor Margaret Bray explains, “Revised expectations aren’t necessarily rational.”

To be rooted in reality, our expectations need data. This is where kununu helps. If I’d read others’ reviews of similar (or identical) jobs, I could have avoided some that were not good fits before I stepped in the door.. More importantly, I could have entered whatever position I chose more pragmatically: some things will suck. Inevitably, we’ll lose passion, be overworked or struggle with company leadership at one time or another.

Of course, we should have high hopes for our careers. We should demand the best from ourselves and our employers. But unrealistic expectations hurt these aims.

An expectation means you’re planning on xyz happening. This saps personal action and sets us up for disappointment. Goals, on the other hand, are attainable actions that will increase the probability of xyz happening. Without a plan, our brains typically choose the path of least resistance–which often opposes our long-term aspirations and expectations.

In short, revising a job ideal requires reality. We must know who we are–not who we thought we’d be. And we must seek honest specificity in our job search so we can set goals with truth–not expectation–as a yardstick.

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Caroline Beaton (@cs_beaton) is kununu’s millennial career expert. She’s an award-winning writer and entrepreneur who helps ambitious millennials change their habits and behaviors to lead more fulfilling lives. Her writing has been has been featured in Forbes, Psychology Today, Business Insider and many others.