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Tiffany Gee Lewis: The myth of the dream job

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Workers assemble condensers at the Atwater Kent Factory in North Philadelphia in 1925. The largest manufacturer of radios in the U.S. employed more than 12,000 in the 1920s.

Workers assemble condensers at the Atwater Kent Factory in North Philadelphia in 1925. The largest manufacturer of radios in the U.S. employed more than 12,000 in the 1920s.


One of the biggest lies we tell our young people is to follow their passion and get their dream job.

I see a lot of 20-somethings wandering around these days, trying to find their "thing." In the meantime, they’re working part time at a movie theater and living in their parents’ basement.

This generation is not entirely to blame. After all, they’ve been fed a steady diet of “follow your dreams” stories. They’ve heard of J.K. Rowling’s days in the coffee shop, writing "Harry Potter" in longhand while rocking a baby in a stroller. They’ve been told of Walt Disney’s lean years, sleeping on the floor of his rented studio, feeding crumbs to the mice while inking his own cartoons.

Such romantic tales — just believe in yourself and things will happen!

A friend once got a phone call from her college-age son, who announced that he was going to become an actor. (He had been in exactly one play in his life, in high school.) “I know it’s the right thing to do,” he told his mom, “because it terrifies me.”

Cliff jumping terrifies me. So does skiing double black diamonds. That doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.

In a recent Atlantic article, “Workism is Making Americans Miserable,” Derek Thompson writes about this strange connection between life fulfillment and career.

“In the past century, the American conception of work has shifted from jobs to careers to callings — from necessity to status to meaning. In an agrarian or early manufacturing economy, where tens of millions of people perform similar routinized tasks, there are no delusions about the higher purpose of, say, planting corn or screwing bolts: It’s just a job.”

Along with this idea of finding one’s calling has grown the misconception that work should be fun. If it isn’t fun, or if the path isn’t paved in flowers, it must not be the right thing.

As Thompson writes in the Atlantic, “in a recent Pew Research report on the epidemic of youth anxiety, 95 percent of teens said ‘having a job or career they enjoy’ would be ‘extremely or very important’ to them as an adult. This ranked higher than any other priority, including ‘helping other people who are in need’ (81 percent) or getting married (47 percent). Finding meaning at work beats family and kindness as the top ambition of today’s young people.”

My first internship out of college was at National Geographic magazine. The National Geographic. As a content editor for the website, I interviewed some of the most famous writers and photographers in the history of the publication.

What I learned surprised me. These esteemed professionals spent hours sitting in trees, waiting for a certain kind of light. They trekked through snow and swamp. They sacrificed family time, ease and often safety for that one prize shot.

Aha, I realized. That’s what we call work. Hours of tedium punctuated with occasional flashes of satisfaction and reward. And in case you’re wondering, my desk job at the magazine was just that — mostly tedious, often mind-numbing, with a few bright spots that I still remember.

We need to reframe the way we prep the next generation for the job market. We need to tell them this: find a job where you will feel valued. Find a job that provides security and stability, that takes care of its employees. If it’s important for you to use your hands, find that kind of job. If it’s important for you to use your analytic skills, find that kind of job. Get as much education as you possibly can in your field of interest — that is one thing you will never regret, but don’t be foolish about the amount of debt you’re willing to take on.

Expect to work very, very hard. That will get you the farthest and provide the most satisfaction. Expect to have highs and lows, no matter the work. Expect to have good and bad bosses.

Move forward. Don’t wait for the perfect job to land at your doorstep. Nothing begets nothing. Expect that your career will be a series of stepping stones toward what you ultimately end up doing.

Expect to be surprised. I have friends and family who started in toys and ended in health care, who started in restaurants and ended in finance, who began in journalism and ended at the university.

Find a job that needs people. We have a shortage of workers in manufacturing and nursing. We do not have a shortage of actors or novelists or screenwriters or rock musicians. If that is your passion, make it an excellent hobby once you’ve established a career, the kind that brings in money.

Because unless you are an heir or heiress, you will need to make a living.

Don’t make your job the center of your world. The job is the vehicle, the means to an end: providing for yourself and your family.

In high school, I had a spiral notebook filled with quotes, one of my favorite being, “Choose a job you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” The quote has been attributed to everyone from Mark Twain to Confucius, which tells you something right there. The idea is well-intentioned but somewhat misguided.

The people I know who seem the most content in their lives work very hard. They also put hard stops on their work. The rest of their time is spent growing their relationships, enjoying the outdoors, traveling, serving in the community and pursuing goals outside of their careers.

In The Atlantic article, Thompson writes, “… a culture that funnels its dreams of self-actualization into salaried jobs is setting itself up for collective anxiety, mass disappointment, and inevitable burnout.”

This doesn’t sound like the career path we want our young people to take. It’s time to change the narrative, and just get a job.