Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

The Danger of the Dream Job Delusion

September 10th, 2010 · 67 comments

The Ivy League Farmer

Earlier this summer, Julie and I attended a dinner at Red Fire Farm, a 110 acre organic farm in rural Granby, Massachusetts. The dinner celebrated the strawberry harvest and the farmhands had setup tables under a tent overlooking the fruit fields. As we poured our wine, the farm’s owner, Ryan Voiland, stood up to say a few words about this year’s harvest.

Ryan is young, only in his early thirties, a fact he tries to hide with a grizzled black beard. As he spoke, his few words stretched into an enthusiastic dissertation on rain fall and cabbage yields. Eventually, Ryan’s wife, Sarah, took over, leading the group in a prayer to the “earth goddess.” As we sipped strawberry gazpacho, a group of college-aged farm interns formed a song circle in a patch of grass near the chicken coop.

In the comfort of cynical Boston, the event would have felt over the top, but in the shaded fields of Granby, it made sense. When I looked over to the main table, I saw Ryan take in the scene. He was smiling.

What makes Ryan’s story canonical is its start. Ten years earlier, he walked out of Cornell University with an Ivy League diploma in his hand and headed straight into the offices of the Farm Service Agency, where he secured a loan to buy his first farm property. A decade later, Red Fire is a success: it sells organic produce straight to the consumers through farmers markets and a sold-out CSA. When I last visited the farm, in mid-August, they were installing a $200,000 solar array. Ryan loves what he does and does it well.

The Dream Job Trope

Ryan has a dream job — which I define to be an occupation built around a hobby or casual side interest that you enjoy.  (Growing up, Ryan loved to garden, so, naturally, he started a farm.)

The dream job is a powerful trope in the job satisfaction literature. For example, here’s the opening paragraph from a popular career advice guide:

“[A] New York investment banker becomes a small-town college chef. A college professor becomes a chocolatier. An entrenched corporate exec…converts to the ministry.”

These are all dream jobs. When Tim Ferriss tells his famous story of an attorney who drops everything to open a Brazilian surf shop, that’s also a dream job, as are most of the examples touted in the perennially popular quit your terrible cubicle job to start a business advice guide niche.

You like to cook? Become a chef! Love chocolate? Open a chocolate shop! Like surfing on exotic beaches? Open a surf shop! And so on.

We’re entranced by dream jobs. When we hear stories like the one that opened this post, we feel a rush of aspiration. Hundreds make a living writing books and blogs about mustering the courage to pursue dream jobs, and millions dedicate their day dreaming to the topic. In this post, however, I want to argue that this is a problem.

The dream job trope isn’t the path to job satisfaction, and it’s not just harmless wistful thinking: it’s instead downright dangerous.

I Don’t Know What I Want, But It Might Be This

In a fascinating study, published in the Journal of Research in Personality in 1997, a research team lead by Amy Wrzesniewski of the University of Michigan studied the differences between a job, a career, and a calling. Early in the paper they describe a surprising finding:

The way individuals view work may be a function of [personality] traits, not just reflections of the work itself.

In other words, the reason why some people see their work as a calling might have little to do with the work itself, and a lot to do with how the person approaches the work. Wrzensniewski’s team, for example, found that the proportions of people calling their work a calling versus a career versus a job, was about the same whether you looked at hundreds of people spread across dozens of occupations, or focused on a small group that all have the same position at the same company.

Around a year ago, inspired by this work, I launched my own (informal) study. My goal was to interview people who self-described as “loving what they do.” As my collection of interviews grew, I was struck by the normalcy of the respondent’s jobs, which included:

  • A certified behavior analyst.
  • An executive assistant.
  • A milkman.
  • A personal trainer.
  • An employee for a health care consultancy.
  • An employee for a company that designs online ethics courses.
  • A language instructor.
  • A computer programmer.

None of these are dream jobs. Instead, their mundane nature reinforces Wrzesniewski’s findings: when it comes to loving what you do, the type of job you have might matter much less than what you do with it.

This is where the dream job trope becomes dangerous. The more you’re bombarded with messages promoting the dream job path to happiness, the more likely you are to ossify your view of the working world into normal boring jobs vs. exciting dream jobs. Once you’ve made this division, you’re much less likely to start investing the hard, unsexy, longterm work into your current career needed to grow it into something deeply fulfilling. You’ll instead save this mental energy for your vague day dreams of starting a small town wine store or teaching surfing in Cabo.

(See Ramit Sethi’s exhaustively researched Earn 1k program for more details on the reality of making money by selling services; here a preview: almost everyone who succeeds leverages a valuable skill they built up in a traditional job.)

Assuming you accept this premise, the question remains of how best to nurture this growth of your existing career into something inspiring.  I don’t know all the answers yet, but if you’ve been reading Study Hacks this past year you know that my instincts lead me toward the importance of becoming very good at something rare and valuable and then cashing in the career capital this generates for things you value.

When you dive deeper into Ryan’s story, for example, you discover that he grew up around farms and went to Cornell to study fruit and vegetable horticulture in their world class ag school. His story is less about mustering the courage to follow his dreams, and more about the determination required to systematically gather the difficult skills needed to succeed in a demanding (but rewarding) field.

If these less sexy, but ultimately more fulfilling ideas about work satisfaction interest you, stay tuned: once we discard the saccharine tropes of the “follow your passion” camp, we face a lot more exploration to figure out what’s really going on.

#####

This post is the first in my new series on Rethinking Passion, which tackles questions concerning the reality of building a deeply satisfying work life. Expect a new post in the series roughly once or twice a month. In the meantime, the following three posts provide an introduction to my previous thinking on the topic:

(Photo by Norm Walsh)

67 thoughts on “The Danger of the Dream Job Delusion

  1. I don’t know all the answers yet, but if you’ve been reading Study Hacks this past year you know that my instincts lead me toward the importance of becoming very good at something rare and valuable and then cashing in the career capital this generates for things you value.

    Something I really appreciate about your writing is that you generally back up assertions with evidence. When you mention your instincts lead me it got me wondering, do you every worry that you pick and choose evidence that fits your instincts?

  2. Study Hacks says:
    When you mention your instincts lead me

    Instincts honed by the research I’ve been reading and interviews I’ve been conducting.

  3. URAHARA says:

    >When you mention your instincts lead me it got me wondering, do you every worry that you pick and choose evidence that fits your instincts?

    We find answers to the questions which we ask. It means that you can ask “why am I so dumb” and find 10 reasons. Or you can ask “how could I have become so smart” and find 10 factors.

    You questions precondition your answers.

    Ask good questions to get good answers.

  4. Ask good questions to get good answers.

    I would add that where and how you look for those answers plays a pretty big role as well.

    Instincts honed by the research I’ve been reading and interviews I’ve been conducting.

    Makes sense.

  5. Study Hacks says:
    Ask good questions to get good answers.

    Finding those questions is certainly the hard part of any intellectual investigation. I hope mine were chosen well…keep me honest!

  6. Mr. Snake says:

    Hello Cal:

    I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m a high school student, trying to write and publish a book. I do write often, but I don’t know how I should go about this. I’ve talked to someone who wrote a novel while attending my school, but I haven’t been able to contact any other good writers from there. Do you have any other suggestions about this?

    Also, while I can hard focus on writing for an hour, I feel that I am not making progress. I read often, and I’m a shameless copycat about ideas and lines from other books, but I’m bad at writing my own part in detail.

    Thanks for reading.

  7. Stanley Lee says:

    I think sometimes “passion” are built up by external noise from parents, uninformed friends and elders in order for us to believe in that stereotype (similar to the conventional consumerism American Dream criticized in http://www.ridiculouslyextraordinary.com/the-american-dream-is-dead/ ). It is much later on that the kids found out their dream jobs are nothing short of intensive high-tech sweatshop brain and emotional labor. This is the danger of falling for the passion in “dream jobs” rather than taking the lifestyle-centric planning approach that Cal has been talking about, IMHO.

  8. AnlamK says:

    do you every worry that you pick and choose evidence that fits your instincts?

    With Steve-MDJourney, I also wonder whether Cal has been affected by confirmation bias

    Do you think that it’s permissible/acceptable to find one’s job boring/uninteresting? Or can everyone like any sort of job?

  9. Some of those “mundane” jobs you listed could easily be dream jobs to other people. A dream job doesn’t have to be in an exotic location or limited to a hobby. Just because a type of work seems boring or mundane to one person doesn’t mean it couldn’t be exciting to someone else. One person’s idea of fun is another person’s torture.

    How you go about doing a job only goes so far. If you loathe your current work, there may not be much of anything you can do to make it more interesting or bearable. I’d think it would be more dangerous to remain in this sort of miserable situation, especially when there are plenty of other choices.

  10. Study Hacks says:
    I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m a high school student, trying to write and publish a book. I do write often, but I don’t know how I should go about this

    If you’re interested in writing non-fiction, search for my blog post titled something like: “how to get a book deal.” If you’re interested in writing fiction, spend a weekend reading through Justine Musk’s Tribal Writer blog: brilliant insight into the reality of that process.

    similar to the conventional consumerism American Dream criticized in

    This is an insightful comment; I have been working through a similar critique recently. In short, the notion that finding the perfect job will make everything immediately better is much like the way we’re told that getting the newest iPod will make our lives meaningful. Life ambition reduced to consumer product.

    Or can everyone like any sort of job?

    I doubt it; some jobs are horrendously mind-numbing.

    With Steve-MDJourney, I also wonder whether Cal has been affected by confirmation bias

    A little confirmation bias here and there is needed to advance new ways of looking at the world…

  11. Cara says:

    Mr. Snake, if you’re interested in writing and publishing, check out the Absolute Write forums. You’ll find an overwhelming amount of excellent information on both the craft and the business of writing.

  12. GM says:

    Hi Cal-

    I think Ramit’s program is called Earn1k, not Earn1000k.

    Looking forward to the next post.

    Cheers,
    GM

  13. Stanley Lee says:

    Hi Cal,

    I already had a similar critique about it for the benefit of recent or upcoming college grads in case if you’re interested in reading about it: http://blog.sysil.com/2010/09/07/conventional-american-dream-legalized-ponzi-scheme-read-more-to-find-out/

    It’s more of a scam than a Ponzi scheme regarding the consumerism American Dream.

    Stanley

  14. Estara says:

    Hey Cal,
    I’m looking forward to more posts on this series! I often wondered about dream jobs, and thought that if there were these rare, amazing, fantastical occupations, then those poor people who weren’t lucky enough to find one should be pitied. Life is what you make it, not what happens to you.
    But on a different note – I have had MUCH trouble emailing you. I tried to send an email three times, and each time it came back to me saying there was a permanent error in getting the message to your inbox. Don’t know what’s up, just thought I would let you know.

  15. Scott Young says:

    Hey Cal,

    Interesting thoughts. You seem to draw two points (from my reading):

    1. That “loving what you do” may be more attitude than content of the job.
    2. That following an idealized “dream job” is dangerous.

    As we’ve spoken about before, I completely agree with you on #2, since attacking “dream jobs” means you’ll be facing an often pre-existing competitive structure and the salient features of the dream job may not appear until after you get it–after which it may turn into a nightmare. The chef-turned-failed-restauranteur springs to mind.

    However, I’m curious about your statement of #1. If at issue is personality, then it seems to suggest that efforts at finding a job you love are somewhat wasted since much of your life satisfaction comes from personality. Perhaps I’m just misinterpreting the thrust of your argument, but it’s worth a thought.

    I think we can probably agree that a better approach to finding passion in your work is rarely a path that is obvious from the outset, but involves taking hold of random opportunities and putting in hard work over many years.

  16. Rob says:

    Hi Cal –
    Just my copy of your book. I was reluctant, since I’m not in high school nor a parent of a high school student. But you had a comment somewhere that said you discussed the “Get So Good They Can’t Ignore You” theme, so I decided to check it out. For me, that’s what I find most interesting in your work: DP, innovation, etc, especially how it can apply to work after college and a career. And in Part 3, especially the “Playbook” you deliver original content. That was worth the purchase, and it clarified some things for me. Thanks so much, and keep up the good work!

  17. Kevin says:

    I really enjoy your perspective on passion. I like that you stress that it is more about developing a strong work ethic towards the work you do. Your posts have helped me debunk the passion myth as being some occult thing that is reserved for only the few and lucky. Nice job and I hope you continue with your unique take.

  18. A.M.L says:

    Cal,

    I know this isn’t the place for this question, but I wanted to ask for some clarification on how your “Shadow Course” method is intended to work, as I find the idea very interesting. From what I gathered, if one is to adopt the shadow course it is intended to be time set aside to work specifically on exam/term paper prep, in addition to the typical weekly work for each class, correct? You suggest 1hr/wk for each class being taken. My question is where/how to set aside this time. With 4 classes, this means setting aside 4hrs/wk. Should this time be set aside in one large chunk? This seems contradictory to your advice to break work up into short, high focus chunks. Should it be 4 hours spread apart throughout the week wherever they fit? This doesn’t seem to fit the “shadow class” metaphor you’ve drawn, as most classes don’t meet 4x/wk. Perhaps you were getting at doing something like 2hrs, twice per week and splitting those hours into 1hr for each class? Again, I’d just like a quick clarification on how to use this method.

    Thanks!

  19. kei says:

    Hi Cal,

    I am not a student.

    Almost 30 years on this planet in fact.

    However, i bought 2 of your works, how to be straight A student and How to be high school superstar.

    I found myself deeply interested in applying the general concepts of these books not to be a better student or a superstar in high school, but to pursue a deeply interesting, highly rewarding and stress-free life.

    I have three things to say:

    1) when i was much younger, i did stumble upon the reading aloud method for memorization and did well. Somehow i did that rather unconsciously, so did not translate it into a regular habit in my preparations for all my studies.

    Needless to act, my academic achievements as a student are not impressive.

    Your work has reminded me of that. You are very conscious of what works and rigorously replicate the successful techniques/principles.

    That attitude of being conscious of what works and rigorously testing it out is precious. I admire that.

    2) Which brings me to the next point.

    Your two books, whilst on the topics of excelling in student life, have principles that can be translated into career life as well.

    I am pleased to hear that you are starting a new series of Rethinking Passion.

    I of course prefer that you do more than just “rethink passion”, but to “rethink success in career” akin to what you have done for academic life.

    3) What other meta-principles or meta-techniques have served you well in more than 1 area of your life?

    I suspect, though not entirely sure, that these meta-principles or meta-techniques that have enabled you to produce books, excel in academia and in your career are practical, useful and perhaps universal.

    For example, I see how you are conscious of what works and rigorously test it out (or by confirming it with interviews of other similarly high-achieving people)

    Is under-scheduling also such a meta-principle for your achievements?

    Thank you.

    Have a nice day.

  20. Lorenz says:

    Hi Cal!

    Of the three links at the bottom, #1 and #3 have the same target. I believe #1 should link to http://calnewport.com/blog/2009/11/24/are-passions-serendipitously-discovered-or-painstakingly-constructed/

    Thanks and keep writing!

  21. Blue says:

    @Scott Young: I was one of the people who replied to Cal’s original survey. The issue isn’t “personality” per se in that “some people just have happier personalities and are therefore happier in their jobs.” It’s more like “look, figure out the whole life picture that fits your personality and then fit the job in as one of the puzzle pieces.”

    Between college and grad school I bumped around a number of jobs, all of them seemingly miserable; after grad school I actually sat down and made a list of the items I wanted in my life (access to the outdoors, opportunity to walk to work, etc.) and the items I wanted in my job (which weren’t so much “I want to be a movie star” as they were “I want a job where I can study and organize systems” which actually applies to a lot of things), analyzed my skills and experience, and used all of that to build a job/life which I really love.

    So that’s how “personality” worked for me.

  22. Study Hacks says:
    think Ramit’s program is called Earn1k, not Earn1000k.

    Whoops. I guess the latter sounds a little too good to be true! Fixed it…

    I tried to send an email three times, and each time it came back to me saying there was a permanent error in getting the message to your inbox.

    Maybe you have the wrong address? It is author at calnewport.com

    I think we can probably agree that a better approach to finding passion in your work is rarely a path that is obvious from the outset, but involves taking hold of random opportunities and putting in hard work over many years.

    I think this is a great way of putting it. Another fascinating result from that study was that the factor that most predicted someone calling their job a “calling” was experience. The more experience you had, the more likely it was important to you.

    That was worth the purchase, and it clarified some things for me. Thanks so much, and keep up the good work!

    Thanks Rob! If you feel so inspired, consider leaving a review to that effect on Amazon — it’s possible that other people are in your same situation trying to make a similar decision.

    From what I gathered, if one is to adopt the shadow course it is intended to be time set aside to work specifically on exam/term paper prep, in addition to the typical weekly work for each class, correct?

    That’s right. I would suggest spreading the time, to some degree, Often, for example, I’ve seen people schedule a shadow course for the hour leading up to or following the real course.

  23. Study Hacks says:
    What other meta-principles or meta-techniques have served you well in more than 1 area of your life?

    I’m real big on doing a small number of thing, but putting in a lot of time to doing them well. I’ll wait months, if not years, sometimes to take on a new project, before I’m sure it’s something I can commit to. I place a lot of emphasis on the quality of my life, and work backwards from that to figure out questions of my work, my hobbies etc., and am a big believer in treating your mind like a private garden. Finally, I put a lot of effort into determining what hours are actually making me better and what don’t matter, and trying to eliminate the latter at the expense of the former.

    This is just off the top of my head, but I hope it’s useful.

    Of the three links at the bottom, #1 and #3 have the same target. I believe #1 should link to http://calnewport.com/blog/2009/11/24/are-passions-serendipitously-discovered-or-painstakingly-constructed/

    Fixed!

    So that’s how “personality” worked for me

    Blue’s story is a canonical example of working backwards from what it means to live a “good life,” and using this to guide her work and out of work choices. It’s been an important inspiration to my thinking on this topic.

    Notice, this approach is in opposition to the standard approaches which is focus exclusively on the job and hope that if chosen correctly everything else will work out well.

  24. kei says:

    Hi Cal, just want to clarify a few thoughts.

    Notice, this approach is in opposition to the standard approaches which is focus exclusively on the job and hope that if chosen correctly everything else will work out well.

    In this quote, you are saying working backwards by first crafting out a lifestyle that is “good” and then figuring out the career/studies/hobbies/projects/activities required to get there.

    Which opposed the usual suggestions of focusing on a job/task/major in college, and hope that your efforts and choice of picking that focus pays off.

    1) Am I paraphrasing you correctly?

    2) how do you reconcile this if 1) is correct, with the Steve Martin method of getting so good that they cannot ignore you?

    or the hard focus that you talk about?

  25. Some of us have callings to intellectual disciplines and professional practices and unusual businesses, Cal, but I hope you will leave room in your research for other callings. Firefighters, for example.

    This morning I was walking along East 85th Street on my way to go running in Central Park when a neighbor invited me to attend a memorial mass for the 9/11 firefighters. In all, 343 New York City firefighters lost their lives on 9/11. Fourteen men from our firehouse on 85th Street, Engine 22/Ladder 13, went down to the Twin Towers. Four came back.

    Do many firefighters feel they have a calling? I suspect so. Do they fit your other criteria? Not so well. If you have ever seen the balletic movements of firefighters in heavy waterproof coats working together to rush their hoses into a burning tenement, you know they have substantial skills, albeit not well-paid skills. But I would be surprised if many of the hundred or so firefighters in the church this morning in their dark blue dress uniforms would not have said he had a calling. It must be one sign of a calling that they are not discouraged by the possibility of dying at work. Perhaps they might say that they didn’t just accept a job, they took an oath.

  26. Rob says:

    @Cal – just left a review at Amazon for you. BTW – my wife is a guidance counselor at a HS and I’ve turned her on to your blog. She’s reading your book now and plans to pass around the office. Best of luck with the book!

  27. Johnny says:

    Sorry, Cal! Do you mean that we shouldn’t become a chef even if we enjoy cooking? I do science just because I love science when I was young.

  28. Estara says:

    Yep. I have been sending it to author at calnewport.com.
    I’m thinking it might be Yahoo. I’m gonna try from another email.

  29. Olivia says:

    Cal, this reminds me of the Csikszentmihalyi (had to go look up the spelling) book you’ve referenced before. There’s a great story about a guy who works in an iron smelting plant doing hard menial labor, and absolutely loves it because he turns it into a focused challenge every day. I guess it IS possible to enjoy every job, if you are mentally flexible enough.

    Are you going in a career/work advice direction now with your writing?

  30. fahad says:

    Cal, you mentioned putting in hours of unsexy hard work….

    Going by the stuff you write…you just need to put in a few hours of rigorous hard work consistently, and if your work is unsexy..then make it sexy….

    I am doing my PhD..and after coming across your blog…i started working in a park instead of my cubicle (which was terribly unsexy), only on rare occasions have i visited my lab..my horrible traditional job looks awesome now…

    you just need to find out what’s causing all the problems in your job and fix that….too many work hours and a terrible environment were the ones making me hate my work

  31. While I definitely found this to be a fascinating post, I think I disagree with you slightly here cal.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with “following your passion”. It’s just that most people have no idea how to find out what their passion actually is. I wrote an article on my blog about how you can quickly “find your passion”, the trick is that passions are developed out of interests, they aren’t pre-existing.

    I certainly hope plenty of people go out there and try to live their dream job otherwise the world would be a pretty boring place wouldn’t it?

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  33. John says:

    Maybe you’ve answered this in another post but what if you don’t have a dream job? In my case I only know of certain conditions that are ideal to me… autonomy, long uninterrupted periods to build momentum in focus, flexible rules etc. In that case, would it be more like dream circumstances applied to a given position?

  34. Joe McCarthy says:

    A very provocative, but well argued post. A few of the thoughts that came to mind in reading (and re-reading):

    * Your critique of the “dream job” reminded me of the Cinderella Myth – i.e., there is one and only one potential romantic partner for me, and I have to find that person – and how this myth is often applied to professional relationships.

    * The word “vocation” comes from the Latin vocare (“to call”) and the source of “a calling” can be interpreted as either extrinsic or intrinsic; one can imagine being called toward a profession or job, or one can elicit, call forth or project an internal sense of meaning onto a job.

    * Oriah Mountain Dreamer, author of The Invitation, offers the following related questions in The Prelude to her second book, The Dance:

    What if it truly doesn’t matter what you do but how you do whatever you do?

    How would this change what you choose to do with your life?

    What if you could be more present and open-hearted with each person you encounter working as a cashier in the corner store, a parking lot attendant or filing clerk than you could if you were striving to do something you think is more important?

    * I once convened a session exploring Passion, Privilege, Scalability … and Desirability at Foo Camp 2007, in which we discussed the following question:

    What if everyone followed their passions, liked what they did and did what they liked? I suspect Foo Camp represents an unusually high proportion of people who are following this trajectory. Are we a privileged class? How generalizable is this formula? How would the world change if everyone acted this way? Could the world move in this direction?

    I won’t recount all of the observations and insights on this question that emerged during the 1 1/2 hours (many of which are included in the blog post I link to above), but I’ll end off this comment by noting one of the participants reminded me that the meaning of “passion” is “to suffer”, and while some of us may be inclined to pursue our passions (at whatever cost), we may not want to wish – or promote – such potentially painful paths for everyone.

  35. Jessica says:

    I’m a (sort of) former lawyer who left that (for me) soul-sucking lifestyle to become an energy healer and a massage therapist. So, I’d say I left the boring, dreary corporate world for my dream job. But it’s not all sunshine and happiness here in dream job land as many of the “Passion Pundits” would have you believe. Owning your own business and working for yourself has a lot of perks but it also has its share of major headaches. It isn’t for sissies. And it isn’t the panacea for all of life’s problems that some people think it will be. “If only I could get out of this cubicle and do [insert dream job here], I will live happily ever after.” It’s crap. So, I totally agree with you that some of the blogs/books/speakers telling everyone to get out of their corporate jobs for a life of entrepreneurial bliss are (often) selling snake oil. Sometimes it’s better to make peace with your day job – find a way to engage in it with passion – and then have hobbies that fulfill other needs on the side. Not everyone can own a successful surf shop on the beach.

  36. Joe McCarthy says:

    I tried posting a comment a few days ago that included a couple of embedded links, but it is still shown as “awaiting moderation”. Here is a version with no embedded links:

    A very provocative, but well argued post. A few of the thoughts that came to mind in reading (and re-reading):

    * Your critique of the “dream job” reminded me of the Cinderella Myth – i.e., there is one and only one potential romantic partner for me, and I have to find that person – and how this myth is often applied to professional relationships.

    * The word “vocation” comes from the Latin vocare (“to call”) and the source of “a calling” can be interpreted as either extrinsic or intrinsic; one can imagine being called toward a profession or job, or one can elicit, call forth or project an internal sense of meaning onto a job.

    * Oriah Mountain Dreamer, author of The Invitation, offers the following related questions in The Prelude to her second book, The Dance:

    What if it truly doesn’t matter what you do but how you do whatever you do?

    How would this change what you choose to do with your life?

    What if you could be more present and open-hearted with each person you encounter working as a cashier in the corner store, a parking lot attendant or filing clerk than you could if you were striving to do something you think is more important?

    * I once convened a session exploring Passion, Privilege, Scalability … and Desirability at Foo Camp 2007, in which we discussed the following question:

    What if everyone followed their passions, liked what they did and did what they liked? I suspect Foo Camp represents an unusually high proportion of people who are following this trajectory. Are we a privileged class? How generalizable is this formula? How would the world change if everyone acted this way? Could the world move in this direction?

    I won’t recount all of the observations and insights on this question that emerged during the 1 1/2 hours (many of which are included in the blog post I link to above), but I’ll end off this comment by noting one of the participants reminded me that the meaning of “passion” is “to suffer”, and while some of us may be inclined to pursue our passions (at whatever cost), we may not want to wish – or promote – such potentially painful paths for everyone.

  37. Study Hacks says:
    But it’s not all sunshine and happiness here in dream job land as many of the “Passion Pundits” would have you believe. Owning your own business and working for yourself has a lot of perks but it also has its share of major headaches. It isn’t for sissies.

    Thank you for sharing your real world experiences. I think it helps people to ground their expectations in reality.

    I tried posting a comment a few days ago that included a couple of embedded links, but it is still shown as “awaiting moderation”. Here is a version with no embedded links:

    This is fascinating set of observations.

    (Your version of the comment with the links should be approved above. Sorry for the delay, but I’m not one of those full time bloggers who checks in on his comment queues every hour. I can sometimes go days at a time in between check ins…)

  38. Barbara Saunders says:

    I think this is more a language problem than a concept problem. If “dream job” refers to the fantasy in which a person indulges while goofing off, then pursuing it is unlikely to change the lazy, goof-off person’s lot. If “dream job” is code for “the work you’re suited for, regardless of whether it pleases the parents, impresses your friends, or is easy to fall into,” then, yes, I think pursuing the “dream job” is a good life strategy. (I also agree that it might be helpful not to use the term and to avoid confusion.)

  39. Bruce says:

    The dream job trope is a problem for other ideas too. One of the valuable things about work is the affliation/status it brings. I actually like to say that “I work at X Large Bank that you’ve actually heard of” rather than try to explain some kind of weird consulting thing. Also, I like the idea that employer and employee share some of the risks in life rather than the crushing burden of having to bear all those risks yourself as a freelancer/small business owner.

  40. Luisa says:

    Hi Cal,

    Thanks for such a great blog. I have been reading your entries and find your discussion of passion very interesting.
    I have a question however: You write that autonomy, competence, and relatedness are the key to loving what you do and that the two key steps to doing this are to: 1. Master a skill that is rare and valuable and 2. Cash in the career capital this generates for the right rewards.

    However, I feel like these steps will apply only to some people. Skills that are considered valuable in our society are often those that can be precisely measured and that indicate productivity. To illustrate this point, consider that the highest paid jobs in the US include engineers, computer programmers, business consultants- all of these jobs are somewhat quantitative in nature and are somehow related to business. Because the skills acquired by these professionals are rare and considered valuable, the individuals who have mastered them are often in a position in which they can demand autonomy over their working conditions and lifestyle.

    But what happens if a person has mastered and/or is passionate about a skill that is not considered as valuable? For example writing, teaching, public speaking, communicating with people, etc?

    Teachers, journalists, writers, artists most often suffer from low pay and little job opportunities. Because their skills are not quantitative and not ‘productive’ in business settings, they can rarely gain autonomy or steady jobs and are often unhappy for those reasons.

    So do you think that individuals like journalists, writers, artists, teachers, etc should master a skill that is considered ‘productive’ (such as programming or business management, etc) in order to gain autonomy, which you say is key to living a good life?

    Thanks,
    Luisa

  41. Study Hacks says:
    If “dream job” is code for “the work you’re suited for, regardless of whether it pleases the parents, impresses your friends, or is easy to fall into,” then, yes, I think pursuing the “dream job” is a good life strategy

    Notice the implicit assumption: that we are well suited for some work versus others. This is clearly true in the most broad sense, but it’s less clear when you’re basically talking about different types of specific knowledge work, for example.

    But what happens if a person has mastered and/or is passionate about a skill that is not considered as valuable? For example writing, teaching, public speaking, communicating with people, etc?

    I think all of these skills, if done well, can be rare and valuable. It doesn’t have to be worth millions of dollars for its to support an engaging lifestyle.

  42. David says:

    (See Ramit Sethi’s exhaustively researched Earn 1k program for more details on the reality of making money by selling services; here a preview: almost everyone who succeeds leverages a valuable skill they built up in a traditional job.)

    Yes, this is exactly right. I e-mailed Ramit to ask if a full-time college student would benefit from his course and he said that a student should get a job first and then e-mail him back later once he was set. So even Ramit would agree with you Cal.

  43. Abhinav says:

    Well, i think the same. In other way, one can do everything in this world, just by developing interest in the activity. Again, if one tells himself time and again that this work is interesting, it surely will become interesting. No work can’t be done.

  44. d4rren says:

    I do agree that “dream job trope” as you define it can be dangerous, but I do not agree with the whole theory. Like anything else one wants to be successful with, if you put in the time, energy, money, etc. one can be successful. For example, if I am unhappy at my current job and have a passion for pursuing something else, than taking the right steps should allow me to pursue something else whether that be a dream job or not. If I want to open a bakery and (through research and exploration) I take the correct, responsible steps towards opening a business than I do not see how that is different than anything else one pursues. Applying and going through college can be done responsibly or irresponsibly. If you take the correct steps you may very well be successful, if you take the wrong steps you may very well be unsuccessful. One might argue, “but if you put all that effort into your current job that you plan to put in this ‘dream job’ you would be happier and more successful at your current job.” And maybe that is true, but I would argue the same point, that going after that dream job (done responsibly) is similar to doing any other long term commitment in your life that involves to better yourself or career. Understand the risks, and be willing to handle the results (especially if they don’t go your way) just like anything else. I am not much of a fast food eater, but Ray Kroc is an example I am going to use. He was a milkshake mixer salesman who happened to get involved with the McDonald brothers (through selling mixers). Kroc found out that the brothers were not planning on building any more restaurants (they had 10 at the time) so he (Kroc) decided to buy the company from them for $2.7million. I think it is safe to say that he earned the money back. Now, this is obviously not the normal case, but if Ray had not taken that risk who knows if McDonalds would be what it is today (which some may argue would be a good thing, but that is beside the point). The point is that Ray Kroc did not come off the street one day and decide to buy McDonalds; he took the necessary, responsible steps to buying McDonalds. So I say go after your dream job, but treat it like anything else in your life you are trying to invest in, but just keep in mind the stakes are much higher.

  45. It’s amazing how HUGELY important this stuff is, and some people totally freak out about this. This NEEDS to be taught in high school :D Hence ur books, I take it ;)

  46. Daniel says:

    Hi Cal, Are you suggesting that people such as the lawyer-turned-surf instructor from 4HWW should not have pursued their dream? That is, are you suggesting he would have been better off staying a lawyer where he was unhappy? If not, then are you suggesting that even though it worked for him, most of us shouldn’t indulge such ‘daydreams’ and should get back to work honing valuable skills such as lawyering? I am confused as to where or how you would draw the line based on your hypothesis here or what the examples of people who *have* created dream jobs mean to you. Thanks for the interesting piece.

  47. Study Hacks says:
    I am confused as to where or how you would draw the line based on your hypothesis here or what the examples of people who *have* created dream jobs mean to you. Thanks for the interesting piece.

    I don’t know where to draw a line: part of what fascinates me about this issue is its complexity. At this stage, I think adding nuance to the conversation is what’s important. For someone unsure about their place in the world, it’s equally important that they hear my arguments as it is that they hear the bomb-throwing stories from Mr. Ferriss’. I harbor an optimism that most people, armed with a sophisticated view of the world, can make a good decision based on their particular situations.

  48. Yadgyu says:

    I took the Earn1K course and it works. But instead of paying $1,000 for it, I used a script to negotiate the price down. Ramit was overwhelmed by my negotiating skills and actually paid me $1,000 to help him improve his course. Now I am giving away all of the material for free! Click the link in my name for your FREE course!

  49. Sri says:

    Dear Cal,

    In my experience. Passion is just like relationships. They evolve and mature only after years of gaining experience, expertise and success, in the process encountering and crossing all the issues with the ups and downs. Only after all that can it be called “passion”. Dreams are at the stage of infatuation. Passion needs time before it develops.

    But here’s something new for you. I’ve yet to see a mediocre “passionate” performer — in any field. Don’t you think it’s rather interesting that when we take the best performers in any field, we then talk about their “passion to the work”. Sports is a good example, but the same thing applies to any successful figure. We don’t use the word “passion” about the non-performers or the mediocre. That’s a bombshell, don’t you think? It means that fundamentally – passion is used to sweepingly describe everything it takes to achieving excellence.

    What does that say about passion? It means that passion IS all about becoming so good they can’t ignore you and making success opportunities with it. I’d say that rather than finding passion, concentrate on excellence and the ability to turn your occupation into success at all levels without it screwing up the rest of your life. Focus on achieving excellence, and passion will come as long as you have the energy in your body, mind, heart and spirit.

  50. Julie says:

    Kids do better in school at subjects they are interested in. What makes the world go around is that each of us is born with “predispositions” that make us good at something. If “being so good they can’t ignore you” is the goal, then the fastest, easiest route there is through loving what you do. It’s the love that gets us over the inevitable hurdles instead of sinking us.

  51. Robert McGuinn says:

    No matter how hard I try, I just can’t shake the simple feeling that the said surf shop and organic farm jobs just seem like better occupations, by a long shot, than all of the sitting, reading, writing, coding, and clicking that screen-time jobs offer (unfortunately, most jobs in the 1st world now). It has something to do with the natural human need to use the body, breath fresh air, talk with real humans face to face, and generally interact with nature. I have come to despise the searching, closed-in, cut-off, feelings I get when I’m interacting with computers. I feel it right now. Screen- time, for work and “pleasure”, is a physical and emotional negative in my life, if I’m being honest. I have to go with my gut reaction on this rather than rationalizing it to death.

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