The words “follow your dreams” have been cropping up in my life a lot more often than usual lately. From Facebook posts to vintage-hued Instagram quotes and tweets with the hashtag #followyourdreams, when it comes to work, it seems the ambitious millennial generation is all about hunting down its childhood aspirations.
My dream has always been to write. When I was nine years old, I snuck my two-year-old niece’s toy train set – as well as its rather scary-looking clown passengers – out of my sister’s house, strewing them down the front garden’s sloping rock face, just so that I could write a story about ‘the incident’. As a youngster, my idealistic little heart believed that telling stories was how one changed the world.
That naïve idea – along with the one that I was going to save the planet using my craft – carried through into my time as a journalism student, but after a stint as an intern at a rather posh lifestyle magazine, I realised I wasn’t really ready to swap lattes for flak jackets, and a rather comfortable journey into the world of lifestyle writing ensued. Twelve years later and, while I have had to do some pretty atrocious jobs in my life (I once had to pick dog poop up at a garden party), overall I’m pretty lucky that I get to write every day, a fact that was recently pointed out to me by a friend who, at the other end of the spectrum, hates her current job. “It’s so cool that you’ve found your soul’s vocation,” she said. “You’re so lucky to be doing your dream job.”
What she said is true – I am lucky to do what I love – but it also made me wonder: when did people start demanding that their jobs fulfil them on an emotional and even spiritual level? When did our work become more than just a straightforward, long-term agreement where one person provides a particular set of skills and a company supplies compensation? And is the ‘do what you love’ mantra really all that it’s made out to be?
Judging by what we’re saying to each other – not only on social media but face to face too – today’s business environment has become much more than just a place to trade. For many young professionals, careers have taken on something of a spiritual obligation, metamorphosing into entities that we rely on not only to sustain us but also to provide meaning, and even vindicate us. So why all this pressure on our nine-to-five?
When jobs define identity
Dr Thoraiya Kanafani, clinical psychologist and director of clinical services at Dubai’s Human Relations Institute and Clinics, says, “People want their jobs to provide meaning in their lives because work occupies the majority of their time. A job can help people feel valued and a part of something, which is why it’s an important aspect of their self-worth; it makes them feel like someone. Being successful in a job provides a person with proof that they’re not a failure.”
But if recent stats are anything to go by, when it comes to our jobs a large percentage of us may be feeling just that – a failure. According to a 2013 Gallup survey, there are twice as many ‘actively disengaged’ workers in the world as there are ‘engaged’ ones. The study reported that while 13 per cent of workers feel ‘engaged’ by their jobs (meaning they’re enthusiastic about their work, connect with their employer and spend a large portion of their time propelling business forward), 63 per cent are ‘not engaged’ (meaning they are unhappy, but not drastically so), with the remaining 24 per cent being ‘actively disengaged’ (which means they hate their jobs, essentially).
Diana Shammaa, counselling psychologist at the German Neuroscience Centre in Dubai, believes that, “Today a job is something of a cultural obligation, which is why it has become the main factor for life’s fulfilment. We have anchored the idea that the job we have defines our identity. For example, when meeting a new person, we often start with the question: ‘What do you do?’ and unconsciously expect a job-related answer.” We’ve all been there; answering that question when you’re in a job you’re not particularly proud of can make things awkward pretty fast.
So we know what percentage of the globe’s population hate their jobs, but how many of us are actually doing what we’ve always dreamed of?
According to a 2013 study by social research journal Social Forces, only 6 per cent of adults have landed the job they’ve wanted since they were kids. That may sound like a depressing stat, but when you think about the practicalities needed to live on this planet, it’s really not. Consider this: people are complicated creatures. While our need for meaningful relationships is ineffably important, our need for sustenance is even more so. If we want to eat, we need to make money, and to make money most of us need to work. Because we have to prioritise our jobs to survive, we sometimes have to make career decisions that are based on necessity rather than desire, choosing a job that will sustain us over one that satisfies us on an emotional or sentimental level.
“Every person possesses multiple selves that require fulfilment,” Dr Kanafani explains. “These different selves have different needs, passions and motivations that crave fulfilment to reach a well-rounded life. Depending on their needs, satisfying these selves can be tricky. However, multiple selves are similar in terms of basic needs, which include sleep, food, water, shelter and safety. The satisfaction of these basic needs helps move us on to forging the next steps in our lives, things like relationships, passions, recognition and so on.”
With that in mind, if many of us are choosing a job based on its ability to fulfil our basic needs over our sentimental or emotional ones, there are going to be times when we don’t like what we do and, according to Diana, that’s perfectly OK.
“Not liking your job is absolutely fine,” she says. “We should, essentially, have several pillars or anchors in our lives, including family, social life and hobbies. Work is just one of these pillars, but because many people allocate the majority of their time to it, it’s easy to become frustrated or let down when something goes wrong with it because the other balancing support pillars aren’t there to keep things in perspective.”
The myth of loving what you do
But how do we convince ourselves that ‘not liking your day job is perfectly fine’ when our culture perpetuates the notion that we should be doing what we love? After all, the millennial generation has created a society that encourages and admires people who follow their dreams to make a living. The predominant messages the media feeds us are: ‘if you do what you love, the money will come’ and ‘if you’re not changing your world in big ways, it’s because you’re afraid of following your passion’. Most of our role models are successful people who are continually telling us how lucky they are to do what they love and how they ‘couldn’t imagine doing anything else’, so it’s easy to feel let down and disappointed when your nine to five isn’t exactly what you’d call your dream job, or – even worse – you (secretly) actually don’t even really know what your real passion is.
Writer and editor Miya Tokumitsu eloquently critiqued the ‘do what you love’ idea in an article for Jacobin magazine. She said: “There’s little doubt that ‘Do What You Love’ (DWYL) is now the unofficial work mantra for our time. The problem is that it leads not to salvation, but to the devaluation of actual work, including the very work it pretends to elevate — and more importantly, the dehumanisation of the vast majority of labourers.
“Superficially, DWYL is an uplifting piece of advice, urging us to ponder what it is we most enjoy doing and then turn that activity into a wage-generating enterprise. By keeping us focused on ourselves and our individual happiness, DWYL distracts us from the working conditions of others while validating our own choices and relieving us from obligations to all who labour, whether or not they love it.
“It is the secret handshake of the privileged and a world view that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment.
“According to this way of thinking, labour is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labour serves the self and not the marketplace.”
In June 2005, Steve Jobs took the podium at Stanford Stadium to give his now-famous commencement speech to Stanford’s graduating class. Addressing a crowd of 23,000 with a short talk that drew lessons from his life, about a third of the way into his speech Jobs offered the following advice: “You’ve got to find what you love. The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking, and don’t settle.”
That’s all very well, but if you look past Steve’s warm, fuzzy words and delve deeper into the details of how passionate people like him really got started, you begin to realise that “follow your passion” might just be terrible advice. After all, if the long-haired, barefooted student Jobs – who studied Western history and dance, dabbled in Eastern mysticism and dug into free food at his local Hare Krishna temple – had followed his own advice when he was the same age as the students he gave his speech to, he might not have ended up being the CEO of one of the most influential companies of the 21st century and might have opted to become a full-time student or teacher at his local Zen centre instead. As a young student, Jobs wasn’t as passionate about electronics or business as he was later on in his career. In fact, Apple was founded when the enterprising businessman saw a gap in the market and filled it. For Jobs – as for many other successful people who we admire – a big break often comes about because of being in the right place at the right time.
Passion doesn’t have to be a day job
Because most people’s passions tend to lie in areas such as charity work or doing something creative, “turning your passion into a day job may run the risk of not paying the bills, which can be stressful, especially if you have kids”, Dr Kanafani says. “On the other hand, a passionate job can feed self worth and purpose, which in turn reduces stress. The right choice really depends on the person.”
She adds that while it is important to have a passion, it doesn’t necessarily need to feature in your work. “Passions can be a complement to work. In fact, some passions are better left as hobbies because at times they run the risk of losing their value when turned into a business.”
So what happens if, like a young Steve Jobs, you don’t quite know what your passion is just yet?
“Self-awareness is one of the most important aspects of a person’s happiness and fulfilment,” Dr Kanafani says. “So if you don’t possess a passion that you know about, it’s better to be aware of that and admit it, because forcing a passion can actually lead to false fulfilment.”
Passion-based or not, while it is acceptable not to like your day job, it shouldn’t be totally unbearable. If you’re stuck in a job you don’t like but you know it’s paying the bills, there are ways you can make it more bearable until you decide whether or not you want to move on.
“While Aristotle believed that we cannot be happy when we are obliged to obtain money, 18th-century’s philosophers believed it was possible to feel fulfilled in a job,” Diana explains. “Passion-based or not, a successful professional life means being able to create a balance between the expectations we have of ourselves – which may include things like being creative or responsible – as well as our security, gaining a stable income and enjoying our freedom.
“While the perfect professional life may not actually exist, you can create one that’s pretty good.”
It all depends on what you need and what you’re after.
Have your say
Live to work or work to live? We asked what you think about the ‘Do what you love, love what you do’ mantra…
“The idea that we should all ‘do what we love’ irritates me because society just wouldn’t work if everyone did a job that doesn’t feel like work because they love it so much. “ – Rachel Martin, engineer, France
“If your job doesn’t feel like work, how do you enjoy the times when you’re not there? I don’t hate my job, and I’m proud of how I help people, but it definitely feels like work.” – Mary De Souza, nurse, Philippines
“As a teacher, I feel there’s this idea that work is the most important thing, and if you stop being willing to sacrifice everything to it, you’re selling out. Personally, I’m not sure the sacrifices are worth it any more…” – Alice Wade (name changed), teacher, England
“After trying and failing to get into a ‘dream career’, I settled into a basic office job to pay the bills. I may be a disappointment to all those who thought I should have an amazing career, but at least I have time outside of work to have a life, which I would not have had if one of the ‘dreams’ had worked out.” – Lucy Coleman, PA, England