It was one of the most boring weeks of my life. I was just dusting dirt off broken bits of brown tiles
Thus spake someone whose ambition it was to become an archaeologist. The quote is from a BBC news item reporting that “dream jobs” are often anything but. We should be careful what we wish for, the article says, because we don’t really know what these so-called dream jobs involve (or even, really, what we’re looking for in them).
The piece begins with a complaint from one such dream jobber who, always wanting to work with animals, landed a job at a Tasmanian animal sanctuary and found her days filled with depressing and menial tasks:
the reality of the work was quite different to what I had imagined. Instead of spending time each day getting to understand the animals and learn about them, I spent eight-hour days running between duties in the icy, winter rain, doing manual, sometimes heartbreaking, work. Many of the animals, such as Tasmanian devils and quolls, had been hit by cars and needed rehabilitation. I fed them, cared for them, avoided getting bitten — especially at meal times — and cleaned up after them. And, when they didn’t survive, we buried them and felt their loss. The work also extended beyond animal care; one of my tasks was to clean the public toilets. Was it my dream job? No.
It’s strange how people so often fail to imagine the attendant duties of a job promising to provide financial security, closeness to animals or a fancy hat. As I’ve said before, just because you like cakes doesn’t mean you’d enjoy running a bakery.
Could this even be the whole reason jobs are held in such high esteem? If we can’t even predict the misery that will come from taking the bait ourselves, perhaps we also think that landing the dream job, either through arduous job hunting or a logical career progression, is the finest solution available for everyone else too.
The unsatisfied animal lover continues:
my experience was more common than you’d think. It turns out, we often fail to think about the tedious minutia that is likely to be involved in what we consider to be our ideal job and how it might fall short of our expectations. In fact, psychologists even have a name for it: “affective forecasting”. What this means is we often have an unrealistic hopefulness that new situations will make us feel significantly different in a grass-is-always-greener mentality.
Affective forecasting is an interesting concept—that we consistently fail to predict the future scenario most likely to result in happiness—but the dissatisfaction experienced having arrived at a dream job, I’m afraid, is not an example of it.
The reason we might come hate a dream job is not because it once looked like greener grass but because it’s a job. The whole idea of a job being a source of happiness is a lie.
Even if the central activity of a job is splendid (which it rarely is), you still have the repetitive tedium of doing it every single day under the punitive threat of not being able to make rent. And while you’re doing your job, you’re unlikely to be tending to the things that actually matter.
More accurate is the example given that lottery winners report dissatisfaction because they’ve failed to predict that money, after an initial honeymoon period, doesn’t buy happiness. This is interesting to me because I think people misdiagnose what’s so good about being rich. Where rich people are happy, it’s likely because they have good health, free time, privacy and freedom of movement. They’re not made happy by gold hats or fast cars. I’d wager that the lottery winners are unhappy because they found the long-anticipated gold hat and fast car wanting, but they’d be more than happy for their winnings if they were to focus on the metrics of health, free time, privacy, and freedom of movement.
Affective forecasting is another way of saying that we all too often don’t really know what they’re looking for. The solution is the life audit exercise mentioned in a certain book.