Why are ‘dream jobs’ often a nightmare?

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As a child, I always loved animals. It’s something that didn’t change as I grew older.

So when the opportunity to take a break from journalism and volunteer at an animal sanctuary in Tasmania for three months arose, I jumped at it. I was certain it would be my dream job.

But 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.

(Credit: Alamy)

Working at an animal sanctuary sounds dreamy but the behind-the-scenes work can often be difficult and heartbreaking (Credit: Alamy)

The work also extended beyond animal care; one of my tasks was to clean the public toilets. Was it my dream job? No. And, 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, according to Lisa A Williams, a professor of psychology at University of New South Wales in Sydney, is “how people predict they will feel” in a particular circumstance. “A classic example is winning the lottery. People anticipate that winning the lottery will bring immense joy. But when researchers actually study the happiness levels of lottery winners they find that it lasts a fairly short amount of time,” she says.

In my case, it meant that I was letting my emotions play out my future: thinking about spending time with fascinating animals and not the manual work. And, while we’re often encouraged to get a job doing what we love, the downside is that maybe we just like the idea, not the reality.

Fooling ourselves

That was certainly the case for Sue Arnold, 46, who had long-held aspirations of becoming an archaeologist. Arnold, a secretary in finance in London, describes how she loved the classic films about Tutankhamen and the race to discover the tombs of the pharaohs in Ancient Egypt. With this in mind, she signed up for an archaeological dig to uncover Roman ruins in Dorset, in the UK.

It was one of the most boring weeks of my life

While she knew it was unlikely she was going to change history digging up treasures, she was still disappointed at the experience.

“It was one of the most boring weeks of my life. I was just dusting dirt off broken bits of brown tiles,” she says.

(Credit: Alamy)

Discovering artefacts is a memorable experience but do you have the patience for the meticulous work needed for archaeology? (Credit: Alamy)

Although she doesn’t regret it, the experience made her realise she doesn’t have the patience for the meticulous work needed for archaeology. While she still loves reading about history and plans to go to Egypt, she plans to do so only as a tourist.

Why do we fail to consider that dream jobs have downsides? Partly it’s to do with the hidden graft needed to get most jobs done, according to Elliot Berkman, associate professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, in the US. And partly, it’s to do with our expectations.

We aren’t good at anticipating the hidden costs and extra work that often comes with a life goal

“People are generally not as happy as they expected they would be when they achieve their goals. Partly that’s because we aren’t good at anticipating the hidden costs and extra work that often comes with a life goal.”

The opposite of this is also true. If you have been working at a job for 20 years, you may have forgotten just how difficult it was to get where you are today. Are you ready to put in that amount of work again to become good at something new?

(Credit: Alamy)

While we’re often encouraged to get a job doing what we love, the downside is that maybe we just like the idea, not the reality (Credit: Alien vs Predator/Photos 12/Alamy)

Even more importantly, what really makes us feel good or bad is a change from where we started, regardless of where that was in the first place, Berkman adds.

“You need continued change to keep yourself happy,” he says.

So it’s not surprising we may need a few attempts to find the right job, says Rachel Grieve, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Tasmania. “Most of the time our decision making isn’t rational….we instead rely on intuition or just do what ‘feels right’,” Grieve says. “This approach is fine [for] like what will I have for lunch today? But when the stakes are higher, like thinking about a career change, then obviously it is better to take a slower, more considered approach.”

The social dimension

Job satisfaction is about social dynamics, not a job title, according to Professor Alexander Haslam, from the school of psychology, University of Queensland. “If you are a doctor, you might really like medicine, but if you end up in a ‘toxic’ work environment, you are unlikely to find your work very fulfilling,” he explains

I’d made a mistake

This is a feeling that some people experience after studying and working hard to break into difficult professions like law. Their ‘dream’ job turns sour.

“It was such an old-fashioned top-down environment and so competitive,” says Andrew Walker, who went straight into law after university in Sydney. “I [went from] years of thinking law was admirable, to thinking I’d made a mistake. I wanted to be with more dynamic people with less stress, even if it was to move to a job I never thought I’d enjoy [in administration].”

(Credit: Georgina Kenyon)

Writer Georgina Kenyon lives on the edge of a forest in Australia’s Blue Mountains. At a nearby sanctuary, she photographs these baby Tasmanian devils (Credit: Georgina Kenyon)

Following your heart

As for me, I stuck with journalism. While I miss working with the animals at the Tasmania sanctuary, such as raucous lorikeets, the bettongs and the spirited carnivores, I’ve realised I didn’t need a new career. Rather, I needed to live closer to nature with a like-minded community of people. Now I live on the edge of a vast UNESCO World Heritage-listed forest in Australia’s Blue Mountains a couple of hours out of Sydney, a perfect place for bushwalking and seeing animals in the wild.

So when I saw an advertisement in a local newspaper recently of a smiling zookeeper, holding a bucket and broom, inviting a lucky reader to come and experience being a keeper for a day, I knew better. Dreams and jobs don’t necessarily go together.

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